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Rebus token © The Foundling Museum

A Rebus Token for an Abandoned Child

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Rebus token © The Foundling Museum

The basket hanging on the gate at London's Foundling Hospital served a sad purpose: Mothers could place their babies inside the basket and slip away into the night. But most of the children brought to the hospital—a children's home where England's poorest kids were brought for a chance at care their parents could not provide—weren't completely anonymous. Though they were given a new name when they were brought inside, most were left with a tiny token of some kind—a piece of property parents could use to identify themselves if they were ever able to take their children back.

This token is one of the more unique specimens of the thousands of such artifacts left at the Foundling Hospital over the years. These days, the hospital has been turned into a museum, and its token collection showcases the inventiveness and anguish of the destitute children's desperate parents.

The Foundling Hospital opened its doors in 1741. It wasn't a "hospital" in the traditional sense: Rather, the word hospital indicated the hospitality and charity poor children would find inside. The tokens left with children date from the early days of the hospital, when parents could leave their kids there no questions asked.

Kids who entered the Foundling Hospital didn't stay inside the building. Rather, they were baptized, given new names, and sent to wet nurses or "nurse mothers" who took care of the children in the country. When they turned 5, they returned to the hospital, where they received an education. Wet nurses could return to visit their surrogate children, but birth mothers could not.

Workers at the hospital carefully recorded the clothing and identifying markers left with every child who entered. At first, many children were left with a small scrap of fabric (the parent would take the other half and the halves could be joined together again if they reunited). But over time, that practice was discontinued, and many parents left tokens with their children instead. They would attach notes and all kinds of markers, from pennies that were engraved with names and dates to more complicated puzzles like these.

The heartbreaking rebus on this token shows a child in a Moses basket—a universal symbol for a child who was given up. The rebus spells out "I want relief" and has the child's date of birth. It's a creative gesture that shows as much about the parents' inventiveness as the plight of their child.

"It is quite remarkable that the parent(s) of the child admitted with this coin went to the trouble of having it engraved with this despairing message," Emma Yandle of The Foundling Museum told mental_floss via email. Today, the coin is on display at the Foundling Museum. The hospital collected over 18,000 such tokens in the first 50 years of its existence.

The Foundling Hospital eventually became a charity that operates to this day—an example of some of the earliest attempts to help children in an age without foster care or social services. But though the tokens left in the hospital are seen as fascinating artifacts of a bygone era today, they also have a more anguished meaning. Tragically, the fact that the token still exists means that the child was never reunited with its birth parents.

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National Museum of the United States Navy
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Show and Tell
The Craft That First Took Humans to the Deepest Part of the Ocean
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National Museum of the United States Navy

What do you do when you want to go to the lowest point on the surface of the Earth—a place so deep beneath the ocean it could crush you with its intense pressure? If you’re Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard, you build a bathyscaphe, of course.

The object above is Trieste, the first-ever craft to make it all the way to the Challenger Deep, the lowest place in the Mariana Trench (and thus the entire ocean), in 1960. The craft was designed by Piccard, an adventurous physicist, inventor, and explorer who had previously been known for his daring expeditions into the sky. In 1931, he had ascended almost 10 miles into the atmosphere in an airtight aluminum ball tucked into a hot air balloon, demolishing aircraft altitude records and making valuable observations about the behavior of cosmic rays.

But Piccard didn’t just want to go upward. He was also obsessed with going in the other direction: down into the oceans. To make such a feat possible, he invented the bathyscaphe, a kind of inverse of his hot air balloon ball. The concept—a self-propelled, submersible diving vessel—was an improvement on the bathysphere, a kind of deep-sea bubble lowered to the ocean with a cable, which had been invented by Americans William Beebe and Otis Barton in the late 1920s.

The pressure at the bottom of the ocean is so great it can crush submarines, not to mention lesser craft. To resist that pressure, the Trieste relied on a heavy steel crew cabin, as well as separate tanks filled with gasoline and air. The gasoline—which is lighter than water and does not compress under pressure like some other substances—helped the crew to maneuver and navigate. The air tanks, which would slowly fill with water while descending, helped the vessel to descend, and worked in concert with a system of cone-shaped containers filled with iron ballast. To ascend back up to the surface, magnets would release the iron ballast.

Piccard built his first bathyscaphes in the 1940s and 1950s, but the Trieste was the most ambitious of them all. The inventor supervised its building for the French Navy, which used it for several years. In 1958 the U.S. Office of Naval Research bought it for its riskiest trip yet—a descent to the world’s deepest place, the Mariana Trench.

Piccard, however, was in his seventies, and did not go along for the trip. He sent his son Jacques instead, along with an American Navy lieutenant named Don Walsh. Before completing Project Nekton, as it was called, the group did multiple test dives in Guam. Then the fateful day came: January 23, 1960. The hydronauts equipped themselves with chocolate bars and sonar hydrophones and headed down … and down … and down.

So what was there to see so far down in the ocean? Some pretty weird stuff, it turns out: sediment the hydronauts described as “diatomaceous ooze,” and bioluminescent creatures gleaming against the darkness. It took five hours to get the seven miles down and another three to get back up, but by the time Piccard and Walsh emerged, exhausted, they were heroes.

For years, nobody ever returned to the Challenger Deep, not until James Cameron managed a much-hyped solo dive there in 2012. But Piccard and Walsh were the first—and these days, the craft that took them to that mysterious place lives in the National Museum of the United States Navy in Washington, D.C. True to its famous form, it’s the museum’s most photographed artifact, and a reminder that sometimes the race to the bottom can be a good thing.

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Ransom Center
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Show and Tell
A Rose That Held a Princess's Secret
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Ransom Center

Princess Marthe Bibesco had it all—beauty, brains, and a long line of men dying to be her paramour. But what to get the aristocrat who has everything? For one of her lovers, the answer was not diamonds or priceless art, but rose petals.

The artifact you see above was discovered in Bibesco’s papers at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. There, you can learn much about both Bibesco, a Romanian princess who was a celebrated literary light in the early 20th century, and the aristocratic circles in which she traveled.

By all accounts, Bibesco was a ravishing beauty. But her appeal went deeper than that: She knew how to exercise influence through her enormous social circle, and embraced her role as socialite and power broker. “I am the needle through which pass the filaments and the strands of our disjointed Europe to be threaded together in a necklace,” she wrote, and indeed her alliances brought together royals and relatives from both sides of the Balkans.

Though she found a niche as an author and a huge social circle, Bibesco didn’t find happiness with her husband, a wealthy prince—and her cousin—whom she married when she was 17. But her married status didn’t keep her from assembling quite the collection of high-profile lovers.

Prince and Princess Bibesco wedding. Image credit: Ransom Center

One of them, French Prince Charles-Louis de Beauvau-Craön, was serious about his love. But Bibesco was religious, and didn’t want to get a divorce. This left the prince heartbroken, but no less determined to express himself to his lover. He wrote her reams of love letters and, at one point in June 1911, even inscribed his amorous emotions on rose petals.

Bibesco pressed the flowers and saved them for the rest of her life. Many years later, conservators discovered them among her papers at the Ransom Center, where they’d landed after being purchased from antiquarian book dealers in the 1960s and 1970s. But unfurling century-old flowers presented a real challenge to the conservators tasked with documenting Bibesco’s life. During a conservation project in 2016, digital archivist Genevieve Pierce joined forces with a paper conservator, Jane Boyd, to figure out how to get the petals open. Instead of starting with the century-old flowers, they wrote in ink on other types of flowers, then pressed them and tried to open them to see if there was a way to do so without the petals disintegrating.

Eventually, they hit on a method: They put the two flowers in a humidification chamber, using a damp brush to humidify them even more. Finally, they coaxed the flowers open and looked at the messages hidden inside. They found something sweet: the names of the princess and her lover.

Princess Marthe Bibesco in 1929. Image credit: Getty Images

Today, the flower petals have been digitized for easier viewing and tucked into carefully created boxes designed to preserve them for another century. It’s easy to imagine the celebrated beauty opening her love letter, inhaling the flowers and their fervent message, then tucking them together in her belongings to return to during a private moment.

Did the relationship last? Alas, no. After a decade, she moved on. But not from affairs: She had many other relationships, some with famous men like Ramsay MacDonald, England’s first Labor Party prime minister. Flowers may withstand the test of time, but not every relationship does.

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