"A plain and solemn duty": A history of orphan asylums in America

Timothy Andrew Hacsi, University of Pennsylvania


This study examines the spread of orphan asylums across the United States from the early nineteenth century to the 1930s. Until the Great Depression, they were the nation's most widely used method of caring for dependent children. It uses asylum annual reports, charity conference speeches, and census data to trace how asylums spread, where they appeared, and what their founders intended them to do. Unlike other nineteenth century institutions, orphan asylums did not become custodial institutions after the Civil War. Managed by ethnic and religious groups, they were community institutions that took in poor children with living parents as well as orphans. By the late nineteenth century, the vast majority of asylum children had at least one living parent. Many asylums cared for children for a year or two while parents recovered from illness or unemployment, and then returned children to their families. Asylum managers had two central goals. The first was to provide children with a home: food, clothing, and a place to sleep. The second was to raise hard-working, respectable citizens. Education and religious training were used extensively in attempts to lead children to internalize a sense of obedience to authority, right and wrong, and a work ethic. Children's chores and playtime served the same purpose. In the early nineteenth century, most asylums blocked their children off from the outside world. Some did this to break children away from their parents. Most asylums separated children from the outer world to protect their family heritage, not to split apart families. By the turn of the century, asylums were providing their children with considerable contact with the outside world. Children often entered public schools, went to church services, and attended entertainments provided by donors. While hardly the perfect environment to grow up in, orphan asylums were in many ways successful in raising children. They also played a central role in allowing poor families to stay together in the long term by providing short term care to children from destitute families.

Subject Area

American history

Recommended Citation

Hacsi, Timothy Andrew, ""A plain and solemn duty": A history of orphan asylums in America" (1993). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9331785.