When I think of orphans, I most often think of children who have lost both of their parents. But when I ran across a Home for Orphan and Friendless Children in my research, I discovered that orphanages and orphan care has historically involved more than that one situation.
After the Civil War, many states set up orphanages to accommodate children of veterans left without familial support. Very often, the children living in these orphanages had a living parent. Perhaps a widowed mother with little income. Or perhaps a disabled father, wounded in battle. These “orphans” were also called dependent children or “friendless” children. They needed someone to care for and champion them.
That latter years of the century saw a period of economic downturn. This crisis caused orphanages to expand their scope to include more children. By the end of the 19th century, the majority of children residing in orphanages had at least one parent living. These children had been taken in to save them from poverty or neglect.
But as the turn of a new century neared, society turned reform-minded, and the Progressive Era’s social reforms extended to the care of dependent children. Children’s Aid Societies and Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children were formed to address the issue. These societies took as their mission to place dependent children in alternative families rather than keep them in large, impersonal institutions. They advocated “placing out” children to local (unpaid) families willing to take them in or sending the children west on orphan trains to relocate with families willing to board, feed, and educate another child.
Of course, both orphanages and “placing out” societies had flaws in their systems. Large institutions were often void of emotional or personal contact as a result of overcrowding, though they did emphasize medical care and education. Children placed in foster care received care in a family setting, but often lost all contact with their remaining parent or relatives and sometimes were taken in simply as free labor and not as a member of the household. Neither method being perfect, the plight of dependent children finally rose to center stage.
In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt convened the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. The delegates proposed that children be kept in the home when at all possible, placed in foster care families when available, and kept in “cottage plan” institutions which more resembled a family-like setting until foster situations could be located. They advocated inspection of the facilities, educational work, and physical care of the children in institutions, even when on the cottage system. Finally, they supported legislation creating a Federal Children’s Bureau “to collect and disseminate information affecting the welfare of children.”
The late 19th and early 20th century saw many more children being given over into the care of others (not relatives) as a result of war, poverty or disease. But as the question of caring orphans grew loud, Progressive Era reformers and their predecessors considered how best to serve the child’s needs, how to propel the child into a better, more stable life. The changes they advocated in orphan care then still benefit dependent children today.
If you’d like to read a novel based around an orphan home that placed out children in the early 1900s, comment to be entered in a drawing to win a print copy of A Home for My Heart. Here’s a little the book:
Sadie Sillsby works as the assistant to the matron at the Raystown Home for Orphan and Friendless Children, pouring all her energy into caring for the boys and girls who live there and dreaming of the day she’ll marry her beau, Blaine, and have children of her own. But when the matron surprises everyone by announcing her own engagement, Sadie is suddenly next in line for the esteemed job of running the orphanage.
There’s one glitch. The matron cannot be married. She must focus her attention on the financial, legal, and logistical matters of the Home. Sadie’s heart is torn. Should she give up her plans for a life with Blaine in order to continue serving these children who have no one else? Does she, a young woman who was once an orphan herself, have what it takes to succeed in such a challenging career? And when the future of the Home begins to look bleak, can Sadie turn things around before the place is forced to close forever?