What Is the History of Orphanages in America?

Prior to the 19th century, orphanages were typically few and far between in America. In 1734, the Ursuline sisters transformed their New Orleans school into an orphanage in response to a need to care for displaced children as a result of an Indian massacre. Three years later, a German missionary opened an orphanage in Bethesda, Georgia. By 1830, orphanages were more prevalent, with more than two dozen orphanages built in larger American cities.

Prior to the American Industrial period, displaced children were placed with foster families and earned their keep as indentured servants. By the middle of the 19th century, women who typically cared for orphaned children were driven to provide education to them, usually in the institution of an orphanage in rural areas outside of cities. The number of orphanages grew quickly to accommodate the growing number of orphaned children, and by 1860, nearly all states in the Union had orphanages.

After the Civil War, people built more orphanages to accommodate children who lost their families in the war. There were public and private institutions, and by the end of the 19th century, orphanages were in high demand for the care of children who were without parents. Advocates strongly fought against child labor of orphaned children.

Also in the late 19th century, there were people who opposed grouping orphans in a home together, as they felt it stunted their growth and ability to function in society. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt declared that it was better for children to live in foster homes than in orphanages, and many orphanages began to close down starting in the 1920’s. By 1980, however, there was a great shortage of foster families, leading to the growth in the 1990s of a hybrid model of orphanages and foster homes.