The Rise and Fall of Orphanages in the United States

While traditional orphanages portrayed in various movies and other media continue to have lasting impact on American society, they have ceased to exist for some time now. The peak frequency of orphanages in the United States emerged quickly during the Great Depression, but so did their replacement with modern day boarding schools, group homes, and treatment centers.

The initial demand for orphanages in the US was rooted from a conflict between white colonists and Indigenous people in 1729, marking a rocky beginning to say the least. Children were left abandoned, so the creation of a space for them to all share was seemingly the most efficient solution. Between the years 1830 to 1850, the number of orphanages across the US increased to a total of 56; it was a system that had, so far, been beneficial.

The very existence of these early orphanages was funded exclusively by private charities. The discussion regarding finances of institutions catered more towards the desire to conserve the economy, rather than the wellbeing of children. The subject was a tricky affair.

Various contributing factors made special appearances at the time. At the birth of America came war, epidemics, an overflow of immigrants, and a struggling economy; all of which undoubtedly made room for children to be left behind-- perhaps forgotten. This cause, however, is not the grim reality some historians believe to be true.

At a time of such uncertainty and occasional chaos, many actions of those with political power had been swept under the rug. Since America’s beginning, the powerful and wealthy had been in search of ways to maintain the upper hand. It has been speculated that the existence of institutions was strategic; by isolating children, they could more easily be manipulated and molded into the best labor workers for the rich. Their minds would become accustomed to obedience in a dynamic outside of parent- child; a dynamic most suitable for under-compensated labor.

As many as 32% of institutionalized children fell prey to this manipulation, quickly becoming indentured servants. Institutions may have served the role of fulfilling housing needs, but these needs would not be so dire had the government not possessed ulterior motives. Historians have estimated that in the early 1800s, the orphans that were supposed to populate these institutions only accounted for approximately 20% of the children. The majority had at least one living parent who either gave his/her child away, or was deemed unsuitable for a parental position.

While funded by the upper class, orphanages and those who belonged to them were at the suppliers’ mercy. The justification for the infliction of a life of labor on orphaned kids was largely that their poor families were regarded as incapable of taking care of them. Lurking just beneath the facade of the upper class, was the increased demand for physical labor.

Although contradictory at first glance, the eventual oversupply of children led to an even greater need for a location to store them. With the massive influx of immigrants, many children were bound to contribute to the child labor endorsed by the government. The wealthy viewed them almost exclusively as tools to their own success, but could not possibly utilize the great surplus of children they were gifted. Through national growth, children began overflowing the country, and were in need of establishments able to accommodate them.

The first investigation into the rights of the institutionalized children was called by president Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. The conclusion that home life was most beneficial to the development of a child was first introduced at this time, and prompted the decision that foster care was to be the first choice if possible. This progressive outlook alone ultimately could not stand on its own two feet, and the increased number of children placed in orphanages was not prevented at this time.

In the next 35 years, the frequency of orphans would only experience an upward spiral. World War II, along with the Great Depression, did not allow for the progression of such ideas to be carried out practically. Aforementioned country wide disasters contributed to orphanhood similar to the conflict which caused its beginning.