Mothers Giving Babies to Nurse at Foundling Home

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Mothers Giving Babies to Nurse at Foundling Home


By: C. J. Staniland

Date: c. 1870

Source: © Bettmann/Corbis.

About the Artist: Charles Joseph Staniland (1838–1916) was a prolific nineteenth-century illustrator of books. The photograph of this drawing resides in the Bettmann Archives of Corbis Corporation, an image group headquartered in Seattle, with a worldwide archive of more than seventy million images.


For centuries, orphanages and foundling homes cared for millions of children who lost their parents or who did not have families able to care for them. They numbered in the hundreds and were common throughout Europe, the United States, and Latin America. Orphanages largely disappeared by the midpoint of the twentieth century as alternative forms of child care emerged.

Children came to orphanages in a variety of ways. Most full orphans, or children who had lost both parents, were brought to institutions by a relative or family friend. In the case of half orphans, or children with one surviving parent, they were usually brought by their parent who for financial or other reasons was unable to care for his or her child, at least temporarily. Women who gave birth outside of wedlock often abandoned their children at orphanages as a way to avoid the condemnation of society for being sexually promiscuous. Other children entered orphanages through the intervention of charitable agencies, such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, churches, or government employees.

Children left orphanages in a range of ways. Some half orphans were able to reunite with their parent after only a year or so in an institution. Other orphans were eventually taken in by relatives. In other instances, children reunited with their families only after a number of years in orphanages, once they became old enough to work and help their family financially. Full orphans were more likely than other children to stay in an orphanage for many years.

Beyond providing basic sustenance and shelter, asylums educated children. Although this education included reading, writing, and arithmetic, moral education was of greater concern to most asylum managers. Orphanages sponsored by religious institutions typically offered religious training. Public and private asylums also provided religious instruction. Asylum children were also expected to perform any number of chores around the institution, helping keep costs down as well as presumably learning the value to work and personal discipline.



See primary source image.


Orphanages fell out of favor during the first half of the twentieth century. Child welfare advocates argued that they were producing children who were unable to function outside of institutions. Nevertheless, the demand for orphanages remained high. In the second half of the twentieth century, successors to orphanages began to appear, occasionally using the same buildings once used by orphanages. These group homes and other residential institutions cared for abused, neglected, or emotionally or physically disabled children within state-operated foster care systems.

In the 1990s, government officials called for a return to orphanages because the American system of foster care seemed inadequate to deal with increasing numbers of abused, neglected, or disabled children in need of care. However, no movement to build large numbers of homes for poor children occurred. Opponents of orphanages charged that it was inhumane to house children in institutions and they won the debate. Continuing problems with foster care in the first years of the twenty-first century has not led to a renewed call for orphanages and is not expected to lead to such demands.



Crenson, Matthew D. Building the Invisible Orphanage: A Prehistory of the American Welfare System. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Hacsi, Timothy A. Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

McKenzie, Richard B. Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1999.