Adopted homes for yesterday's children
At the beginning of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of children lived in "adopted homes," the term that President Theodore Roosevelt used at the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children to describe orphanages and other institutions for children. To the dismay of reformers, who dominated the 1909 gathering, many boys and girls resided in relatively large, dormitory-style institutions, known as congregate care, regardless of the reason for confinement. Reformers argued that institutional living created the "institutional type" of child, not able to be spontaneous or independent. The censure of institutionalism, which spoke to gendered, middle-class, domestic values, came to dominate the thinking of social welfare professionals, contributing to the closure of orphanages across the nation. Yet, a different, more complex picture of congregate care emerges when we take into account the experiences of urban children who once lived in the kind of building disparaged by reformers.
In this paper, I draw on an extraordinary resource, children's experiences and understandings, to scrutinize the physical and social construction of congregate care in the Children's Home, an orphanage in Oakland, California. It was run by the Ladies' Relief Society, one of the city's oldest nonsectarian charities (established in 1871). In California, state and local governments benefited from the activities of women's volunteer associations, which filled the vacuum created by state legislators who disdained to fund the construction of urban institutions, until well after the turn of the twentieth century. The state had one of the highest rates of institutionalization in the United States around 1900. The paper reviews the history of the woman-run orphanage, which was rebuilt several times, identifies its ties to other orphanages in the city's "landscape of charity," and examines the effects of reform impulses. The final section looks at children's responses to caregiving in the congregate setting during the Great Depression.
The women, who shared their stories with me, were not orphans. They were needy children who lived in a racially segregated institution that met the need of white, working-class families for emergency child care. Their accounts cast doubt on the environmental determinism of reform thinking in the twentieth century, that is, the assumption that the physical appearance of a building can create predictable social outcomes. At the same time, the women do not minimize the affective power and impact of a building's design. The voices of yesterday's children make clear that congregate institutions embodied discipline and authority, were marked by class and ethnic meanings, as well as by gendered and racialized ones, and offered material, emotional, and social benefits to boys and girls who faced difficult choices all too soon in life.
Their reasoning squares with the insights of social historians who have studied orphanages in other American cities. This material also supports feminist philosophers who probe the fiction of the self-sufficient individual and the demands this places on working families, especially the women who are the principal givers of care.