Smith, Virginia Thrall (1836–1903)

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Smith, Virginia Thrall (1836–1903)

American social worker. Born Tryphena Virginia Thrall in Bloomfield, Connecticut, on August 16, 1836; died in Hartford, Connecticut, on January 3, 1903; daughter of Hiram Thrall (a businessman and surveyor) and Melissa (Griswold) Thrall; educated at the Suffield (Connecticut) Institute, the Hartford Female Seminary, and Mt. Holyoke Seminary; married William Brown Smith (a businessman), on December31, 1857 (died 1897); children: Oliver Cotton Smith (b. 1859); Edward Carrington Smith (b. 1861); Lucy Virginia Smith (b. 1865); Kate Richardson Smith (b. 1867); William Brown Smith (b. 1871); Thomas Hammond Smith (b. 1874).

Chosen as administrative head of Hartford City Mission (1876); instrumental in establishing kindergartens in Connecticut public schools; appointed to State Board of Charities (1882); became director of Connecticut Children's Aid Society (1892); established Home for Incurables (1898), later named the Newington Hospital for Crippled Children.

A pioneer in the field of child care in Connecticut, Virginia Thrall Smith enjoyed a comfortable early life. She was one of six children born to Hiram Thrall, a businessman, and Melissa Griswold Thrall . Virginia—who had been christened Tryphena Virginia—attended the Suffield (Connecticut) Institute, the Hartford Female Seminary, and, from 1856 to 1857, Mt. Holyoke Seminary. On December 31, 1857, she married William Brown Smith, a businessman, and settled with him in Hartford. They had six children, three of whom died of diphtheria in infancy.

Smith was active in church and social affairs, giving readings at small social gatherings and playing the organ at church events. She also wrote stories for local newspapers. In 1876, she became the head of the Hartford City Mission, an organization sponsored by the city's six Congregational churches which provided food and clothing to the needy. Smith quickly expanded the mission's activities, starting a loan fund and a women's sewing class as well as a singing school for girls and a boys' club. In 1878, she established a volunteer group of 33 charitable visitors, and in 1879 began a program that sent city children to the countryside for summer vacations. Two years later, Smith set up a laundry and a cooking school, a girls' sewing school, and a kindergarten. The kindergarten program was so successful that, by 1885, Connecticut authorized the establishment of public kindergartens throughout the state.

In 1882, Smith was appointed to the State Board of Charities, which gave her the opportunity to devote her energies to children's welfare. Disturbed by the housing of poor children in almshouses with senile, insane, or criminal adults, she pushed for legislation to establish temporary county children's homes; this was enacted in 1883. Smith also established, within the City Mission, a program that placed unwanted children in adoptive homes. Though many professionals respected her approach, local officials resented Smith's interference in affairs that they had administered themselves. When one of the babies Smith placed in an adoptive home died in 1892, these officials used the death to suggest that Smith was guilty of "baby farming" and of making Hartford a dumping ground for indigents from other states. Though several defended her, including John Hooker, husband of suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker , Smith's reputation was damaged, and she resigned her position at the City Mission.

The women's branch of the Hartford City Mission reorganized as the Children's Aid Society and continued Smith's work. In 1892, Mrs. Francis Bacon and others organized the Connecticut Children's Aid Society, of which Smith served as director and paid secretary until her death. Smith's last major achievement in child care came in 1898, when she opened the Home for Incurables to provide care for handicapped children who could not be adopted. The institution later became the Newington Hospital for Crippled Children. Smith, who had been widowed in 1897, died in Hartford in 1903.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Elizabeth Shostak , freelance writer, Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Smith, Virginia Thrall (1836–1903)

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