History of orphanages
There have been children's homes, or orphanages, since the Middle Ages (A.D. 500-1500),
when cities, towns, or church organizations provided for homeless children. The first orphanage in
North America was opened by Roman Catholic nuns in 1729 after Indians massacred all the adult
settlers in Natchez, Mississippi.
By the 1830s, the United States had 23 orphanages. Twenty years later, in 1850, New York state
alone had 27 orphanages. Conditions in these orphanages were not very good, compared to today's
standards. Philadelphia's House of Refuge orphanage packed 100 orphans into four dormitories. In
New York City's House of Refuge, huge bathtubs held 20 boys at one time. Such institutions kept kids
in line by treating them as little soldiers. They drilled the orphans, put them on parade, and had them
march to meals.
In 1916, in response to a child-abuse scandal, a New York state government commission
investigated orphanages. The commission found "little children, with their hair cropped [cut very short]
. . . sitting at wooden benches and eating out of tin plates . . . some without anything to eat at all."
The commission found some children "doing drudgery, working eight or more hours a day, with
only one hour of schooling, and that at night."
Between the 1890s and 1930s, many orphans were put on "orphan trains" and shipped out west
to be adopted by farming families for farm labor.
By the 1930s, administrators had begun turning large orphanages into smaller and friendlier
group homes, presided over by "cottage parents." Governments also developed alternatives to
orphanages such as foster care, and "widow's pensions," which was money given to mothers to help
their children at home. This was the beginning of welfare.
By the 1970s, most orphanages were out of business, replaced by foster care and other
But--welfare critics ask today--has this really been a step forward for America's children?