American Orphanages: Chronology

Figure 1.--Here we have a Christmas image we believe was taken in an orphanage. The Lioness Club of Springfield, Illinois seems to be holding a Christmas party for prphans. (The Lioness were the women's auxilery of the Lions Club.) The children are gathered around the Christmas tree with Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Each is holding the present they received. The children look to be mostly of kindergarten age. Notice that nearly all the boys wear button-on shorts with long stockings and hightop shoes. Note especially the little boy sitting on a table at the left of the Christmas tree, who is wearing tan long stockings with supporters. One of the boys seems to have striped knee socks.

Orphages developed out of the industral revolution. With the increasing urbanization of society camne a break down in the family and community networks that cared for abandoned children. The answer was a new institution--the orphanage. I think they first appeared in Britain which of course is where the indutrial revolution began. We know less about continental developments. Orphanages in America are largely 19th century institutiions which endured through the first half of the 20th century. Orphanages became the primarily way of caring for indigent children from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. By the second half of the 20th century foster homes and small instituions like group hommes had largely replaced the orphanage.

18th Century

Orphans in the 18th century were taken care of by the local community, especially other family members. Early apprenticeship in families, with or without formal indenture contracts, was the traditional means of dealing with poor orphaned children. The first orphanage in what is now the United States was opened in the 18th centry--in 1729 in New Orleans. The second, the Bethesda Orphan House, was founded in Georgia a dozen years later through the ardent fundraising of a famed evangelist George Whitefield. These early efforts, however, were rare. It was not until the 19th century that homes specifically devoted to orphaned or abandoned children become common. America was a bountiful land. The cost of raising children was not high. Families were big and food was abundant. In colonial America small children were taken in by relatives or cared for by neighbors. When older they were indentured to learn a trade. Apprenticeship bore no stigma as parents often sent a child at about 13 years of age to a craftsman to learn or trade or if more affluent to a boarding school for a formal education. America's expanding population and the steady growth of towns led to a more structured approach. The and the disruption that the Revolutionary War created in some of them led to a more structured approach to orphans at the end of the century. The hostilities of the Revolutionary War and resulting distruction and deaths left many orphans. As a result, efforts to care for the children began throughout America. Charlestown, South Carolina had suffered during the War. The city council there, for example, appointed commissioners to gather up parentless children and lodge them in private homes. The city paid their room and board. The Charleston public then contributed money for an orphanage. It was completed in 1794 and occupied by 115 children.

The 19th Century

More and more orphanages were established in the early years of the 19th century. Much of the early empetus for orphanages were abuses of the aprentice system. Social changes and rising populations in early 19th century America were other factors. The founders of early oprphages were concerned that families used such children as "hewers of wood and drawers of water," inneffect indentured servants. Many reports exists of families neglecting the education and emotional needs of aprenticed children. Orphanage managers saw their institutions as protective rather than reformatory. Throughout the century they continued to fear early placing out because their experience with indenture was, at best, mixed. Many orphanages placed children as they got older while others did not indenture children. States differeed widely as to their provision for orphan children. State policies were significantly affected by the Civil War. With so many fathers killed in the War, there was an unprecented need to provide for the care and education of orphan children. Social reformers began to criticise orphanage institutional practices in the late 19th century. The members of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections after 1874 recommened many reforms. Some of which were eventually implemented. The White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children in 1909 suggested that children should not be removed from their mothers for economic reasons alone and that children who could not be cared for in their own homes be placed in foster homes. Mother's pensions bills became law in several states at about the same time. The state orphanage systems, however, did not begin to be dismantled until the mid-20th century.

The 20th Century

America at the mid-20th century after World war II (1941-45) began to rassess how to deal with orphans and the children of parents unable to raise their children. One sociologist sees the welfare program, Aid for Dependant Children (ADC), as an "invisible orphanage," replacing the bricks and mortar orphanages as the prevalent form of caring for needy children. One welfare posits that the common "institutional logic" of orphanages created two "paths--internal and external," that would ultimately lead to their decline. [Matthew A. Crenson. Building the Invisible Orphanage, 1998]
Inernal: The internal problem, "that uniform regulations impeded the development of children's characters, and that the indiscriminate mixing of children in institutions might magnify the influence of bad characters while corrupting the good," [Dorothy M. Brown and Elizabeth KcKeown, The Poor Belong to Us, 1997] caused orphanage administrators to separate and classify children and, eventually, to experiment with more family oriented approaches like cottage style institutions.
External: The "external" issue, was the vast increased demand for services. Heavy demand, resulted in overcrowding and forced administrators to consider alternatives to the expensive prospect of building larger institutions, including the placement of children in "free" and, later "paid" foster homes. Social workers recognized that it was cheaper, and, perhaps, even better for younger children to be placed in "paid homes" because "free homes" were often unsatisfactory for children too young to contribute to the household economy. Soon policy makers realized that they could pay mothers so that children could remain in their own homes. [Crenson, 1998] The economics argued powerfully that it was less expensive for the mother to care forcthe children than to build mpre orphanages and to hire caretakers. In many cases the children were better off at home, but many clearly were not. Orphanages have generally been pictured as cold cruel places. This was not the case. Nor or the homes childrennwere returned to always warm nurturing places.


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Created: 7:27 PM 7/18/2008
Last update: 7:27 PM 7/18/2008