From Moses to Oliver Twist, Batman to Daenerys Targaryen, there’s something about orphans that captures our imagination and our hearts. Orphanages were for centuries at the center of our understanding of what it means to be charitable. Yet about a hundred years ago Americans decided to phase them out. What happened?
As a starting point, we need to look at why supporting orphanages was once the ultimate charitable pursuit. Charity was traditionally understood as both a religious obligation (in Judeo-Christian religions as well as in Hinduisim, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and many more) and a personal attribute – being a particularly charitable fellow was something to really write home about. In seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing that desperate poor families sometimes abandoned their infants on the orphanages’ steps. Otherwise it was not-so-poor unmarried women who went away to their “aunt in the country” to bring their secret pregnancies to term, desperate mainly to protect their honor. In either case opportunity knocked. These so-called “orphans” were rightfully considered the most unfortunate of the unfortunate. Wealthy patrons, especially royals and their courtiers, practically made a sport of who could provide them with the most generous bequest.
The well-being of the children always played second fiddle to the aspiration to be and appear personally charitable. Even the Inclusa in Madrid, one of the most fabulously well-funded orphanages of the late eighteenth century, was only able to boast a survival rate of about one out of ten foundlings. The practice of substituting gruel and goat’s milk for breast milk and ignorance of how disease traveled in close quarters meant that even survivors emerged weak, thin, and deformed.
By the time the United States began setting up its first crop of orphanages in 1810-1830, social conditions were changing. There were still many wage working families who decided to give up their children. However, children were also actively “rescued” from poorhouses, initiating a trend of taking them away to be placed in orphanages rather than waiting for them to be abandoned. Authorities began to see poverty as moral failure rather than God’s way of allowing them to show how charitable they are. Unwed mothers, the infirm, and criminals were also deemed unfit parents. As before, the term “orphan” was applied loosely, and only 10-20% of admitted children were actually parentless.
The first American prisons and asylums were built around the same time and based on many of the same philosophies the American orphanages were. The orphan “inmates” were taught discipline and lived in poor conditions. Malnourished and exposed to extreme weather and rampaging viruses, their survival rates were similar to those of street urchins who hadn’t been “lucky” enough to be rescued. The older children preyed on the youngsters until they were old enough to be shipped out as indentured domestic or farm laborers. Sometimes “orphan trains” sent hundreds of them from the East Coast to the Midwest at once.
The majority of the country’s orphanage supporters – mostly churches and civic-minded benevolent societies now, though a few wealthy individual patrons remained – believed that even these dismal outcomes were better than what life had otherwise in store for the children. By mid-century the tragic orphan grew into a popular literary trope. Les Misérables’ Cosette and Cinderella, revamped by the Brothers Grimm, are only two of many examples. “The orphan,” the idea of the orphan, an innocent and helpless child, still motivated people as ever before. Yet a vocal minority began to question if orphanages really were the way forward.
James West, an orphan himself, was one of the latter. His widowed mother had abandoned him at the age of six. Afflicted by a terrible infection that forced him to use crutches, the orphanage couldn’t credibly send West off to a farm and so put him to work sewing with a group of girls. Through his lucky unprofitability, personal drive, and the intervention of a family friend he was granted the privilege of attending school. West became something of a mentor for other orphan inmates. He organized hikes and other weekend activities and even promoted literacy by bribing children with a penny for every book they read. He became a librarian, studied law, and passed the bar in DC.
In 1908 Progressive leader Theodore Dreiser tapped West to oversee his paper’s “Child-Rescue Campaign.” The campaign featured write-ups of different homeless children each month, enticing readers to give them good, loving homes. Thousands wrote with offers of assistance.
West and Dreiser saw it as an indictment of “machine charity” and began to publicly malign the institution of the orphanage. An orphanage lacks “human love,” they complained, and because of this it can never be a substitute for family life. West was a credible witness to this, given his own upbringing. The anti-orphanage movement soon caught the eye of President Theodore Roosevelt. He met with its two champions personally and, inspired, called a national conference on the care of homeless and neglected children, the first of its kind in the U.S.
West, serving as chair of the arrangements committee, launched the 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children with a bang. Should orphans who aren’t actually orphaned, he asked, “be kept with their parents – aid being given to the parents to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of children?”
The convened experts unanimously endorsed the novel idea that “orphans” should no longer be taken from their families for mere reason of poverty. They agreed that churches and benevolent societies should pay destitute families money to support children in lieu of paying to maintain an orphanage, and in the extreme case that children do have to removed they should be transferred to foster families who were also to be compensated. Only a few years later, reformers took the even more radical step of embracing publicly-funded solutions. By 1920 all but eight state legislatures had approved pensions for needy mothers.
After Roosevelt’s conference the fight to save poor children easily became one of the most fervent, visible, and beloved of Progressive causes. Ironically, it didn’t seem to matter all that much to the major political players of the Progressive Era. They were more concerned with busting monopolies, giving women the right to vote, prohibiting the consumption of alcohol, and generally putting all of the country’s eggs in the science and education basket. But they realized that they needed a universal issue to appeal to Americans with before they could start laying on the more controversial stuff. In the dismantling of heartless and useless American orphanages, they found it.