Living without a net; abandoned and orphaned children in the 1790’s

Orphanages are a recent phenomenon. Most children, if they had no parents, or their parents couldn’t care for them, were abandoned to the streets. Although there was high infant mortality, adults died in great numbers as well so there were many orphans. And, in some cases, the orphans had a living parent. Usually a mother who was too poor to care for herself, let alone children. When she went into the poorhouse, the children went with her – or into an orphanage.

The Charleston Orphan House was set up in 1790, one of the first, if not the first, in the United States. This orphanage took only white children but took almost all in Charleston. They seem relatively progressive: the children weren’t apprenticed out until 12 and they were taught to read and write.

Apprenticeship or indenture was a common method of dealing with parentless children. Usually no one would take them younger than 6 or 7 because they were too young to work. After wards, they were expected to work like adults. To a modern sensibility, the possibilities for exploitation seem limitless and frightening.

What happened to the younger children? If they were still nursing, they went to a wet nurse. There was no substitute for breast milk and wet nursing was one of the few ‘careers’ for women. Foundlings were frequently sent to a wet nurse, some of whom kept the child until five or six. One wonders what it felt like for a child to have been nursed by a woman, only to be sent away. These abandonment issues probably never disappeared.

Modern studies have shown how important development is during these early month. A recent study on the Romanian orphanages detail quite vividly the effects of institutionalized living with no parenting or affection. The rates of autism, alcoholism and other damage are extremely high. But, in the late eighteenth century, simply providing enough food to children was a challenge. Disease was prevalent. In an orphange set up by the Royal College of Surgeons, 99.6% of the children died. 45 made it out alive.

I think of statistics like this when I see the safety net in this very wealthy country of ours being shredded and presidential candidates suggesting children be put to work. Certainly I am not opposed to chores, kids need to learn to take care of themselves and their surroundings, but do we really want to return to a time when little children had to work like adults so the wealthy could enjoy their privileged lifestyle. Ultimately, we will all have to decide: what kind of country do we want?


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