History Of The Orphanage

Bleak houses all, orphanages trace their roots to a 1729 Indian massacre. But things turned a bit less grim with the advents of adoption, foster care and welfare.

If there's a more lonesome word in the English language than orphanage, we never want to hear it. It suggests a place like the one Faulkner's orphan hero Joe Christmas remembers from his childhood in ""Light in August'': a ""cold echoing building of dark red brick sootblackened . . . set in a grassless cinderstrewnpacked compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten-foot steel-and-wire fence . . . orphans in identical and uniform blue denim . . . the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears.'' The sooty tears are belletristic overkill, but the rest of Faulkner's picture would have seemed familiar to investigators from New York state's 1916 Strong Commission, who found ""little children with their hair cropped . . . sitting at wooden benches and eating out of tin plates . . . some without anything to eat at all.'' The grim, submonastic orphanage we picture when we hear the word is an imaginative construct: a Dickens workhouse or Yorkshire school transplanted to industrial-age America. That doesn't mean it wasn't real.

Ursuline nuns founded the first orphan asylum in North America in 1729, after Indians massacred adult settlers at Natchez, Miss. But most 18th-century orphans went to country neighbors or city almshouses. Orphanages hardly existed until urbanization and immigration intensified in the 1830s and 23 private orphan asylums opened. By 1850, New York state alone had 27 orphanages, both public and private -- and yet New York City was still overrun with some 10,000 ""street Arabs,'' many of them the children of Irish immigrants. (Two of pop culture's most beloved orphans, Anne of Green Gables and Little Orphan Annie, have conspicuously red hair.)

Then came the Civil War -- which increased the number of poorhouse orphans by 300 percent -- and another wave of immigration. ""A certain panic set in about how to control these kids,'' says Columbia University historian David Rothman. ""The orphanage movement begins at just the same time we begin building prisons and state hospitals for the insane. They're all part of the same phenomenon.'' Philanthropists tended to regard the orphanage as a form of school; pragmatists saw it as a holding tank.

Few administrators tried to make it a home. In the 1850s, the Philadelphia House of Refuge crowded 100 children into five dormitories with evenly spaced beds; in Charleston, 200 children slept in 10 rooms. In the New York House of Refuge, bathtubs held 15 or 20 boys at a time. New York's Hebrew Jewish Orphanage fed its charges so meagerly that one observer remarked ""the weirdly short stature of the boys who left . . . at the legal age of 14 years.'' Such institutions kept kids in line with military-style discipline: they drilled and paraded and marched to meals and classes; in chapel they knelt at the sound of a whistle. New York's Strong Commission found some children ""forced to do drudgery, working eight or nine hours a day, with only one hour for schooling, and that often at night.''

But by the 1890s, progressive administrators had begun organizing orphan asylums along more familial lines: smaller dwelling units supervised by ""cottage parents'' and wards partitioned into bedrooms. ""The progressives imported family ideals into the orphanages,'' says Rothman, ""but they also began to devise real alternatives -- adoption, foster care and "widow's pensions,' which meant giving money to mothers to keep kids at home. This was the beginning of welfare.'' The most romantic alternative was called the ""orphan train.'' In the years before 1930, such trains shipped some 200,000 children from Eastern cities for adoption -- and, not incidentally, for farm labor -- in the rural West.

By the '70s, most of the old red-brick orphanages were out of business. Whether or not that's cause for na-tional self-congratulation depends on whether or not orphans today have any better place to go.