Johns Hopkins Magazine - April 1996 Issue

The Rise and Demise of the American Orphanage

By Dale Keiger
In dismantling the orphanage system, Progressive reformers laid the groundwork for modern welfare--the same welfare system that some reformers today want to fix (you guessed it!) by bringing back the orphanage.

Last year, when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich suggested solving some of the country's welfare problems by taking dependent children from their parents and putting them in orphanages, political science professor Matthew Crenson found himself thinking, Do these people know what they're talking about?

Crenson knew what they were talking about. He had spent the last eight years researching orphanages. He estimates that in 1900 there were close to 1,000 of these institutions throughout the country, housing perhaps 100,000 kids. There were county orphanages, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish orphanages, non-sectarian children's homes run by private charities. With the movie Boys Town, orphanages--or at least a Hollywood image of them--became part of American mythology.

What startled Crenson was the idea of orphanages as a remedy for welfare. After traveling to four states to examine thousands of records, transcripts, articles, books, letters, and government documents to research a book, he had reached this conclusion: that public and political reaction to the orphanages of the 19th century had spawned the modern welfare state. Here was Gingrich, who sees welfare as a problem, proposing as an alternative the very institution that had inspired welfare's creation.

"It seemed shocking to me that somebody could toss off a proposal like this with so little thought about the implications," he says. "My conclusion was that these were not people who took public policy seriously."

Crenson's research has resulted in a forthcoming book, The Invisible Orphanage: A Pre-history of the American Welfare System. In that book he examines how the turn-of-the-century Progressive Movement championed child-care reforms that led to the dismantling of the orphanage system. He says, "People are going to give me an argument about this, but I believe that in the process of dismantling the orphanages, what society did, albeit indirectly, was activate the institutional apparatus for welfare."

Crenson grew interested in orphanages through conversations with a friend, the late political scientist Lewis Anthony Dexter. In the 1930s, Dexter had been a Unitarian minister, and he had visited many orphanages. Dexter recalled to Crenson how the kids had clung to him, craving affection. When Crenson asked him what had become of all those institutions, Dexter said he didn't know. That made Crenson curious.

He started nosing around material on a variety of vanished and vanishing institutions, not just orphanages but also poorhouses, state mental hospitals, and tuberculosis sanitariums. Before long, he realized he'd have to limit the scope of his research. "I was looking at just secondary sources on state mental hospitals and realized the secondary literature was gigantic," he recalls. "The topic had just exploded. The orphanage scene was more manageable, and seemed to stand at the origins of American deinstitutionalization."

Orphanages sprang up in large numbers in the early 1800s as part of an American institutional building boom. The United States was a very young country, socially unsettled and all but devoid of institutions. As Crenson writes in his book, Americans sensed that they had left behind the established social order of a Crown colony, but had not replaced it with anything. Familiar structures of rank and privilege no longer existed. The population was literally in motion, with workers moving into cities and mill towns to take jobs in the newly industrializing northern economy; other people migrating westward to settle new land in the territories; and immigrants arriving by the boatload in eastern seaboard cities. There were few social services. Public health institutions were all but nonexistent. The public school system was rudimentary.

To many, this new society felt dangerously unstable and unhealthy. Social critics blamed runaway ambition and the frantic pace and flexible principles of the marketplace for increases in crime and insanity. "Americans regarded the ceaseless social and geographic mobility as a threat to familiar routines and restrictions that helped assure responsible conduct," Crenson says. "They thought an erosion of family discipline was producing not just willful children, but vagrant and criminal adults."

In response, this new and agitated society embraced the idea of asylums. Take people who were at risk or who were causing harm to society, and isolate them. Take them away from all the bad influences and unhealthful conditions, put them in a regimented, regulated environment, and you might restore them to health or turn them into responsible citizens. If they were children, take them from the corrupting influence of impoverished or immoral (the two were often equated) adults and put them on the path to productive, law-abiding adulthood.

Thus, in the early 1800s dozens of private charitable organizations, as well as states and counties, founded a host of residential institutions. These included orphanages, which, Crenson points out, were misnamed. He estimates that at any given time, no more than 10 to 20 percent of the children in orphanages were actual orphans. Most had one or two living parents who were unable (usually due to poverty), unwilling, or had been deemed unfit to care for them. Many of the children had been rescued from another institution, the poorhouse, where conditions were often abysmal. "When they defined who to admit, they defined who was an orphan," Crenson says. "The institution in effect created the clientele by its admission decisions--kids with tubercular parents, kids with poor parents, kids with dead parents."

The directors of these orphanages did not expect to raise a child to adulthood; their institutions were meant to be waystations, refuges where a child could receive care and supervision, learn some discipline, and then be returned home or placed in a better situation outside the walls. These "better situations" varied. Institutions in Massachusetts, for example, worked vigorously to place children with "respectable" foster families. Children in other states were sent to households and farms as indentured servants--basically forced labor--doing domestic or agricultural work in exchange for food and shelter. Orphanages shipped children to other states on so-called orphan trains; the Midwest was a popular destination.

Some orphanages tried to teach children a trade; the Catholic New York Protectory had 400 boys working in its shoemaking factory in 1875, and by 1900 the Protectory was training boys in plumbing, masonry, bricklaying, steamfitting, and sign painting. Girls worked in sewing rooms.

Conditions varied, but tended not to be good. Many orphanages were highly regimented, especially early in the century. Children marched to meals, which they ate in silence. They wore uniforms and sometimes had their heads shaved. Corporal punishment was common, with inmates routinely beaten across the hands with leather straps. The diet tended to be poor. Says Crenson, "Inmates, as adults, recalled that they were hungry all the time." He found accounts of the kids in a Cleveland orphanage breaking out to raid a nearby bakery; he came across another story about Jewish kids saying kaddish for their orphanage's wretched cook--in the hope that she would die.

Orphanages often were dangerous. The mortality rate was not much better than on the streets. Older, bigger, tougher kids preyed mercilessly on younger, smaller inmates. Says Crenson, "As hard as it was to leave kids at the mercy of some adults, it was much worse to leave them at the mercy of 100 kids. Living in an orphanage meant either being a predator or a victim." He found accounts of older boys sodomizing younger ones. There were institutions that were well-run by compassionate people, but in general an inmate's life was a tough one.

Inmates placed-out by institutions didn't fare much better. It was common for foster families to send them back, or give them away to another family. During the Civil War, Crenson says, some people enlisted older, bigger boys in the army and pocketed the enlistment bonuses. He found a heart-wrenching story about a little girl in Albany who had been placed with a family. The woman of the house beat the girl, and when an orphanage supervisor found out, he took the girl back and searched for a prosperous family to take her in. He thought he'd found one, and placed the girl as a domestic servant. She said, on entering this new situation, that what she most looked forward to was the opportunity to attend Sunday school. Later the supervisor found out that the new family refused to take her to church with them because her face was pockmarked; even worse, the family had tried to pawn her off on another household because she was, in their view, too ugly.

Until the 1880s, Crenson says, Roman Catholics were the leading founders of orphanages, especially in the East with its burgeoning populations of Catholic immigrants in Boston, New York, and other seaboard cities. The Catholic Church viewed American society as dominated by Protestants. It responded by founding parochial schools and parochial children's homes. Some Catholic orphanages were huge, housing more than 1,000 kids. "Initially, orphanages emerged as an instrument of ethnic defense," Crenson says. "A nonconforming minority used the orphanage as a vehicle of resistance against the dominant Protestant culture."

Crenson notes that the Catholics had grounds for some of their concerns. There was religious prejudice in "non-sectarian" orphanages, he says. "From the 1830s through the 1850s, the implicit intent of [non-Catholic] orphanages was to get kids away from their families, especially if those families were poor immigrants, and especially if they were Irish Catholic. This was seen as a remedy for irresponsible and disorderly family life. 'Forget the parents, those dumb immigrants. But if we can get ahold of the kids while they're innocent and malleable, we've got 'em--we can turn them into productive Americans.'"

In New York, Charles Loring Brace, a Congregationalist minister and the founder of the New York Children's Aid Society, spoke of "dangerous classes," which he described as "a great multitude of ignorant, untrained, passionate, irreligious boys and young men," most of whom, in Brace's view, were Catholics whose "moral and religious instruction had been almost wholly neglected." The official policy of the New York Juvenile Asylum was that it be non-sectarian, but Catholic leaders were suspicious of this "specious neutrality," as one of them called it. They did not want Catholic children under the control of Protestants.

"Then," says Crenson, "Protestant denominations, growing apprehensive that their children might be swallowed up in one of the numerous and immense Catholic establishments, organized new institutions of their own as a defensive measure." He found statistics that reveal a sort of horse race. There was a surge in the founding of Protestant orphanages in the 1860s. During the 1870s, Catholic institutions grew to outnumber their Protestant counterparts. The Protestants regained the lead in the '80s and widened it in the '90s.

Not just Catholics had something to fear. Some orphanages considered it part of their mission to Americanize immigrant children, too. Crenson points out that New York had a program to take Jewish immigrant children from their families, 10- and 11-year-olds, "train" them in a juvenile asylum, and then ship them out to farms in Illinois and Iowa--"all for the purpose of turning them into good Americans." And not every such example involved Protestants imposing on other faiths. In Cleveland, the established German Reform Jewish trustees who oversaw the Jewish Orphan Asylum endorsed efforts to Americanize the Russian immigrant children coming to that city, even if that meant estrangement from their parents. The Russians were backward in the eyes of the Cleveland Jewish establishment, and the trustees fretted that the newcomers' Orthodox customs and Zionism would inspire anti-Semitism and harm Jews in general. They belittled the old-country ways of the children's parents. They tried to steer the kids away from commerce--the stereotypical Jewish occupation--and turn them into American farmers and mechanics.

At the turn of the century, a new social and political movement gathered steam--the Progressive Movement. The Progressives were led by Theodore Roosevelt and a variety of reformers, including Jane Addams, Homer Folks, Theodore Dreiser, and Hastings L. Hart. They did not believe in asylums. Instead of segregating at-risk children--or the poor, the tubercular, and the disabled--from the evils and dangers of society, they said it was better to reform society so that such segregation became unnecessary. Crenson summarizes their thinking: "Rather than wait for things to go wrong in a family, why don't we make sure things don't go wrong in the first place? Why put kids in orphanages when their parents get tuberculosis? Why not prevent tuberculosis?"

Progressive reformers at the turn of the century launched campaigns to create juvenile courts, more extensive public school systems, truancy laws, better distribution of social services, anti-tuberculosis public health programs, and workman's compensation. They sought to clean up and deinstitutionalize American society, and to accomplish the latter they first drew a bead on the orphanage system.

Why orphanages? "I think it was because children were very appealing objects of philanthropy and charity," Crenson says. In his opinion, the Progressives seizing on orphanages was a combination of idealism and political calculation. In part, Progressives felt that orphanages ill-served their inmates, raising children in a regimented, monastic fashion that was downright un-American. They saw children as raw material that could be molded into their vision of an ideal American citizenry, citizens who could redeem a society plagued by urban squalor and rampant industrialism, a society veering from its original purpose.

In Crenson's view, the Progressives also knew a political hot button when they saw one. One might reasonably expect a reformer to want to clean up the worst institutions first, and in the early 1900s, Crenson says, poorhouses were far more wretched places than orphanages. Poorhouses tossed together the demented, alcoholics, tertiary syphilitics, paupers, criminals--the dregs of 19th-century society. But poorhouse residents garnered little sympathy. "It wasn't clear what you were supposed to do with poor people," Crenson says. "They were people who 'deserved' to be in the poorhouse... forget them. Poverty was a personal failure, but kids were innocent. Children in orphanages elicited sympathy."

Crenson says that Progressive leaders knew they stood a greater chance of promoting their broader social reform agenda if they started with children. "They were shameless about it," he says. "It was the turn-of-century version of 'family values.' Jane Addams said in effect, 'We've got these kids, and people love kids. Maybe if we use kids as the leading edge of our movement, we can catch up with the social welfare systems in England, France, and Germany.' She was pretty damned explicit."

He cites other factors: "People who were ambitious reformers were impatient with the orphanages because they had room for less than 1 percent of the population of children. You couldn't make a dent in society's problems or enact your social engineering agenda if you were restricted to this small population. The reformers' ambitions were just much too big."

Momentum for the abolition of orphanages had been building for years, in any case. Crenson says the public was no longer so sure that regimentation built character. Critics of the orphanage system charged that regimentation only taught children how to work the system. "The kids used the regulations," Crenson says. "They manipulated them. The minute they weren't being watched, they were out of control."

He notes that arguments against regimentation also played well with a public that was making its own adjustment to the discipline of large-scale industrial capitalism. The Delineator, a women's magazine edited for a time by Theodore Dreiser, referred to orphanages as "machine charity." Crenson says reformers portrayed the orphanage as "first cousin to the oppressive factory and the dreary mill."

One of the primary advocates of abolishing orphanages had grown up in one: James E. West. Crenson first encountered West in the transcripts of the 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. West's widowed mother had left him at the Washington [D.C.] City Orphan Asylum when he was 6; three months later she died of tuberculosis. Soon after entering the orphanage, West complained of pain in his hip. The staff suspected him of malingering and did nothing; when they did finally take him to the Washington Children's Hospital, doctors found a tubercular infection. The boy spent 21 months in the hospital, more than a year of it strapped to a wooden frame intended to straighten his bones. (While Crenson was writing his book, he developed his own hip infection that required surgery and, for a brief time, being strapped to an aluminum frame. "I was a little spooked by the parallels," he says.)

After almost two years, the hospital gave up on West and declared him incurable. The orphanage refused to take him back, claiming it couldn't handle a crippled child, but hospital orderlies dumped him on the doorstep anyway. The institution normally would place-out boys for indenture, but figured it couldn't find a situation for an 8-year-old on crutches. So, to West's humiliation, he was stashed in the sewing room with the girls.

When he was 12, a friend of his mother's convinced the orphanage's officials to allow West to attend a public school. The school was across the street, but apparently it hadn't occurred to anyone at the orphanage to let him go there. West entered the fifth grade, and soon turned his prodigious energies to improving the lot of his fellow inmates. He asked that other children be granted the same use of the orphanage's library as had been granted to him. When officials objected, saying the books could not stand so much use, West organized the children to cover more than 1,000 volumes in brown paper. From money he earned in the sewing room, he paid the other kids a penny for every book they read.

As he grew up inside the institution, West taught himself to ride a bicycle, organized hikes and picnics for the children, and attended high school, where he became founding editor of the student newspaper, served as school librarian, and managed the football team. He didn't leave the orphanage until he was 19, by which time he was a staff member. In the evenings he attended law school, and passed the exam for the District of Columbia bar when he was 25.

In 1908, Theodore Dreiser hired West to oversee The Delineator's "Child-Rescue Campaign." Similar to modern-day "save the children" advertisements in magazines, The Delineator's campaign offered readers a selection of different homeless children each month; any reader moved to take custody of one of these kids could write to the magazine, which would assist in placing the child with the family. Thousands of readers deluged the magazine with offers of assistance.

The scale and intensity of readers' response surprised Dreiser. He began to turn the campaign into an anti-institutional crusade. He published in the magazine, "Are you content to see these little ones imprisoned in orphan asylums where machine charity clothes them, [and] teaches them by the ticking of the clock, when homes are waiting, empty, to do all this, and add what machine charity can never give--human love?" He and West founded the National Child Rescue League to consolidate grassroots political support for Dreiser's campaign.

Somewhere along the way--Crenson is not sure where or when--West made the acquaintance of Theodore Roosevelt. The men had in common sickly childhoods and enormous adult energy. In October 1908, Roosevelt, now in the last months of his presidency, invited West and Dreiser to the White House to discuss child welfare issues. The reformers convinced him to host a national conference on the care of homeless and neglected children.

The White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children convened on January 25, 1909, to discuss the welfare of "children who are destitute and neglected but not delinquent." It was the first conference of its kind in American history. About 200 people were invited, and among those who attended were Dreiser, Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, and Booker T. Washington. Roosevelt was ceremonial chairman. West chaired the arrangements committee and was a member of the resolutions committee. As such, he read the first question to be considered by the conference: "Should children of parents of worthy character, but suffering from temporary kept with their parents--aid being given to the parents to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of the children?"

"With this question," says Crenson, "West crossed a fault line of American social policy. The proposition implicitly advanced was the payment of cash subsidies to the destitute parents of children who might otherwise become candidates for the orphanage. The proposal anticipated contemporary welfare policy."

Before the conference ended, the delegates unanimously approved resolutions that stated, among other things, that children should not be removed from their families except for urgent and compelling reasons, of which destitution was not one. If necessary, poor families should receive financial aid to support their children. And children who had to be removed from their families should be cared for by foster families, not orphanages, with provision being made to pay those foster families.

"The conference had a phenomenal impact," says Crenson. "It created the momentum that began the drive for the mothers' pension, a precursor to our modern Aid to Families with Dependent Children. It was the watershed event leading to the creation of welfare. The asylum had sought to develop good citizens through the management of an artificially created social environment. The reformers at the White House conference aimed at the management of the real thing. They abandoned the orphanage in order to take up social engineering."

Many in attendance at the conference, he adds, clearly thought support for families with dependent children was the job of private charities. "No one was proposing public welfare as we know it," Crenson says. But they left open the door for public assistance, where appropriate. And two years after the conference, state legislatures approved mothers' pensions--payment of public funds to indigent mothers for the support of their children--in Kansas City and Cook County, Illinois. By 1920, 40 of the 48 states had enacted similar programs. In most states, the money was for poor widows and wives of disabled husbands, but a few states also covered unwed mothers.

"In effect," Crenson writes in his book, "the reformers were building a disembodied orphanage--a set of policies that would accommodate the healthy, nondelinquent inmates of orphan asylums without resorting to the asylum itself. The strategies that they developed are in most respects the same ones we rely upon today."

As states turned to public subsidies and the placement of children in foster homes, a need arose for supervision and inspection to make sure the money was well-spent, the kids were in good hands. This, Crenson maintains, was the foundation of the institutional apparatus that became the welfare bureaucracy now so scorned by the political right wing.

"By 1910, most people had given up on orphanages," Crenson says. "There were few ardent defenders." The people who ran them tried all sorts of things to keep themselves in business. They relaxed the regimentation now in disrepute. They transformed their facilities, phasing out the large, single buildings that were difficult to supervise in favor of campus-like "cottage systems." Like the marketers of consumer products, they tried to reposition themselves. Says Crenson, "Instead of portraying themselves as refuges, they portrayed themselves as waystations, as training schools to teach children how to move into happy homes." Some cast themselves as specialized institutions for children who couldn't be placed in foster homes--the lame, the disturbed, the mentally retarded, the delinquent.

Various orphanages proved strikingly resilient. Crenson found that of Ohio's extensive system of 60 county orphanages, for example, 50 were still in business when he researched Ohio records in 1994. Nevertheless, most orphanages disappeared in the reforms of the early 20th century, along with poorhouses, tuberculosis sanitariums, and other sorts of asylums.

Crenson says that people tend to think of deinstitutionalization as a recent trend, beginning in the 1960s with the phasing out of state mental hospitals. "But we've been deinstitutionalizing for a long time, starting with children," Crenson says. He asserts that this phenomenon of American society is a consequence of its inventiveness. New ideas lead to the abandonment of older ones. "Orphanages show how our political inventions have been shaped by the acts of political destruction that made them possible," he says. Look at today's welfare system and you see a ghostly substructure that is the remains of the orphanage.

In the current debate over welfare, Crenson hears echoes--the same terms, the same arguments about morality and virtue, the same emphasis on impoverished mothers--of the debate over orphanages that took place nearly a century ago. "Hardly anyone talks about unwed fathers," he notes. "We only talk about the morality of the mothers. We're still looking at welfare as if it's the mothers' pension from before World War I. We're imprisoned in the institutional framework established 100 years ago."

He adds, "Orphanages are no great loss. But what people forget is that what we've replaced them with took a lot of time societies tend to preserve their institutions much more than we do. You find organizations in Europe that are hundreds of years old. Here, we tend to discard institutions rapidly. It's forgotten by the critics of welfare that what we have now was developed over a long time. It's a very cavalier way to treat the labor of generations. We're a society that doesn't have much use for government, so we don't pay much attention to it. We have to keep learning the same lessons about public institutions, what works and what doesn't work, over and over again."

The professor raises his eyebrows and offers a final comment: "It's like having a class that just doesn't pay attention."

Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.

Special thanks to Leonard M. Rothstein '44 (MLA '82) for supplying the images that appear throughout this story from his extensive collection of postcards.

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