Swiss Verdingkinder / Discarded Children

Figure 1.--This photo was taken by an unidentified photograpoher in a rural area of Canton Berna about 1910. Sixteen boys are being used as draught animals. The photo was taken in summertime: the boys are wearing only trousers. Source: Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

A sad circumstance in Switzerland is the experiences of the Verdingkinder or Discarded Children. Up unitl the 1950s there was an inhappy situation in Switzerland, where "unwanted" children were "sold" primarly to farmers who were supposed to take care of these children in exchange for free labor. Many of these children were missused or abused. Not until recently has this situation come to light. Now it is creating quite a uproar in Switzerland. While very important to report, the media accounts often fail to put this phenomenon in the historical context. Farmers were often very demanding of their own children and child labor until the 20th century was the rule rather than the exception.


A sad circumstance in Switzerland is the experiences of the Verdingkinder or Discarded Children. We think this practice dates back to the middle ages, but we have no information before the 19th century. Up unitl the 1950s there was an inhappy situation in Switzerland, where "unwanted" children were "sold" primarly to farmers who were supposed to take care of these children in exchange for free labor. Officially the system was abolished in the early 20th century, but it continued in other form till 1950s. Not until recently has this situation come to light.


The purpose of the program was to provide for the care of indigent or abandoned children. As it evolved, however, it essentually becme a way the community could lighten the financial bursden of caring for poor children. This was an alternative to establish orphanages which would hve required substantial costs to maintain.


The children were commonly orphans from poor families or children of poor parents who could not afford to raise them. Many were also illegitimate children that unwed mothers could not raise in conservative Swiss society. They were mostly given away or sold to farmers. Authorities who assigned the children made no effort to determine if the farmers would treat the children properly. Their primary concern apparently was to determine if they actually needed help on their farm. In some places there were actual auctions. Under the system, children from orphanages or children of indigent parents were auctioned off by the local communal authorities. They were generally auctioned for one to three years, after which they returned to the authorities and sold again, until they reached adulthood. The terms of the contract meant that the commune paid the buyer a sum for the child's maintenance over the period of sale, so they went to the lowest bidder: the person who would accept least for their maintenance. It was explicitly recognized that the child was expected to work for his or her keeper. Of course iy must be pointed out that the children of farmers also had to work. These auctions continued into the 1930s.


The problem was especially pronounced in German-speaking Switzerland in the Protestant cantons, though it also occurred in Catholic areas. It was also known in the French-speaking canton Vaud. Researchers have also found that children from the Italian-speaking canton Ticino were used as chimney sweeps in northern Italy.


Arrangements for the Verdingkinder were made both privately and by the local authorities. Thus there is no accounting of the precise number of children involved. Some records began to be made beginning about 1820. Poor families in Switzerland had to register annually in the communities where they lived. Authorities thus assessed if they were adequately caring for their children. Local officials in the 19th century had the authority to take children away from their families. Thus there are spme records. But many of the transactions were made witthout informing authorities. One researcher estimates that about 10,000 children were involved annually. [Leuenberger]


The treatment of these children varied consiserably. Some of the children were well treated, like members of the family. Many of the children were used as farm laborers, serving maids or factory workers. Many of these children were misused or abused. Nwspapers and books have desribed what was essentially slave labour, terrible beatings, and sexual abuse. We do not think the children attended school, but we are not sure about that. The Verdingkinder lived in fear and isolation. They had no contact with their family. We do not know of any study which have determined how many of the children were well treated and how many were abused. The system of course was rife with the potential for abuse of the children. Modern readers find it difficult to understand why the authorities were unconcerned with how the children were treated. Often modern studies tend to ignore the fact that parents in the 19th century often dealt wuth their own children in a matter that was abusive. Today of course there are child welfare officials and children are seen as having rights. This was not the case in the 19th century and even early 20th century. Child labor was still very common, even children who lived with their parents. Poverty was a serious problem. Workers received very low salaries and often had adifficult time supporting their families. And many parents disciplined their children harshly. Standards and attitutudes toward child care were very different. Some of the Verdingkinder attempted to complain, but rarely would any one listen. A complaints could ear another beating.


Many Verdingkinder suffered both physivally and emotionally. Some farmers did not property feed the children which affected their growth and development. Many were beated. Some savely which also affected their emotional development. Some were abused sexually. Here the authorities might act, unlike instances of beatings. The action commonly involved moving the victims. Records show that the perpetrators were sometimes fined, but never jailed. Searated from family and harshly treated, affected the children emotionally. Many Verdingkinder found it difficult to relate to people as adults. Quite a number turned to crime. [Leuenberger]

Modern Revelations

Now it is creating quite a uproar in Switzerland. A Swiss reader writes, "You know that I have a good friend who is an accomplished model builder--Alfred Kiener. I think I had mentioned to you that his youth was a rather unpleasant one. Motivated by the stories of the Verdinkinder he has put on paper his biography as a youth. This is not a pleasant story and at times rather depressing. I think it has helped him overcome a great deal of trauma by putting his experiences on paper. His life as a youth was very similar to that of Verdingkinder. The only difference was that he was not sent away, but was treated that way by his parents. His story also shows how Nature and Modelbuilding were to activities which allowed him to escape and survive this horrible treatment and ultimately become an adult who has provided for his family and has made very positive contributions to the community."

Reader Comments

A German reader tells us, "As far as I followed the discussion about the Verdingkinder in a Swiss newspaper, some of them were also brought to farms in Southern Germany and the Alps in former times. Child labor was common in earlier centuries, especially in rural areas. I myself, from a bourgoise family in a large city, spent a summer holiday with relatives in a rural area during 1943. I attended school there for about a month. There were some kids who came to the school only in bad weather periods. With good weather they helped their parents with farmwork. The teacher was unhappy, but couldn't do anything about this due to the war circumstances where agriculture was of high importance as many men were at the Front and not at home to do the needed farm work. The childrens had to help the mothers. A similar situation as the one of the Swiss Verdingkinder no longer occured in Germany during the 20th century."


Leuenberger, Marco. Leuenberger learned of this problem at 10 years of age. His father told him that he had been a Verdingkinder. He had a daily grind beginning at 5:00 AM and working late into the night. Leuenberger along with other historians want a nationwide research project to record the plight of the Verdingkinder while some of these child labourers are still alive to set down their experiences.


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Created: 7:49 PM 9/25/2007
Last updated: 3:40 AM 1/6/2011