I live and teach in Madison, Wisconsin, but I usually spend my spring break on a research trip in London, England. On a cold and drizzly day in March 2019, I was walking down Marchmont Street through London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood on my way to the British Library. My head was down and I was busy thinking about the documents I would request at the archives, when I noticed what looked like a metal fish embedded in the sidewalk. As I kept walking, I noticed other oversized articles cemented into the walkway: a split coin, what looked like a compass, a winged heart connected to a pineapple, a diamond-shaped plaque with the initials M.S. In one case, a heart was inscribed with “Meriah Dechesne, Born August 8th 1759.”

Soon, I came across a sign that explained these objects. These were enlarged replicas of historical tokens that mothers, usually young and poor, left when they abandoned their babies at the Foundling Hospital. The hospital took in babies given up between 1741 and 1954. Today, the Foundling Museum sits on the site, around the corner from the stretch of sidewalk where I noticed these tokens. The mothers were supposed to leave a small physical object with their babies to help them re-unite later, if possible. It was a kind of identification system or secret password. Only the mother and the Foundling Hospital would know that she had left her baby with a metal fish, for instance. As it turned out, reunifications were rare.

On my way to one of the world’s most famous collections of paper documents, I was shown another kind of artifact from the past. These metal tokens were mementos of heart-break and loss, of lives spent apart because of poverty and social stigma, and of stories and people that were probably absent from the written records housed three blocks away. The metal fish and its companions were a quiet and understated form of memorial. They were flat, trodden upon by thousands of people every day, plain, and potentially unexplained for most pedestrians. But they created one of the most moving monuments I have ever seen. Because of them, I think about two centuries of desperate mothers and abandoned babies whenever I walk down Marchmont Street.

– Mitra Sharafi (Legal Historian, University of Wisconsin-Madison)