Counting Babies: The Madrid Foundling House as an Oeconomic House (1799–1820)

Counting Babies: The Madrid Foundling House as an Oeconomic House (1799–1820)

caritat.jpg

Caritat: Domenico di Michelino, Maddona degli Innocenti, ca. 1446. In Santa Maria degli Innocenti.

In 1799, a peculiar female society replaced the former male committee of the Madrid Foundling House and took total control of its management. The Junta de Damas de Honor y Mérito (Ladies of Honor and Merit Committee) construed its practices as womanly and enlightened. It touted its own management of the Foundling House as a break from the previous old-fashioned, careless male way of running it. From hygienic measures to medical visits, to receiving and tracing babies, the Junta ordered the everyday life of the Foundling House meticulously.

The Junta is the only known female economic society in the late eighteenth century. Set up ten years earlier as the female branch of the Madrid Economic Society and composed of eighty well-known learned women from all around Spain, the Junta embodied the new role that Spanish upper-class women wanted to play in the country's reform. It aligned itself with the European-wide movement of patriotic societies, and strongly defended its right to decide in questions considered feminine. This project analyzes the role played by gender in the paper work that the Junta used for labeling, tracing, and counting children and for collating statistics on child mortality rates. It compares forms, accounting books, paper slips, parchments for identifying babies, and reports created between 1799 and 1820. I explore how this gendered manner of using paper technologies—mediating the manipulation, arrangement, and classification of information—eventually shaped ways of looking at and caring for foundlings.