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Roots and Tales
Orphanages in St. Louis, 1870 - 1890
Beyond the Orphanage, Part II
Peggy Thomson Greenwood, M.A.
St. Louis Genealogical Society Quarterly
Vol. XXVI, No. 1, 1993
Dressed in red, with carrot-colored curls and a dog named Sandy, the fictional Little Orphan Annie pulled on the heart strings of Americans of every age. She became the classic prototype of a sweet little innocent committed to the drudgery of life in an asylum. In the opening act of “Annie,” the 1977 musical version of the Sunday Comics serial, the not-quite-totally depraved matron of the orphanage, Ms. Hadigan, mutters, “Why any kid would want to be an orphan is beyond me.” But meander through the mean streets of the late 19th century. The years 1870 to 1900 were years of chaos in America. It was a century in the throes of an industrial revolution that would change America from a nation of small farms to a giant of technology in 50 short years. And the same forces that gave some Americans the highest standard of living in the world also created sweatshops and rabbit-hutch slums. Wealth and pauperism, side by side, were the result of industrialization, urbanization and immigration.
St. Louis did not escape the pangs of industrialization as it made the transition from a commercial and mercantile center to a heavy—industrial producer and wholesale marketing center. As the impersonal gears of industrialization gained strength and momentum, the depersonalized laborer became a powerless cog in the wheel. The sweat of labor lubricated the vast new industrial machine twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for eight cents an hour. Unorganized, abandoned by government, deprived of legal help, the American laborer was power-less when the industrial giant flexed its muscle, casting into living perdition the weak, the injured, the old, and the sick.
And the children? Some 1.75 million children across the U.S. helped feed the industrial monster, seldom saw the light of day or knew the pleasure of play, received 25¢ a day for the sacrifice of their childhood. These were the innocent victims of the second industrial revolution. It was from the misery of unprotected child labor and the slavery of apprenticeship that the growing juvenile institutions tried to save the children.
But, why would any kid want to be an orphan?
People poured into the cities from the prairies, the farms, the defunct mining towns, the war-ravaged South, and foreign countries. As San Francisco had its Tenderloin District and New York its Hell’s Kitchen, St. Louis also had a nightmare in stone: a district so filled with violent crime and human degradation that even police officers feared to tread its cobblestones, Slum neighborhoods proliferated on the fringes of the new industrial centers. Slums were savage places. Although St. Louis had few tenements, 100% use of the lot space with buildings on the front, back, and down the middle of the lot created the same effect. In 1908, the Civic League of St. Louis conducted a study of a slum neighborhood. Known as Carr Square, one area contained as many as 1900 residents per acre. The average living space was 16.9 square feet per person. There was an average of one bathtub and four toilets for 2479 people. The average rent was $1 a week. Human waste and garbage accumulated in the few open spaces. And in these ill-ventilated, foul-smelling shacks and cellars were found saloons, bakeries, groceterias and laundries.
And the children? Raised in utter poverty - death, disease, malnutrition, neglect, abuse, abandonment and delinquency were prevalent. These were the victims of an over-rapid urbanization. Eventually, a virtual army of do-gooders began to use their resources and energies to save the children through the ever-increasing establishment of juvenile institutions.
But why would any kid want to be an orphan?
America could not have developed into the giant of industry that truly made it “the land of opportunity” without the steady stream of immigrants who provided plentiful, cheap, unskilled labor. By 1880, the steady stream of immigration had become a rushing torrent. Although Germans remained the largest immigrant group in St. Louis, and there were always impoverished Irish finding their way to the gateway city, they were now joined by large numbers of people from Austria-Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Russia. These bright-shawled, quaint—jacketed aliens were visibly and volubly different from the western Europeans St. Louis had earlier accommodated. The new immigrants took their places in the industrial machine in an aura of fear and suspicion. And they took their places in the ethnic neighborhoods where strangeness could be cushioned by clinging to old ways. But as ethnic neighborhoods multiplied, so did difficulty of assimilation.
And the children? Caught between the old world and the new, the children perhaps endured the deepest pangs of social alienation. Ravaged by poverty, neglected by necessity and buffeted by violence, the children were the catalyst that spurred the rescue effort represented by the mushrooming juvenile institutions in the City and County of St. Louis.
But why would any kid want to be an orphan? Perhaps if Ms. Hadigan had looked more closely into the backgrounds of her charges she would have understood that the children were the innocent victims of a colossal industrial revolution, the wretched victims of over-rapid urbanization, the unfortunate victims of flood tide immigration. For in the late 19th century, these were the “new orphans” of America who filled the children’s homes.
One hundred years of history have passed since the second industrial revolution wrought its havoc on the American family. With this passage of time the true extent of the period’s social disintegration has faded. But a study of the organizations established to aid the children exposes the depth of the problem .In St. Louis, orphanages, children’s homes, receiving homes, foundling homes, and asylums continued to increase and were filled to capacity. It is difficult to calculate the exact number of children institutionalized in St. Louis during this 30-year period. In any given year, the number represents about 2% of the total juvenile population. In 1870, about 1635 children were institutionalized. By1900, the number was about 2500 children. But the homes had a quick turnover. The actual number passing through these institutions during this 30-year period was probably close to 11,000 children. These were the orphaned and half-orphaned, the neglected, abused, abandoned, pauperized, handicapped, delinquent, of St. Louis.
The number of true orphans found in St. Louis juvenile institutions was under 5% of the total number institutionalized. Most of the true orphans were children of immigrants with no extended family to provide a home.
Half-orphans made up almost 23% of the juvenile institutions’ population. A single parent, working 12 hours a day and threatened with dismissal for single-day absence, tardiness or illness could not work and raise children. It was these children - neglected by circumstance, deprived, vulnerable, and particularly susceptible to the temptations of crime that many institutions were established to help. Homes would often contract either the parent for some financial aid. Most of these children were not abandoned to the institution. However, strict rules were enforced through signed contracts. A parent or guardian who neglected Sunday visits or became severely delinquent in the monthly stipend could lose his/her children to adoption.
A growing number of children were committed to the institutions by working parents. These were the boarders. By 1890, this group represented about 24% of all children institutionalized. Both parents working 72 to 84 hours a week were able to scrimp and save and realize the American Dream. Parents would contract for the care of their children - for a monthly fee to protect them from the violence of the streets and to save them from the dangers of neglect. As boarders, children would have weekly visitors and. often return home for holidays. Although austere and regimental, children’s homes offered a way to provide care and training to the children of the upper-class poor. Both boarders and half-orphans helped finance the operation of various institutions.
The third-largest group found in late19th-century institutions was the children of the totally destitute. Some had been abandoned by parents unable to care for them. Others were children picked off the street by civic officials, police officers, and do-gooders, all believing that the improved quality of life offered by the juvenile institutions was more important than the love and security that might be found in even the most impoverished home. This practice added horror and fear to the lives of destitute families in their struggle to satisfy the bosses and keep the family unit together. It was 1909 before it was recognized that poverty alone was not sufficient cause to remove the children from their homes.
Juvenile delinquents and children judged incorrigible by a responsible adult made up about 15% of the total numbers of institutionalized children. Handicapped children — the deaf, blind, lame, and feebleminded - accounted for another 15%.For the rest, the population came from a mishmash of social deviants and the down-trodden. Children whose parents were committed to the poorhouse, the work-house or prison were admitted to the juvenile institution that would care for them. And victims of parental vice were rescued and placed in children’s homes.
Given the number of children institutionalized in the 19th century, it would be reasonable to suggest that many family historians could flesh out ancestral bones by investigating the records of the appropriate institution. While records vary, many hold a wealth of information. Census records are very useful in locating an institutionalized child. U.S. Federal Census records from 1850 to 1920 contain an every-name record of all reported juvenile institutions with routine listings of age, race, sex, and state of birth. Should your family tree contain a child institutionalized in the year 1880, do not overlook the 1880 Federal Census, Supplemental Schedules, 1-7: Dependent, Delinquent and Defective Classes. Information found on this census includes name city, county, state or country of origin, status of parents, date of admission, and names of siblings in the same institution. This special census for the State of Missouri may be found in micro-form at the Missouri Historical Society. For a listing of the repositories for this census in all 50 states, see: Hatten, Ruth Land, C.G.R.S., “The ‘Forgotten’ Census of 1880: Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes” National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 80 (March 1992), p.57.
Following is a list of juvenile institutions established in the St. Louis area between 1870-1900. If the institution holds records of value to the family historian, their location and how to access them is included in the survey.
The German General Protestant Orphans Home was opened in 1877 by a small group of German Protestant church members to protect and provide for orphaned children without discrimination with regard to religion or gender. Very early, the Home had a special dedication to keeping siblings together in the Home and in outplacements. Although its charter specified it as a home for orphans, several half-orphans are found in the original population of 20 children, at the first home on Chouteau Ave. near 11th St. It is still in existence, now known as the General Protestant Children’s Home. Registration information on microfilm is located in the Special Collections Unit of the St. Louis County Library. Book 1, November 1878 to September 20, 1916 and Book 2, November 29, 1917 to March 8, 1943  Inquiries from family historians are accepted but responses are often delayed, due to a small staff. Inquirers should state the name (include maiden name) to be searched, birth date, date the person lived at the Home, and the relationship. The inquiry should be directed to: Mr. Lenz, General Protestant Children’s Home, 12685 Olive St. Road, St. Louis MO 63141.
A group of Victorian ladies who were convinced of a desperate need for a Protestant infant asylum established Missouri Baptist Children’s Home in 1886. (Infants were accepted by only a few Catholic asylums at this time.) Frequently the babies were illegitimate and suffered from poor prenatal nutrition or disease. They required round-the-clock care and extensive medical treatment. Even then, mortality was high. Boys under the age of seven and girls under 12 were accepted in the first Home at 2651 Morgan St. The various committees responsible for the welfare of the Home kept excellent records. Records of the admission committee are of most interest to the family historian; they contain the name and age of the child, date of admission, when and from who received, name and residence of immediate relatives, removals and to whom, death dates and causes. Inquiries from family historians are accepted on a fee basis. Send inquiries to: Ms. Karen Glazebrook, Missouri Baptist Children’s. Home, 11300 St. Charles Rock Road, Bridgeton MO 630144.
St. Louis Colored Orphan’s Home was founded in 1888. The first home was located at 1427 N. 12th St., on ground purchased by black soldiers after the Civil War, for a soldiers’ home that was never built. The Home served orphans, half-orphans, and neglected black children. It was renamed The Annie Malone Children’s Home in 1946, because of the support and financial aid given by Mrs. Annie Minerva Pope Turnbo Malone, who was president of the institution for a time. Inquiries from family historians are welcome. Director of Resource Development, Annie Malone Children & Family Service Center, 2612 Annie Malone Drive, St. Louis, MO 63113.
The Masonic Home for Children and the Elderly was established in 1889 for dependents of members of the Fraternity and of the Eastern Star. Both orphans and children of destitute parents were admitted to the children’s home. No payment was required. If orphans arrived with an inheritance, it was held in trust for them until they left the Home. Children were supported and educated until they completed their training of choice. But records were not preserved. Some few children are mentioned in A Consolidated Version of the Proceedings of the Grand Lodge, but this is by no means an extensive record of children provided for between 1889-1981. And even this record has been temporarily misplaced due to disorganization associated with a move to Chesterfield after almost a century on Delmar.
St. Elizabeth’s, the only Catholic parish for Blacks in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, was established in 1881. An orphanage evolved from the day school in the basement of St. Elizabeth’s. In 1887, the Oblate Sisters of Providence bought the old Taylor Mansion at Taylor & Page and established St. Frances Orphan Asylum to shelter, feed, clothe, and educate poor black girls, irrespective of religious creed. Orphaned, half-orphaned, neglected or abandoned black girls between the ages of two and 12 were accepted. In the early years, education geared to the mastery of domestic arts was emphasized. The Home closed in 1965, but inquiries from family historians are accepted by the archivist of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. She will search registers, record books, and sacramental data; replies are often delayed, due to limited staff. Contributions to defray costs of copying and mailing are appreciated. Send inquiries to: Sister M. Reparata, O.S.P., Our Lady of Mount Providence Convent, 701 Gun Road, Baltimore MD 21227.
The Christian Orphan Home was chartered in 1889 as a home for destitute and homeless children by the Benevolent Association of the Christian Church. The house at 1234 Bayard St. was opened with a treasury containing only $50. The first child accepted was a baby from St. Joseph, Mo. The next four children were Swedish orphans from Houston, Tex. Thus, from the beginning, the home was a national refuge. Orphans, half-orphans and destitute children were accepted free of charge, if permission was given to place them with good families. Others were taken on a temporary basis at a low rate of board until their parents were again able to care for them. In 1954, the name of the institution was changed to the St. Louis Christian Home and in 1978 changed once more to ECHO (Emergency Children’s Home). Today, ECHO deals with victimized, angry, dysfunctional children rather than “the sweet little orphan of yesteryear.” There are some early records preserved by the Disciples of Christ Historical Society. Inquiries from family historians are accepted. Send inquiries to: Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1101 Nineteenth Ave., S., Nashville, TN 37212, 615.327.1444.
The Children’s Home Society was founded in 1891 by the Rev. C. W. Williams, a Methodist minister, but the Society was never associated with a particular religious denomination. This was a receiving home for abandoned, neglected and mistreated children, to arrange for their adoption or temporary foster care. Children were received from all over the state as associates of the Society went out by buggy and train to find needy children. The Home became a statewide, non-discriminatory clearing house for indigent children. Although a majority were placed for adoption, and these records are closed except to the biological mother and/or adoptee, there were a few placed without benefit of adoption. For information on children who were NOT adopted, write to: Mr. Michael Marini, Executive Director, 9445 Litzinger Rd. St. Louis MO 63144. Attn: Search and Review.
The fictional Little Orphan Annie met her happy ending in the person of Daddy Warbucks. Few of the real life orphans in St. Louis in the last century had a Daddy Warbucks waiting in the wings to rescue them. But perhaps each of the men and women dedicated to the success of the children’s homes was a Daddy Warbucks rescuing the littlest ragamuffins from the nightmare in stone that was life on the streets of St. Louis.
The above institutions were established primarily for the care of dependent children in the metropolitan St. Louis area. But this was also the period when the various Orphan Trains were most active in moving children across the United States. The saga of the Orphan Trains has been immortalized in the fiction media. Heart-rending stories of lonely waifs wrenched from all that was familiar, transported thousands of miles and given away to strangers, live on in a vast collection of Americana. Based on historical fact, these books and movies tell the story of the Children’s Aid Society Home opened in New York in 1853. Believing that children were better off in families than in institutions, and better off in a rural setting than in a city, the Society was dedicated to finding country homes for the orphaned, neglected and abandoned children found on the streets of New York. At first all children were placed in the East. In 1854, the first orphans were taken to Dowagiac, Michigan. Thus began the 75-year history of the Orphan Trains, eventually placing 150,000 children in rural homes across the United States. While approximately 6000 came to Missouri, there are no specific statistics on how many may have been placed in rural areas surrounding St. Louis. In 1901 the Missouri General Assembly passed a law prohibiting the emigration of “afflicted, indigent and vicious children.” However, the law was never strictly enforced.
The movement of orphans did not originate with the Children’s Aid Society of New York, although the concept of home placement was new. Some early record books of St. Louis institutions show such movement even before the Civil War. Following the success of the Orphan Trains, several other agencies in the East began placing children out via trains. Among the organizations emulating the Children’s Aid Society was the Daughters of Charity with Mercy Trains. One major difference in the Mercy Trains was that all children were placed before being transported.
The Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc. is a central clearing-house dedicated to preserving all information on the children, institutions, agents, railroads, towns and families involved. For information, write: Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, Inc., P.O. Box 496, Johnson AR 72741
The following sources were used to develop the statistics used in this article:
• Olds, Edward. Trends in Child Dependency in St. Louis, 1860-1944.St. Louis: Social Planning Council of St. Louis and St. Louis County, 1946.
• Rumbold, Charlotte. Housing Conditions in St. Louis. St. Louis: The Civic League, 1908.
• “Report on the Defective, Dependent and Delinquent Classes.” 21, Statistical Abstract of the 1880 Federal Special Census for the State of Missouri. U. S. Bureau of the Census.
“Report on Crime, Pauperism and Benevolence,” part 2. Statistical Abstract of the1890 Federal Special Census for the State of Missouri.”U.S. Bureau of the Census.

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