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The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America.

The U.S. system of child welfare and social services for homeless or delinquent youngsters has once again aroused a sense of crisis. The United States is a nation obsessed with its children, never more so than when those children come to public attention because of poverty, abuse, or crime. By examining the orphan train movement in Boston and New York, with some mention of similar work in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Rochester, Marilyn Irvin Holt makes a significant contribution to an intriguing, original, and overlooked aspect of American social welfare history.

Holt, an archivist, not a historian, takes her readers back to nineteenth-century philanthropy when social work had not yet emerged from religious charity and humanitarian reform. She estimates that as many as 200,000 children were sent by eastern big-city charities to live with midwestern, southern, and western families from 1849 to 1929. These foster, adopted, and indentured children were the victims of urban working-class poverty. They were the orphaned, abandoned, abused, homeless, illegitimate, or mildly delinquent "street arabs" and "guttersnipes" rescued from orphan asylums, poorhouses, reform schools, and newsboys' lodginghouses by overzealous clergymen, charity workers, and "child savers." Although the paucity of records about these "wayward" children makes scholarly research both difficult and tentative, this book is a useful (though incomplete) summary of available sources.

The author provides some valuable contributions. For example, Holt identifies the Children's Mission in Boston as the inventor of the American orphan train method of child placement. She also notes key differences between Boston and New York child savers. The New England Home for Little Wanderers avoided the public controversies that the Children's Aid Society in New York City repeatedly encountered. They also sent many children to New England or southern farm families instead of western states. She also identifies celebrated orphan boys who rose to successful positions as mayors and governors after beginning frontier life as orphan-train passengers.

In recounting the career of Charles Loring Brace, however, Holt falls into a more familiar pattern. Brace's important role in nineteenth-century child welfare, and in the literary career of his friend and publicist, Horatio Alger, Jr., is well known. But Holt accepts his record of racism, sexism, prejudice, and discrimination much too easily. Brace is excused for the fact that nearly half (47 percent) of the children placed were not orphans but had parents and close relatives living. Even when parents seeking a missing child were denied all information, Brace is excused again. His xenophobic anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism are also dismissed as mere habits of the era. These institutional patterns, which were not shared by all child-placing agencies, are mentioned but not explained or analyzed.

The author also mistakes Catholic congregate institution practices for Brace's more sinister name-changing practices. The House of the Good Shepherd, a network of shelters for girls and women in several cities, used "house names" to protect a girl's identity only while she was in the asylum. The reformed inmates resumed their family names upon discharge. In contrast, the Children's Aid Society changed (or permitted to be changed) the names of its children to alter, conceal, or deny the child's ethnicity, religion, and family origins.

This useful book has other flaws. The first chapter is a vague summary of eighteenth-century and Victorian attitudes toward children and social welfare policies. The sexual abuse of orphan-train children is underestimated and the epilogue is an unrelated capitulation of a novel published for juveniles in 1979. More important, the author obscures her argument with unexpected chronological shifts from the 1850s to the 1870s or 1850s to the 1920s. If the last generation of social historians have learned anything, it is that precise chronology is essential to understanding the origin, development, and evolution of social welfare practice and policy.

Child welfare has never been a more important issue in the United States than it is today. Thus the history of the orphan-train children merits public and scholarly attention. The last orphan-train passengers will die in this decade, and historians may lose forever personal contact with the surviving subjects of this unique social experiment. Despite the enthusiasm and wide-ranging research of the author, Orphan Trains breaks little new ground and offers few insights into this much-neglected chapter in social history. Although a well-written summary of orphan-train lore add legend, it is more suited for the general reader than for historians or social-work researchers. The definitive study of the orphan-train movement has yet to be written.
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Author:Holloran, Peter
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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