The essay argues that the social outcomes of the interaction between the rules of the Habsburg civil code (1811), which admitted judicial presumption of natural paternity, and the secrecy imposed by the government to the Milanese foundling hospital, resembled those that were introduced with the Italian civil code (1865), which forbade judicial father research. In Milan, under the Habsburg law, the difficulty and uncertainty of outcome of the proceedings encouraged natural mothers to deliver children anonymously at foundling hospital. This continued to happen after the Italian unification. However, different and spontaneous paternal initiatives, tolerated or admitted by the two codes and by the rules of the Milanese foundling hospital, were possible. Overall, the essay confirms that in the 19th century, both before and after Italy’s unification, many natural fathers – probably the majority – had the power to choose whether, how and when to be present in the lives of their children.