In the early 1900s, orphans weren't always defined as children without parents. Very often, orphans were neglected kids of single parents, families in financial arrears or homeless children who were living on the streets. Sometimes children sought out orphanages -- some were called asylums back then -- because the living conditions were better there than with their families. Unfortunately, orphanages were scarce and many children were left on their own. The orphanage system changed dramatically in the 1900s, making way for revised child labour laws, adoption services, the development of the foster care system and vocational training.
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The Orphan Trains
In 1853, Charles Brace Loring started what would soon be known as the Orphan Train, which operated until 1929. The founder of the Children's Aid Society in New York City, Loring believed he could do more for orphans by placing them on trains and sending them to live and work with farm families all across the United States and Canada. During this period, more than 120,000 children were placed with families. These farm families were not paid to take in these children, and the children learnt to work on the farms to earn their keep and attend school. The Orphan Trains are seen as the start of the foster care system and have contributed to child labour laws and vocational training.
"Adoption" from the Orphan Trains
Orphans who were transported on the orphan trains were under a lot of pressure. Thirty to 40 orphans were chaperoned by three to four adults on the trains, and they would be put on display at each stop in theatres so families could check them out. Families interested in "adopting" a child would thoroughly examine each child -- from physical shape to teeth -- as if they were livestock. More often than not, siblings would be split up because most families could only afford to take on one child.
Kids who weren't adopted at a train stop would have to get back on the train and sometimes travel hundreds of miles to the next one. Many orphans would dance or sing when on display in hopes of attracting the attention of an adopting family.
The Governement Steps In
In the 1920s, the orphan trains came to a halt as the government stepped in and changed the care of dependent children. It provided financial aid to single mothers so they could stay home to take care of their own kids and parentless orphans were put into the system and sent to foster care families. States took over what orphanages used to do, although according to the America's Future website, "The evidence seems to indicate, however, that children were better off before the government intervened."
The 1930s and Beyond
Although the Children's Aid Society stopped the orphan trains and had to close the last of its industrial schools in the 1920s, the society still saw many orphan homeless and jobless boys and continued to place them as day labourers on farms throughout the 1930s. At this time, more orphans were put into state schools and the society devoted more time and money to finding foster homes for black children.
Most orphanages across the country were phased out in the 1940s and 1950s because of tighter state children welfare laws. The adoption and foster care system is now responsible for orphans' welfare.
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- The Children's Aid Socity: The Orphan Trains
- National Orphan Train Complex, Inc.: Orphan Train History
- America's Future: The True History of Orphanages
- The New-York Historical Society: Guide to the Records of the Children's Aid Society
- Encylopedia of Chicago: Orphanages
- National Orphan Train Complex.: The Orphan Train Experience