The institution of Verdingkinder (meaning "earning children") in Switzerland dates to the early 19th century, although it has roots going back to before the Reformation, and it was not abolished until the 1950s.
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 keep. They usually went as farm laborers or serving maids, but some went into factory work. Some lived appalling lives of drudgery, poor food, sleeping with the farm animals, wearing rags, no education, and abuse. Other children were well treated as members of the family.
Officially the system was outlawed in the early 20th century, but it continued in a disguised form for another 50 years.
There are no comprehensive records of the numbers of children involved, but in 1870 in the canton of Bern alone there were 7,816 Verdingkinder. The system was widespread and not entirely confined to Switzerland, and was most common in districts without orphanages: smaller or Protestant districts. Larger districts could afford to maintain municipal orphanages out of taxes, and smaller Catholic districts usually were provided with orphanages run by religious orders.
Because of the shame of having been a Verdingkind and the common lack of basic education, few autobiographical accounts survive (but see Wenger, Fischer and Rüd below), and the system has also not been much documented by academic studies.
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