Founder in 1853 of the NEW YORK CHILDREN'S AID SOCIETY (CAS)–an early child-welfare organization that provided a variety of programs for impoverished city children– Charles Loring Brace was an important proponent of the CAS's "Emigration Scheme." Widely known today as the ORPHAN TRAINS, Brace's emigration program transported more than 100,000 persons, mostly children, from the burgeoning city of New York to rural homes and farms–in various, mostly Midwestern states, some as far away as Texas. During its seventy-five year history, the program was widely copied by other child-saving philanthropies and is still viewed as a significant precursor to the modern FOSTER CARE system.
Cousin to the Beecher clan, intimate friend of Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of Central Park), student of theologian Horace Bushnell, and admirer of Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth, Charles Loring Brace was born into a privileged social network in his New England hometown of Litchfield, Connecticut, though his family itself was not particularly wealthy. His father, John, was the head teacher at the well-regarded, progressive Litchfield Academy and later served at Catharine Beecher's Hartford Female Seminary. His mother, Lucy Porter, aunt to the Beecher children, met John Brace while he was renting a room in the Beecher home during his first years as a teacher in the Academy. They married in 1820, and had two children, a daughter, Emma, and their son, Charles.
Brace attended Yale University from 1842 to 1846, graduated from Yale, and then, after a brief stint teaching in rural Connecticut, returned to Yale for a year in divinity school. He was ordained in 1849 as a Congregational minister. In Hartford, Brace first met his mentor Horace Bushnell, who, in his popular work Christian Nurture (1847), asserted ideas about the malleability of the human soul under "Unconscious Influences," particularly in childhood–ideas that were considered radical in evangelical Protestant circles of that time. These notions about the long-term effects of even tiny, everyday actions on those whose lives intersect with ours remained critical to Brace's philosophy that independent spirits must be carefully nurtured in childhood to create healthy adults. This care, he came to believe, could only be found in "family" settings.
Brace set off on his own in 1848 by moving to New York City at a time when that city's population was soaring, primarily due to waves of immigration and the increasing urbanization of the U.S. population. Although he was attending Union Theological Seminary in training for the ministry, during this time he also taught Latin to schoolboys and volunteered for various city-based missions, particularly Louis Pease's Five-Points Mission, located in one of the worst early slums in the country. He began to dabble in journalism, creating a regular column for the New York Times, entitled, "Walks Among the New-York Poor," which provided sensational portraits of "poverty and vice" for mostly middle-class readers. Both Brace and Pease were eventually disappointed in their attempts to work with impoverished adults, who struck their middle-class eyes as intractably "poisoned" by a life of poverty. As a result, both men turned their attention to poor children, who seemed to offer genuine hope for change.
Brace traveled to Europe in 1851 to visit experimental social-welfare programs being developed there. While in Hungary, he was imprisoned for several weeks for purportedly revolutionary activity. After returning to the United States, Brace published two books and various articles on his experiences and the new European social experiments. His writing, speaking engagements, and philanthropic activity drew the attention of a group of civic leaders and businessmen who were gathering to form the CAS; they immediately selected him to lead the new organization, which he did, almost until his death.
The organization solicited both public and private funding to create educational and religious Sunday meetings, industrial schools for boys and girls, reading-rooms, and, one of Brace's favorite projects, the Newsboys Lodging Houses. Not only were these lodging houses one of the most successful of Brace's programs, but they also inspired several of Horatio Alger's stories of young, orphaned boys whose independence, pluck, hard work and perseverance are rewarded by great wealth.
From the first, the CAS also planned to send these "STREET ARABS" to rural, "Christian homes" as a way to "drain the city" of its unwanted child population and simultaneously provide much needed labor for the newly settled Western regions. Although not the first of its kind, Brace's emigration scheme soon became the largest and most influential child outplacement program in the United States. Its lack of binding indentureship contracts and formal ADOPTION agreements represented a radical, if somewhat naïve attempt to maintain a fundamental respect for the independence of children, whom Brace believed needed to have the opportunity to leave any placement that did not suit them. Although he believed that the best outcome would be at least informal adoption, Brace wanted children and family to work out for themselves whether their relationship would be primarily economic or more familial.
Not surprisingly, the experiences of orphan train riders varied widely. Less than half of the children were truly ORPHANS; many were taken from at least one parent, if not two. Some encountered horrific conditions approaching child slavery, while others were treated like family. At least one was convicted of murder, while two others were elected as state governors. Meanwhile, some critics complained that New York was using the program to dump its juvenile delinquents onto other states, and some Catholic charities suspected that the program was designed to place Catholic children into Protestant homes for conversion. Brace vigorously contested all these claims, and conducted several internal investigations. Still, it gradually became clear that, as the frontier closed, rural life declined, and social welfare programs were increasingly formalized and governmentalized, the Brace's program was doomed. The last "orphan train" arrived in Texas in 1929.
Brace worked for the CAS almost until his dying day in 1890, and the CAS remained an important city-based child-welfare institution throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Brace's firm belief in family-based settings, as well as a deep respect for the personhood of all children, had a lasting effect on child-welfare practices in the United States. Although ORPHANAGES survive to this day, most abandoned the factory-like dormitory settings that were typical of the early nineteenth century, and now incorporate cottage-style dwellings with only a few children per supervising adult. Most importantly, the modern foster care system is clearly a direct descendent of Brace's vision of a family home for every needy child.
Askeland, Lori. 1998. "'The Means of Draining the City of These Children': Domesticity and Romantic Individualism in Charles Loring Brace's Emigration Plan, 1853-1861." American Transcendental Quarterly 12, no. 2: 145-162.
Bellingham, Bruce. 1983. "The 'Unspeakable Blessing': Street Children, Reform Rhetoric, and Misery in Early Industrial Capitalism." Politics and Society 12: 303-330.
Brace, Emma. 1894. The Life of Charles Loring Brace Told Chiefly in His Own Letters. New York: Scribner.
Holt, Marilyn. 1992. The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
O'Connor, Stephen. 2001. Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.