In the days before the modern foster care system, orphans, abandoned children, runaways and those whose parents were too poor to take care of them ended up in an orphanage.
Orphanages were funded by public charity. This provided the orphans with a home, education, food and clothing.
Many of these institutions, however, were overcrowded and underfunded, exposing children inadvertently to malnutrition and disease. They also were subjected to corporal punishment. In addition, children had to be admitted to orphanages. If there wasn’t an opening, the child was turned away. Often these children became homeless criminals, or were forced into child labor.
The orphanages themselves were beautiful structures, often with a fence surrounding the property. Sometimes orphanages were segregated as all-boys or all-girls facilities.
If orphans were lucky, they were adopted by relatives or friends of their parents. Perhaps a childless couple would adopt them. If they were lucky, they would be treated respectfully.
Some agencies accepted requests from parents seeking children, but not all.
In 19th century America, orphan trains took children west from New York and Boston where they would be adopted. Children were forced to stand in a public building while they were inspected by their new potential parents, and siblings were usually separated.
No legal rules regarding adoption, however, existed during this era, so these were informal agreements.
Adoption did not always equal a happy ending. Children, especially those of a lower socio-economic class than those of the adoptive parents, were never fully accepted as members of the family. They were treated coldly or like servants as was the case with most orphan-train children.
In the case of the orphan trains, the children were visited by authorities and if abuse was evident, the child was removed to be adopted by another family.
If a child was not adopted, he or she was forced out into the world upon adulthood to work.
Orphans have a been a popular subject in literature for the past two centuries.
Some famous works containing orphans include:
- Anne of Green Gables
- Oliver Twist
- Jane Eyre
- Harry Potter
- Tom Sawyer
- The Outsiders
- Wuthering Heights
- David Copperfield
Orphans in Victorian and Edwardian literature were always depicted as the brave heroes and heroines of the story.
Were any of your ancestors in an orphanage? Leave a comment below.
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