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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

Historically, the care of the indigent and their poor orphans was originally the domain of the Church in medieval Europe. 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. Applications for such relief were discouraged by requiring the recipients, even children, to wear a large "P" for "pauper" on their right sleeve.

Another solution to handling the poor was the establishment of the almshouse. The first of these appeared in Philadelphia in 1731. Pittsburgh's first almshouse was established in 1818. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the almshouse sheltered the insane, physically handicapped, as well as indigent adults and children. Gradually, concerns for the separate and better treatment of children developed. Thus, orphan asylums were established.

Destitute and homeless children created an enormous dilemma for society in the nineteenth century. The rapid growth of industrialism in America strained the economic and social fabric of the nation. The change 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 consequently abandoned or neglected in large numbers. During the 1860's, the ranks of homeless children swelled through the addition of Civil War orphans - children whose fathers were killed or wounded during the war.

Orphan asylums were established by government, churches, and private charities. Some institutions were instituted 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.

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. By 1850, there were nine such institutions in Pennsylvania.

The conditions in many of these places were appalling. 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. 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 spoonful of molasses on it.
(Infirmary children were given milk)
As a result of living in cramped conditions with a poor diet, many children succumbed to illness and died.

Institutional care existed along with home placement, indenture, and residence in almshouses all during the 19th century. Funding was primarily through charitable donations. The State Board of Charities , created in 1869, helped to increase awareness of the conditions in orphanages, and inspections and state supervision of these institutions was expanded. 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.

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 this 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. The day of the almshouse and the orphan asylum has disappeared.


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Orphanage Resources in the Pennsylvania Department:

* Catalogs - This department maintains numerous books on the subject of Orphans. To access the titles, use the on-line computer catalog. Type in the following subject entries: Orphans; Institutions for Children; Social Service. A list of available titles will appear on the screen. The researcher should also remember to search the Dewey Card Catalog in the department. A partial list of books is included with this pathfinder.

* 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 - 1920. These are available on microfilm. Residents of orphanages, as well as other institutions, were enumerated within the census. The location of these lists 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.


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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.
r361 P3993

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.
qr362.7 K43

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

Paul, James Laughery.
Pennsylvania's Soldiers' Orphan Schools: Giving a Brief Account of the Origin of the Late Civil War, the Rise and Progress of the Orphan System...with Names of Pupils Subjoined. 2nd ed.
Harrisburg: L. S. Hart, 1876.
r362.7 P31

Pittsburgh and Allegheny County Social Agency Directories: 1933, 1937, 1940, 1943, 1947, 1950, 1953, 1956, 1960, 1963, 1965, 1968
r361 D62

Tyson, Helen Glenn.
The Almshouse in Pennsylvania.
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1935.
qr362.5 T99

Tyson, Helen Glenn and Clara J. McDonnell.
The Children's Institutions of Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Federation of Social Agencies, 1930.
r362.7 T99c

Vetter, Mary Dorothy.
A Follow-up study of Sixty-five Children Released from St. Paul's Orphanage During 1935 and 1936 Under Care of the Catholic Charities.
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1938.
qr362.7 V29

Last updated December 1996