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From Almshouse To Asylum:
Orphans In Allegheny County: A Pathfinder

Where large groups of children herded together they usually marched out of the dormitories in the morning, marched back again at night, waited in long rows for the use of the lavatories, and lost individuality and tone...where too many children played in one room at the same hour, or in the dreary toyless places sometimes called "playrooms," the children found were listless and idle.

--Pittsburgh Survey, 1914

In medieval Europe, the care of the indigent and their poor orphans was originally the domain of the Church. Government assumed some of the burden during the time of Queen Elizabeth. Based upon English law, the Pennsylvania Poor Law was passed in 1705. The law established "Overseers of the Poor" for each township. These were unpaid appointments. The Overseers were required to raise relief funds by assessment and to indenture poor children as apprentices or to place them through the system of "outdoor relief" in the homes of the lowest bidder. To discourage applications for such relief, the recipients, even children, were required to wear a large "P" for "pauper" on their right sleeve.

An enhancement to the system of "outdoor relief" was the creation of local government run almshouses or poorhouses. With the establishment of the almshouse or "indoor relief," city officials hoped to provide a sounder solution to the management of the poor. The first of these appeared in Philadelphia in 1731. Pittsburgh's almshouse was established in 1818 on Virgin Alley between Wood and Smithfield streets. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the almshouse sheltered the insane, physically handicapped, terminally ill, inebriates as well as indigent adults and children. Certainly many of these institutions were places of grim confinement.

Anyone could claim shelter within the almshouse. The only requirements for admission were that an individual must come from the local district and he or she must be poor and homeless. Anyone could depart at will. Many entered because of the frailty of old age, inability to find a job, or chronic illness. But the able-bodied "inmates" were required to work for their food and shelter. Some institutions were called workhouses and in the country they were known as poor farms. Conditions for children were far from ideal. Food was meager and the living conditions were less than ideal.

Pittsburgh, Allegheny City, and Allegheny County all established almshouses. These "poorhouses" were criticized for exposing children to unsanitary and unsavory conditions. Yet for many truly indigent families, these places constituted their only choice. Despite their dubious reputation, they allowed impoverished families to stay together in a place that offered some degree of shelter from the elements. It was a much better alternative to living on the streets or in alleyways. Also, almshouses were often the only places that accepted orphaned babies and African American children.

Pennsylvania later stepped in and provided for the orphaned children of killed or wounded Civil War soldiers across the Commonwealth. The Pennsylvania Soldiers' Orphans Schools Commission established schools across the state, including the Soldiers' Orphan Home in Pittsburgh. The doors of this institution did not open until December 1, 1864.

The rapid growth of industrialism in America strained the economic and social fabric of the nation. The transformation from a rural to an urban society, along with the influx of large numbers of immigrants, generated a new class of urban poor. While large families could survive on the farm, too many children could be a burden in the city.

Many families could not adequately feed and clothe themselves and their offspring. If one parent became ill, injured, or deceased, then the remaining parent was often unable to cope. Children were abandoned or neglected in large numbers. During the 1860's, the ranks of homeless children swelled through the addition of Civil War orphans.

In the nineteenth century, large numbers of destitute, dependent, delinquent, and "defective" children created an enormous dilemma for society. The traditional almshouse was seen as not providing adequately for the special needs of children. Conditions there were appalling and diet was meager. And the children were often packed into rooms with all manner of mentally and physically ill adults as well as criminals. Disease preyed on the weak and malnourished children. The almshouse may have sheltered the orphans, but it was not a haven.

The government could not handle the burden alone. Gradually, public awareness and concern for the separate and better treatment of children developed. Well-intentioned individuals believed that children needed to be fed and clothed and taught. They needed a moral upbringing. Churches and private charities created orphan asylums or orphanages. Some institutions were established to accept children of only one sex, some by age, others by race or ethnic group, and others by religion. A few made no special requirements. Children with no parents were labeled as "full orphans." Children with one living parent were called "half orphans."

The first orphanage in Pennsylvania was religiously affiliated. St. John's Orphan Asylum for Boys opened in 1797 in Philadelphia and was followed the next year by St. John's Orphan Asylum for Girls. The first non-sectarian institution was the Orphan Society of Philadelphia founded in 1814. In Pittsburgh, the first orphanage was the Protestant Orphan Asylum of Pittsburgh and Allegheny founded in 1832. It was located in Allegheny City, now our North Side. The growth of religious and non-sectarian orphanages proliferated. This was the trend throughout the nation. By 1860, there were 124 orphan asylums in the United States.

The reality is that the conditions in many of these institutions were barely an improvement over the almshouses; in fact, they were appalling. By 1907, it is estimated that 6000 children were housed in orphanages in Pittsburgh. Though often portrayed in the media of the time as dwellings where happy, red-cheeked children played, the reality was sadly the opposite. Constantly under-funded, these institutions were mostly understaffed and overcrowded. The children were too frequently unsupervised. They were poorly fed and many suffered from malnutrition. Contagious diseases threatened these vulnerable populations. As a result of living in cramped conditions with a poor diet, many children succumbed to illness and died.

A landmark sociological study of the city of Pittsburgh was conducted in 1907-1908 funded by the Russell Sage Foundation of New York. Pittsburgh was selected because it was the largest US producer of iron and steel, it was experiencing rapid industrial growth, and also suffering the effects of massive immigration. The Pittsburgh Survey revealed the harsh conditions extant in an urban environment. Pittsburgh was considered to be America's prototypical industrial city where large numbers of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe were drawn, seeking work and a better life. For many of these immigrants, the new reality in the United States was harsh and often desperate.

Ultimately, in a series of six books published between 1909 and 1914, the Survey documented the lives and living conditions of steelworkers and their families. The study looked at child labor, work accidents, inadequate sanitation, and the daily reality of conditions for women. A significant portion of the Survey focused on child care and the conditions found in local orphanages.

The following is a standard menu from five institutions in Pittsburgh in 1907:

  • Breakfast - Coffee, bread and a little butter.
  • Dinner - Stew, bread, water.
  • Supper - Tea, bread with a spoonful of molasses (Infirmary children were given milk)

Yet for many desperate parents, there were advantages to placing one's children in an orphanage. There was the consolation that siblings could stay together in one place. Parents could visit all of their children at one time. Parents also did not always give up complete custody or control of their children as is often believed. Frequently they kept close touch with their children; and when possible, when economic conditions improved, they removed their children and brought them home again. The other reality is that children were often bounced between home and orphanage as the family's economic vitality waxed and waned. And sometimes older children were pulled out to work, leaving younger children in the orphanage.

Initially, funding for orphanages was primarily through private and institutional charitable donations. The State Board of Charities, created in 1869, helped to increase awareness of the conditions in orphanages, and instituted inspections and state supervision of these institutions. Gradually, the system of providing state subsidies to private institutions developed as well. During and after the Civil War, the state provided stipends to private institutions for the care of war orphans. Besides the aforementioned Soldiers’ Orphans Home, there were four such private institutions in Pittsburgh.

In 1883, the "children's law" was enacted. It specifically prohibited the detaining of children in almshouses between the ages of 2 - 16 years for more than 60 days. In 1885, the Children's Aid Society of Allegheny County was formed and it allowed for the removal of children from almshouses to placement in family homes. The Children's Home Society of Pennsylvania, founded in 1892, placed children in family homes with the intention of seeking permanent care and adoption.

Conditions gradually improved in the twentieth century even as attitudes and policies changed. By the late 1960's, most of the orphan institutions had closed their doors or altered their function. The trend from institutional to foster care and adoption had modified to focus on the restoration of the original family unit when possible. Keeping siblings and families together is the goal of contemporary child care agencies. The day of the almshouse and the orphan asylum has disappeared.

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Orphanage Resources in the Pennsylvania Department:

* Internet Website - A Directory of Orphanages for Allegheny County, Pennsylvania and Some Adjacent Counties. The staff has produced a searchable Internet website of over 60 institutions in Allegheny County and adjacent counties. This database includes the names of the institutions, dates of existence, addresses, sources of information, and the location of records, if known. This directory, with one exception, does not include a list of orphans by name.

* Vertical Files - The department also maintains extensive vertical files on many of these institutions. These include clippings, brochures, and other ephemera. Items are filed under the following headings: Pittsburgh - Orphanages; Pittsburgh - Unwed Mothers; Pittsburgh - Youth Centers; Pittsburgh - Children - Exceptional; Pittsburgh - Hospitals. Ask a staff person to assist you.

* Photographic Library - The Pittsburgh Photographic Library, part of the collections of the Pennsylvania Department, contains many images of local institutions.

* Census Records - The department provides access to the Federal Census for Pennsylvania from 1790 - 1940. These are available online via Residents of orphanages, as well as other institutions, were enumerated within the census. The location of these lists within the census varies. They may appear in order, or at the end of a ward or township, or even at the end of the state. If you are seeking such a list, then you must carefully scan each census for the institution that you are seeking. You can also search by the child's name. Ask the staff for assistance.

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Orphanage Bibliography:

Board of Public Charities.
Directory of Institutions in Pennsylvania (State, Semi-State, County, District and Private).
Harrisburg : Wm. Stanley, State Printer, 1916.
rHV98 .P4 D575 1916x (Locked Case)

Directory of the Philanthropic Agencies of the City of Pittsburgh, 1908.
Kingsley House Association.
rHV99 .P65 W48 1908

Directory of the Philanthropic, Charitable, and Civic Agencies of the City of Pittsburgh, Pa.
Kingsley House Association.
rHV99 .P65 W48 1913

Directory of the Philanthropic, Charitable, and Civic Agencies of the City of Pittsburgh, Pa.
Kingsley House Association.
rHV99 .P65 W48 1917

Directory of the Philanthropic, Social and Civic Agencies of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, 1928.
The Kingsley Association.
rHV99 .P65 W48 1928

A Directory of the Social Resources of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: Federation of Social Agencies of Pittsburgh & Allegheny County, 1943.
rHV99 .P65 W48 1943

A Directory of Community Services in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, 1947. 11th ed.
rHV99 .P65 W48 11th ed. (Locked Case)

Where to Turn: The Directory of Health and Human Services for Allegheny County and the Surrounding Region. 25th ed.
rHV99 .P65 W48 1994

Children's Aid Society of Western Pennsylvania.
Pittsburgh: Children's Aid Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1930.
r362.7 C4364

Dunham, Arthur and Helen Glenn Tyson.
Child Care in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Federation of Social Agencies, 1930.
r362.7 D89

Kellogg, Paul Underwood, ed.
The Pittsburgh District: Civic Frontage.
New York: Arno Press, 1974.
rHN80 .P6 P57 1974

Klein, Philip.
A Social Study of Pittsburgh: Community Problems and Social Services of Allegheny County.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1938.
r917.4886 K31

Kuhns, Logan Luther.
The Development of Children's Homes in Pennsylvania Under the Auspices of the United Lutheran Church in America.
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1949.
rqHV990 .P4 K84 1949x

Manges, Dana F.
The Children's Home of Pittsburgh: A Century of Service and Caring.
Pittsburgh: Children's Home of Pittsburgh, 1993.
rHV995 .P62 C45 1993x

Ragan, Diane
Soldiers' Orphan Schools of Western Pennsylvania.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society, 1999
rLC4092 .P4 R34 1999

Annual Report of the Superintendent of Soldiers' Orphans of Pennsylvania for the year... And continued by...
Annual Report of the Pennsylvania Commission of Soldiers' Orphan Schools for the year ending
[1867 - 1908] Microfilm P- 889

Ramey, Jessie B.
Child Care in Black and White: Working Parents and the History of Orphanages.
Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2012
HV995 .P6 R36 2012

Tyson, Helen Glenn.
The Almshouse in Pennsylvania.
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1935.
rqHV63 .U6 T97 1935x

See also:

Reef, Catherine.
Alone in the World : Orphans and Orphanages in America.
New York : Clarion Books, 2005.

Home Away from Home : The Forgotten History of Orphanages
Richard B. McKenzie, editor.
1st American ed.
New York : Encounter Books, 2009.

Last updated November 2014