SOURCE C: The Children’s Aid Society
Photograph from History and Aim of the Five Points House/Italian House,
by Underwood & Underwood, ca 1909.
The Children’s Aid Society was founded in 1853 by Methodist minister Charles Loring Brace (1826–1890) to help the growing number of impoverished children in New York City. Commonly called “street Arabs,” these children were often orphaned or abandoned, and some were runaways, petty thieves, or gang members. Because of the heavy immigration that followed the great famine of the 1840s, many of them were also Irish, and their poverty and ethnicity aroused both compassion and fear on the part of middle-class reformers like Brace.
[T]he Children’s Aid Society opened low-cost lodging houses for boys and girls, set up reading rooms and “fresh air” camps for their benefit, and established industrial schools to prepare them for employment and self-sufficiency.
Brace’s most distinctive effort, however, was the emigration program, commonly known as the “orphan trains.” Determining that children needed not only education and employment, but a home as well, the Children’s Aid Society sent groups of children by train to be placed with families in small towns and rural communities across the country. In a stable family environment, Brace believed, the children would learn Christian values and develop the skills and the will to work, while the family in turn received help on their farm or shop and in daily housekeeping.
Through Brace’s emigration program, the New York Children’s Aid Society placed some 100,000 children over the next 75 years, but its success remains difficult to evaluate. Many of the children escaped impoverished circumstances to join caring families, go to school, and build successful work and personal lives, while others may have been exploited or abused. In many cases families were disrupted, as not all the children sent from New York were orphans. Particularly after the Civil War, many widows, struggling to support their children, felt forced to put them into foster care. Cultural disruption occurred as well, since many of the children placed were Irish or, in the later 19th century, Italian or Jewish, while most of the foster families were Protestant. Brace himself never doubted that his system was humane and effective and that it not only rescued needy children, but helped protect New York City from “the dangerous classes.”