Child Saving

The child-saving movement had its roots in privately funded mid-nineteenth-century charitable organizations for the protection and benefit of children, such as the NEW YORK CHILDREN'S AID SOCIETY. At the movement's height, between 1890 and 1920, child savers worked in such diverse reform efforts as fighting CHILD ABUSE, regulating CHILDLABOR, founding KINDERGARTENS, building playgrounds, establishing the JUVENILE COURT, campaigning for mothers'pensions, and reducing INFANT MORTALITY rates. The child-saving movement began in the latter half of the nineteenth century as a large, active coalition of women's club members, philanthropists, and urban professionals. In England in the 1860s and in the United States in the 1870s, the "charity organization" movement sought to make the doling out of charity more scientific and efficient, trying to keep the "undeserving" from receiving aid. Beginning around 1890, the Progressives increasingly professionalized and secularized child-welfare work. By 1920, the field of social work was filled largely with college-educated professional women rather than with volunteers.

In the United States, the child-saving movement grew in the Progressive period as reformers responded to the problems associated with rapid industrialization and massive immigration. Child savers believed that by alleviating the perils of poverty for the young and working to Americanize the children of immigrants, they could secure a better future for their nation. A large percentage of the new immigrants were Catholic and early child savers had a strong Protestant bias. The extent to which these reformers were influenced by a benevolent urge to help poor children, versus their desire to control the new masses of immigrants flooding the cities, is the subject of much historical debate.

Child Abuse and Neglect

The progression of child saving is in many ways exemplified by efforts to combat child abuse and neglect. Starting in 1853, the NEW YORK CHILDREN'S AID SOCIETY (CAS), headed by CHARLES LORING BRACE, sought to save children of the urban poor by sending those who were orphaned, neglected, abused, or delinquent to live on farms with surrogate families in the West. Brace and his followers believed that the country was inherently more wholesome and healthful than the city. Child savers believed in the environmental causes of children's misbehavior and felt that life with a farming family could redeem troubled youth. The CAS attracted the support of many philanthropists and reformers but was criticized by some westerners who complained that the ORPHAN TRAINS were overloading their small towns with unruly boys. Some reformers accused the program of providing free labor to farmers without sufficiently overseeing the treatment of the children.

In 1874, when a child named Mary Ellen was beaten by her guardian, the president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Eldbridge Gerry, found that the only way to prosecute the abuser was under laws protecting the rights of animals. The sensational case led to the foundation of the New York SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTYTO CHILDREN. Early child-saving organizations such as the CAS and SPCCs were privately funded. According to historian Linda Gordon, child-saving organizations that focused on child abuse before 1910 were part of a feminist-influenced moral reform movement and emphasized illegitimate male power and the role of alcohol use in family violence. The period between 1910 and 1930 was marked by increased professionalization of social work, state regulation of child welfare, and a greater emphasis on child neglect, both physical and "moral," rather than abuse. The Cruelty, as the Massachusetts SPCC was known, worked as both a charity and a private law-enforcement agency, arbitrating custody and support arrangements and intervening in poor families. American SPCCs operated under a conservative feminist vision, trying to impose an middle-class ideal of domesticity on the immigrant poor at the same time that they offered some assistance to abandoned, battered, and over-worked children.

Organizations to combat child abuse and neglect had an ambiguous attitude toward the family–they were at times child-centered, ready to intervene in private families in order to protect children, or to impose their notions of proper child rearing on immigrant and working-class families, and at times family-centered, anxious to keep families together even when the family patriarch was abusive. In general, the Progressives were less willing to remove children from their families than their predecessors (such as Charles Loring Brace). For instance, at the first WHITE HOUSE CONFERENCEON THE CARE OF DEPENDENTHILDREN in 1909, attendees easily agreed that poverty alone did not provide sufficient reason to remove a child from his family, but debated strenuously whether private aid alone or state aid was necessary to help bolster worthy impoverished families. Although most conference attendees argued against the benefits of state aid, by 1919, funds for dependents living at home were provided by thirty-nine states through mothers' pensions.

Child savers in Britain followed the American example, founding the Liverpool SPCC in 1883. Soon after, branches opened in London and other cities. Reluctant to prosecute parents, British SPCCs mainly relied on formal warnings and official visits to correct wayward parents. In 1889, the SPCC-supported Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children gave British authorities increased power to oversee the treatment of children. The National SPCC brought child abuse to the fore of British consciousness and remained a powerful organization under the leadership of Benjamin Waugh until its unsuccessful and unpopular campaign against child life insurance in the 1890s.

Child Labor

Child savers in the early twentieth century America argued that children under sixteen were not ready to face adult work responsibilities. From 1908 to 1916, at the behest of the NATIONAL CHILD LABOROMMITTEE, LEWIS HINE photographed children working in textile mills, coal mines, and canneries throughout the South, providing powerful visual support for child savers who sought to end child labor in these industries. Although there were no federal statutes governing child labor before 1910, there were numerous state laws banning or regulating child labor passed between 1880 and 1910. Child labor laws were passed in twenty-eight states before 1900, but they were aimed at mining and manufacturing, rather than domestic service, street trade, or farm labor. Compulsory school attendance laws were also used to curb child labor. Although reformers took the credit for the decrease in child labor after 1900, changes in industry that made child laborers less useful, such as increased automation and the presence of more immigrant laborers to fill the positions previously held by children had much to do with decreasing use of child labor.

In Britain, child labor was regulated earlier. In 1833, the first effective Factory Act limited work-force participation of children aged nine to twelve in textile mills to forty-eight hours per week and required children to attend school for two hours a day. Silk factories, a major employer of children, were exempted from these restrictions. In 1844, the minimum age was lowered to eight, but child mill-workers were only permitted to work half-time and were required to attend school half-time as well. It was not until the 1860s and 1870s that laws limited child labor in other British industries, with the exception of the Mines Act of 1842, which was only minimally restrictive. Clark Nardinelli argues that these legal restrictions merely enforced the existing trend of decreasing child labor. Thus, in Britain, unlike in the United States, anti–child labor movements preceded other child-saving activities.


Laws for COMPULSORY SCHOOL ATTENDANCE did exist in the United States before 1890, but they were poorly written and not widely enforced. In Great Britain, it was not until the late nineteenth century that truly effective compulsory-education laws were enacted. Child savers on both sides of the Atlantic worked to promote both privately and publicly funded kindergartens. In the United States at the turn of the century, followers of the CHILD-STUDY movement called for education reforms, criticizing overcrowded schools and stale teaching methods. Some child savers called for new VOCATIONAL EDUCATION programs that would give working-class children practical skills to help turn them into good industrial workers.

Youth Organizations and Child Leisure

Many child savers worked to organize the leisure time of children. In 1906, Henry S. Curtis and LUTHER GULICK founded the Playground Association of America, which gained municipal support and focused on providing outdoor play spaces and play leaders for children. The success of the PLAYGROUND MOVEMENT was based in the acceptance of theidea that PLAY was fundamentally important to the development of children and that the middle class should be involved in organizing the leisure time of the working class. Under the leadership of Gulick, between 1886 and 1896, the YMCA transformed itself into an athletic organization. It remained an explicitly evangelical Christian organization, but sought to gain young converts through organized sports.

In 1908, ROBERT BADEN-POWELL, who had gained acclaim in the Boer War, established the BOY SCOUTS in Britain, basing scouting on a system he used to train young soldiers. In 1910, the Boy Scouts of America was founded. Baden-Powell hoped that scouting would help boys to be physically fit and mentally prepared to protect their nation and that scouting would help boys safely negotiate the dangerous years of ADOLESCENCE. Scouting in both countries was mainly directed toward middle-class youth.

Juvenile Delinquency

Innovation in the treatment of juvenile delinquents eventually led child savers to establish a separate judicial system for juveniles in both the United States and Great Britain. In 1899, the first juvenile court was established in Chicago. One of the most famous spokesmen of the juvenile court was Denver judge Ben Lindsey. Lindsey argued that the court needed to be flexible in its approach to juvenile offenders and should focus on the best interest of the child. Juvenile courts tended to favor probation, either at home or with a foster family, over institutionalization. By 1915, nearly all states had established a juvenile court system. In the 1920s, a greater focus on psychiatry entered the juvenile courts and CHILD GUIDANCE clinics changed the way the courts looked at young offenders. In 1908, Britain established its own juvenile court system, which relied on probation and industrial schools in its efforts to rehabilitate troublesome youth.

Age of Consent

In 1885, the issue of the sexual abuse of girls exploded into British consciousness with W. T. Stead's "Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon," an investigation of the world of vice published in the Pall Mall Gazette. One of the stories in this series described the "purchase" of a thirteen-year-old virgin by a brothel. The sensational coverage resulted in the AGE OF CONSENT for girls being raised from thirteen to sixteen. Police were also granted increased power to prosecute those involved in prostitution. In the United States as well, reformers fought successfully to raise the age of consent at the turn of the century in an effort to protect girls from sexual abuse.

Public Health

British and American child savers worried about public-health concerns that threatened children's well-being. Poor sanitation, tuberculosis outbreaks, and tainted food and milk supplies were all targeted by reformers. In 1874, British law required the registration of infant births and deaths and targeted foster parents for inspections, part of an effort to curb the abuses of BABY FARMING. A 1906 law made these policies stricter. Between 1906 and 1908, British schools began programs to provide meals to elementary students and provided for the medical inspection of school children.

In 1909, the White House held its first Conference on the Care of Dependent Children which drew attention to the child savers' concerns and helped lead to the establishment of the U.S. CHILDREN'S BUREAU in 1912. With Julia Lathrop at its head, the Children's Bureau first turned to the alarming infant mortality rate among impoverished city dwellers. The Bureau wrote popular instructional pamphlets on prenatal and infant care and encouraged "baby saving" campaigns. The Bureau also fought to expand birth registration campaigns and studies of infant mortality, though its focus was almost exclusively the high death rate among immigrants' infants–the equally high infant mortality rate among African Americans went largely unresearched. Between 1914 and 1920, the Bureau expanded, allowing it to explore the issue of child labor, to research maternal and child health, to fight for mothers' pensions, and to deal with the problems of illegitimacy and of children with disabilities.

Child saving did not end in 1920; however, the focus of child-saving efforts and the philosophy behind it changed. According to Hamilton Cravens, beginning in the 1910s, the emphasis of child savers shifted from reform to social-science research on "normal" children. The study of the child became paramount, numerous child-research institutes were founded, and legislative reform efforts took a secondary role. Furthermore, rather than focusing on environmental causes for children's developmental problems, the new professional child savers focused on internal emotional conflicts to explain problems with adjustment. The Progressives were most concerned with helping the so-called subnormal child, whereas the child savers of the later period focused their attention on understanding the so-called normal child.

See also: Law, Children and the; Social Welfare; Street Arabs and Street Urchins.


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