In the past, numerous children were orphaned. In societies where people married early and had many children, and a high death rate was common in the adult population, many children lost one of their parents, and some both, before coming of age.

Orphans suffered from a higher death rate than other children did. They often had to live outside of standard households, either because they were placed in a foster family or, as was more often the case, because they were placed as servants or apprentices at an earlier age than was common. Charitable societies first, then towns or nations, organized to improve these children's living conditions and to make it easier for them to become integrated into society.

How Many Orphans Were There?

The number of orphaned children in a society is connected to the political and economic environment (war, famine, epidemic) and to the demographic situation. As the death rate declined from the seventeenth century onwards, as people began to marry later in many Western countries, and as people died at an older age on average, children lost their parents later and the number of underage orphans decreased.

Starting in early modern times, orphans can be precisely numbered. Estimates concerning some French, English, or Spanish villages in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries indicate that at least one-third of the children lost one of their parents during childhood. In nineteenth-century Milan, one child out of two had lost at least one parent by age twenty. In nineteenth-century China, almost one-third of boys had lost one parent or both by age fifteen. In early modern times, the younger children were, the greater chance they stood of losing their mothers rather than their fathers, because many women died in childbirth. In western Europe, a woman's risks of dying within the sixty days following childbirth declined from 1 percent in the seventeenth century to 0.5 percent in 1900. After age twelve, children's risk of losing their fathers increased due to the higher death rate among the male population. In nineteenth century Venice, at age five, 5.4 percent of children had lost their fathers, 6 percent their mothers, and 1 percent both. At age fifteen, 22 percent had lost their father, 15 percent their mother, and 6 percent both parents.

Weakened Children

All studies indicate a higher death rate among orphans than among other children. In addition to emotional and psychological trauma, the impact on their living conditions was serious. Among the working class, the father's death generally resulted in the household's fall into destitution.

Most of the time, children were worse off if they lost their mothers; this phenomenon was recognized in nineteenth-century Europe, China, and Japan. For example, in Linko-ping, Sweden, in the nineteenth century, 60 percent of the children who had lost their mothers before their first birthdays died before age fifteen, as opposed to 30 percent of those who had lost their fathers, and 25 percent of those who still had both parents. The consequences of the mother's death could sometimes be mitigated by the father's prompt remarriage.

The child's age at the time of the parent's death was also a factor: the younger the child was when the father or mother died, the higher the mortality risk. In 1915 Baltimore, the death rate among children who had lost their mothers before their second month of life was 526 out of 1000. In addition, orphans' survival seems to have been linked to their sex because the child's sex influenced the intervention of family or outside help. Girls were more prepared than boys to take over cleaning and cooking and they could take better care of themselves even at a young age. Therefore, more help was usually offered to boys, but the survival of boys and girls depended on familial arrangements. A few surveys also mention the role played by religion. For example, in nineteenth century Venice the death rate among children in general and orphans in particular was twice as low among Jews. This seems to have been connected to various factors, including personal HYGIENE, attitudes towards illness and medicine, and the efficiency of the community's institutions in the event of a parent's death.

Orphans and the Household

When a child's father or mother dies, the household's survival is endangered and several possibilities can be considered: (1) the household may survive, deprived of the deceased parent; (2) the household may be altered by the departure of some of the children or the arrival of a newcomer (aunt, mother-in-law, etc) who is willing to help the surviving parent; (3) the household may be recomposed by the arrival of a stepfather or stepmother, sometimes accompanied by his or her children, if the surviving parent remarries; or (4) the household may be scattered, with the orphans being separated from their surviving parent. From the sixteenth century onward in European societies widowers generally remarried more often and more quickly than widows. Therefore, the recomposed household in which orphans were brought up included a stepmother more often than a stepfather. A few surveys hint that orphans, more often than other children, may have been the victims of sexual abuse especially from their stepfathers or stepmothers, but the sources offer little of substance.

When the father died, the widow could become head of the household, but this role could also be transferred to an orphan, generally a boy in his late teens. In preindustrial Japan, orphan boys could succeed their fathers as head of the household as early as age sixteen, but these orphans had to take on an adult's responsibilities precociously. In countries where this was possible, the orphans sometimes benefited from an early emancipation.

In the event of the father's death, it was sometimes difficult for a widow who did not remarry to keep many of her children with her. Consequently orphans left home precociously more often than other children. GRANDPARENTS seem to have played a very limited part in the accommodation of young orphans, probably because they were so seldom still alive. Orphans were often placed as servants or apprentices. However, family solidarity seems to have resulted in orphans being placed whenever possible as servants or apprentices with relatives.

From Family to Collective Support

During the Middle Ages and well into the seventeenth century, because little material support was available from charitable societies, orphans from modest backgrounds were sometimes doomed to live in destitution. Novelists have dwelt on the portrait of the homeless boy reduced to begging or DELINQUENCY, or the homeless girl forced into prostitution. But institutions were gradually organized to look after them. In many European countries, boards of guardians were set up; these were generally composed of the orphan's relatives and they were responsible for the orphan's education and for the safekeeping of his or her property.

One of the first people appealed to for care of the orphaned child was the godfather or godmother. However, the GODPARENT's role as guardian seemed to decline after the end of the Middle Ages in western Europe, although it probably remained strong in eastern and southern Europe. In France, the revolution instituted the civil BAPTISM, in which the godfather and godmother publicly and solemnly pledged to provide for the child's needs until he or she came of age should the parents die or become unable to look after him or her.

Orphans could also be adopted, a practice already documented in ancient Greece. In early modern times, the godfather and godmother were the first to be appealed to, which is why they had to be chosen from among relatively young people from a good background. In France, famous people such as Montaigne, Corneille, and Voltaire are known to have adopted their orphaned godchildren.

The orphan could also be adopted by a hospital or a charitable society. In Europe, this mainly occurred from the sixteenth century onwards. In western Europe, there is evidence of some orphans who had been entrusted to hospitals being adopted by middle-class people unrelated to them. This seems to have remained in practice until the eighteenth century, notably in Germany. In Venice, the first ORPHANAGE was created in 1811 as part of a campaign meant to reduce begging. Before that, vagrant orphans would be locked up with tramps and people with disabilities in the main hospitals, which were more like detention centers than treatment centers. To be accepted in Venice's orphanage, an orphan had to be seven to twelve years old, legitimate, born and living in Venice, in good health, and fit for work. Because the orphanage had limited accommodation, other orphans, particularly those who were very young, ill, illegitimate, or immigrants, were rejected. Though they could get some help from other charitable societies, which occasionally provided clothes, food, or shelter, they had to rely mainly on their relatives and connections.

In modern Europe illegitimate children had a high risk of being abandoned. For illegitimate orphans the only hope for survival was to be taken in by a hospital or charitable institution. Most orphaned illegitimate children, like thousands of abandoned children, were placed in a caretaker's home and lost contact with their families. Others were confined to workhouses where they had to work to pay for the help they received.

In the nineteenth century, states became more and more active in providing for orphans, particularly by financing and controlling the running of orphanages. The particular case of war orphans must be mentioned–those whose fathers were killed in action or were crippled for life. For example, after World War I France created a special status for war orphans, who were called Pupilles de la Nation. Adopted by the state, these orphans benefited from material and moral support that could extend beyond their legal majority.

Fortunately, the living conditions of orphans improved during the twentieth century, at least in developed countries. Because adult mortality among parents of minor children is low, orphans are less numerous and most orphanages have shut down. Surviving parents often receive support from insurance and public funds; the welfare state will attempt to provide education and care if both parents have died and relatives are unable to care for the child; and adoption of orphans by childless couples (which was not allowed by law in the nineteenth century in many countries) has become frequent since the last half of the twentieth century.

See also: Abandonment; Adoption in the United States; Foundlings; Homeless Children and Runaways in the United States; Stepparents in the United States.


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