In the middle of the fourteenth century, religious orders, confraternities, and municipalities established orphanages and FOUNDLING hospitals all over Europe as a response to the plague and to increasing poverty. A Parisian confraternity founded an orphanage, Hôpital du Saint-Esprit-en Grève, in 1366, and in Italy the Florentine Innocenti opened in 1444. Although most orphanages were established in western and southern Europe, a few were also established in eastern and northern Europe. The Church took care of abandoned and illegitimate infants, and from the fifteenth century on foundling hospitals could be found in many German, Italian, and French cities.

Orphanages in the United States

Few orphanages existed in the United States before the nineteenth century. Religious groups usually founded orphanages as a response to wars and epidemics. In 1734, the Ursuline Sisters, a French Catholic order, turned their school in New Orleans into an orphanage to care for children left by an Indian massacre at Natchez. In 1737, the followers of the German missionary AUGUST HERMANN FRANCKE established the Salzburger orphanage in Ebenezer, Georgia. A year later, the Anglican reverend George Whitefield established an orphanage in Bethesda, Georgia. By the early nineteenth century, about two dozen more had been built in big cities, and from the 1830s on orphanages opened rapidly in most cities in the country.

Industrialization, urbanization, and immigration contributed to the proliferation of child-care institutions. In pre-industrial America, orphans were indentured to foster families in exchange for their work. But during the nineteenth century, growing towns with struggling immigrants could not rely on indentured service to solve the problem of orphaned and homeless children. Wage laborers experienced periods of unemployment, and often succumbed to illness and accidents, creating large groups of children with no parents or with parents who were unable to care for them. Religion and ethnicity separated the immigrants from the towns' residents. Catholic immigrants feared the influence of Protestant families over their children. Within the Catholic Church, the Germans resented the Irish and preferred to establish German institutions. Later on, other Catholic immigrants (Italians, Poles, French Canadians) also established orphanages to preserve their culture and language. Nondenominational orphanages usually were built by groups of Protestant churches to serve established nonimmigrant communities.

By the mid-nineteenth century education was emphasized over work, and middle-class women, who dedicated their time to nurturing their children and doing charity work, were actively involved in social issues pertaining to children. They played an important part in the antebellum reform movement, from the 1830s to 1860s. The reformers, responding to growing urban poverty and influenced by the transcendentalists, sought to provide shelter and education in the midst of nature for orphaned, neglected, abused, abandoned, and delinquent children. They believed that separating children from adults in almshouses, placing them in institutions in rural areas, structuring their activities, and educating them would turn them into good citizens. For children who had already experienced a life of vice in the city, the reformers established industrial homes, houses of refuge, and reformatories with an emphasis on work and vocational education. The innocent poor–orphaned, abandoned, and neglected children–were educated in orphanages. Some institutions were defined by gender and others had age restrictions. By 1860 orphanages could be found in almost all states of the union. Only a few new states, and small states without urban centers, did not have any orphanages.

Post–Civil War Orphanages

After the Civil War, states became involved in building orphanages for the war orphans, which later included orphans of the Spanish-American War. As industry expanded rapidly and immigration increased, more children lost one or both parents to accidents, illness, and despair. Jewish orphanages and fraternal orphanages were established, as well as county orphanages financed by local governments. African-American and Indian-American communities built orphanages for their children. Philanthropists outside these communities also established orphanages specifically for racial minorities (black, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian Americans). A few orphanages accommodated racially mixed populations.

States without public orphanages (New York, California, and Maryland) placed their wards in private institutions and paid for their board. But most private child-care institutions were supported by contributions from individuals, the children's surviving parent or relatives, and their communities, with little or no aid from the state. Boards of trustees, whose members were the respectable and wealthy citizens of the community, ran the orphanages. They usually volunteered their service, considering it a religious and communal obligation. They raised funds, made policies, admitted children, and hired and supervised the superintendent and staff. During the nineteenth century, the superintendents were educators or religious leaders who viewed their work as a vocation. Many stayed in their positions for decades, shaping their institutions' policies, maintaining contacts with their communities, and providing stability and continuity of care.

By the Progressive Era (1890–1920), the superintendents of orphanages were graduates of the evolving discipline of social work, specializing in the new field of CHILD CARE. Orphanages at the end of the nineteenth century were considered the best method of care for dependent children; their popularity increased and single poor parents often regarded them as places they could leave their children temporarily until circumstances improved, or as places where their children could get a good education. Many orphanages became crowded, and some restricted admission to only full and half-orphan children. The majority of children in orphanages in the late nineteenth century had at least one parent living. Those who had both parents living had been placed by the court, by a welfare agency on account of abuse and neglect, or by parents who were unable or unwilling to take care of them. Parents often used the courts to secure admission to institutions by declaring their children delinquent or incorrigible.

Many orphanages did not admit young children. Few orphanages had nurseries. Big cities had foundling hospitals, but single working mothers often used baby farms for their newborns. In baby farms, foster mothers nursed the babies, waited for them to die, or sold them for adoption. The death rates in all infant institutions were staggering, either because the abandoned children arrived at the hospital already starved and sick from exposure to the elements or because CONTAGIOUS DISEASES such as scarlet fever, diphtheria, and whooping cough caused high mortality rates, especially among infants. FOUNDLINGS who survived early childhood and were not adopted were transferred to orphanages. Unlike infant institutions, the mortality rates in orphanages were low, despite epidemics and diseases. Children in orphanages generally enjoyed far better medical care, nutrition, hygiene, and fresh air than were available in the neighborhoods from which they had come.

Late nineteenth-century reformers viewed children as a key for reforming and redeeming the republic. These "child savers" fought against child labor and for compulsory education, playgrounds, and libraries in poor urban neighborhoods. Orphanages played an important role in that reform. By the early twentieth century, many orphanages had playgrounds, libraries, athletic facilities, musical training, recreation, and vocational education. Children were either schooled inside the orphanage or attended neighborhood public schools. Talented students attended high schools and were encouraged to obtain a college education.

Orphanages differed in the kind of population they housed, based on the children's ethnicity, religion, class, and gender, and sometimes on academic ability. But although there was no single model of the Progressive orphanage, they all strove to give their children an edge in life through education.

The Attack on Orphanages

By the late nineteenth century, some reformers began to attack orphanages for being overly regimented and sheltering their children too long. Influenced by social Darwinism, Amos Warner, the prominent social welfare researcher, argued in American Charities (1875) that clustering children with similar backgrounds bred pauperism, and that institutionalized children were not prepared adequately for life struggles. He advocated dispersing the children into families. Beginning in 1854, American reformer CHARLES LORING BRACE had been sending dependent children from New York to live with and work in families in the Midwest. These PLACING-OUT operations, carried out by the NEW YORK CHILDREN'S AID SOCIETY and copied in other cities, were later known as the ORPHANS' TRAINS. Children's Aid Societies continued the tradition of indenture and were the precursor to FOSTER CARE. Some children were adopted and some were exploited. Many lost contact with their natural families and were barely supervised by the agency after they were placed. By contrast, orphanages rarely sought to break up families; most encouraged connections with families and kept siblings together. The majority of children returned to their families once circumstances changed. Parents, and especially immigrant parents, preferred orphanages to giving their children to Children's Aid societies.

Progressive-era reformers intensified their criticism of orphanages, blaming them for obliterating individuality. In 1909, at a White House conference called by President Theodore Roosevelt to discuss children's welfare, two hundred social workers declared that the best method of caring for dependent children was at home or in an alternative family. Institutions, they said, should be considered the last resort. For children who needed an alternative home, they suggested placements in screened, unpaid foster homes under the supervision of social workers. The children were expected to attend school and work for their board.

Orphanages responded to the criticisms by striving to create homelike institutions. They broke the large congregate bedrooms into small units, built cottages in which small groups of children lived with a home mother, relaxed the discipline, added more recreation and enrichment programs, and cultivated children's individual talents. Orphanages that could not modernize were closed or consolidated. The remaining institutions attempted to be boarding schools for dependent children.

Post–World War I Orphanages

From the 1920s on, charities started to close their institutions, creating foster care agencies adhering to the social work preference for foster care over institutionalization. Catholic Charities resisted the trend and was slow to change. The 1910s pension laws for widows and their children allowed many single mothers to keep their children at home, and the restrictions on immigration in the early 1920s reduced the number of dependent children. But during the 1930s, orphanages became crowded again. The Depression years depleted the institutions' resources and forced them to place out children in foster families. The 1935 Aid for Dependent Children legislation made it possible for more families to care for children whom they might otherwise have had to place in orphanages. By then, many orphanages had shifted their mission to caring for children with mental, emotional, and physical problems. Social workers preferred to put healthy children in foster families and pay for their board. Disabled children were left in institutions. By the 1950s, most states had taken responsibility for the care of their dependent children, foster care had developed special care for disabled children, and orphanages had become residential treatment centers and temporary shelters until foster families were located.

The anti-institution movement of the 1960s closed most of the remaining orphanages. Federal Aid for Families with Dependent Children legislation (AFDC), which began in the 1960s, aimed at preserving biological families and preventing children from being placed out.

But the number of children in foster care did not diminish, and by the 1980s foster care was in crisis. The system faced a shortage of foster parents, inadequate supervision, high staff turnover, and children who were moved from one placement to another. In some cases there was also abuse, neglect, and death of children in foster homes. In 1994, Congressman Newt Gingrich, suggested a return to orphanages. His remarks reopened a century-old debate. Opponents looked at research done on residential treatments from the 1950s on and pointed to problems that arose when troubled children were concentrated in one place. Supporters emphasized the permanency, family preservation, and educational benefits that the Progressive Era's orphanages had provided. During the 1980s, historians and graduates of orphanages discovered that orphanages were discarded with little research and that the century-old debate was largely based on fiction and movies. The combination of their research and personal accounts cast institutions in a much more positive light than that in which they had previously been depicted. Some states and private philanthropists started building residential academies for preteens and teenagers who were not likely to be adopted or find placements. Others responded to the renewed debate and the continuing crisis in foster care by terminating parental rights in order to release children for adoption, by establishing permanent foster care units, and by enhancing services for families in crisis.

See also: Abandonment; Baby Farming; Child Saving; Dependent Children; Orphans; White House Conferences on Children.


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