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Children of Circumstance: Part II

A History Of The First 125 Years  Of The Chicago Child Care Society (1849-1974).
By: Clare L. McCausland

(Note 1: The material that follows consists of long excerpts from the book and copied here with permission of the Chicago Child Care Society.)

(Note 2: The Chicago Child Care Society is the oldest child welfare organization in the state of Illinois. Begun as the Chicago Orphan Asylum in 1849 it changed its name in 1949. Its purpose, to care for children in need, has never changed. The history of this organization also reflects the growth of the city of Chicago, IL from a simple town of 30,000 to a large metropolitan area. Through the history of the Society we can also observe the impact on social service organizations of the Civil War, the Great Chicago Fire, World War I and the Great Depression.)

Previous: Children of Circumstance Part I

The Orphanage after the Great Fire

Then came the Great Fire of 1871. Emergency plans must have been racing through Miss Swan’s mind as she looked at her charges (statistics projected sixty-seven as the average monthly population that year) and then at the mounting flames and clouds of black smoke far to the north. It was hours-even days- before she would be sure the Asylum was safe,and probably much longer before she learned the fate of Trustees, Directresses, and their possessions. Terrace Row, home of the Scammons and Kings, was in fact, the last row of houses to be destroyed in the South Division of the city.Mrs. Wheeler writes, “All records of the asylum were destroyed,” but fortunately for the historian the Admission ledger, the Reference Book, and some indenture forms were safe at the orphanage.

Practically every able-bodied citizen pitched in to help in the days that followed. Chicago Orphan Asylum opened its parlors as a depot for Chicago Relief and Aid Society’s distribution of clothing to many who had fled in their night clothes from burning homes. The schoolroom was turned over to a sewing society which began employing “burnt-out” seamstresses to replace clothing and household linens? And temporary shelter was given to children, women, and men who had nowhere else to turn.

Even in those days before instant communication of bad news, word of the disaster travelled far and quickly. Money and goods began to pour into the city.The Mayor decided the Chicago Relief and Aid Society should distribute it. It was an old hand at assessing need and distributing relief. Since 1857 (William Brown was one of its founders) it had been recognized as the chief resource for giving monetary help to the “worthy poor.” Its district organization was just what was needed to dispense the Fire Fund — over $5,000,000.

Some of this money was given to charitable agencies who, like Chicago Orphan Asylum, were directly aiding victims of the fire. There were, however, strings attached. The Society reserved the right to give an institution the care of one person from its fire relief rolls for every $1,500 of its grant. It also stipulated that no institution would receive a grant if it discriminated against clients because of race, nationality, or religious belief. Nor could it use the money to defray old debts or repair its buildings. Chicago Orphan Asylum had no trouble with these conditions. The Annual Report for 1872 records the following resolutions:

Whereas, In a communication to George S. Bowen, President of the Chicago Protestant Orphan Asylum, from N. S. Bouton, Esq., Chairman of the Committee on Charitable Institutions of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, we are informed that the Executive Committee of that Society have adopted a resolution that all appropriation of money for the aid of Charitable Institutions be made upon the condition that the managers of such institutions in the admission of applicants to the benefits of the same, shall make no discrimination on account of race,nationality or religious belief; and that no money so appropriated shall be used for the payment of debts and the necessary repairs and improvements for buildings; and Whereas, It has come to our knowledge that an appropriation of ten thousand dollars is tendered this institution upon such conditions; therefore, Resolved, By the Trustees of the Chicago Protestant Orphan Asylum that we most gratefully accept the appropriation so kindly tendered us, and promise to comply cheerfully with the conditions imposed in its acceptance. Resolved,that we heartily endorse the first-named conditions as a part of the present and future policy of this institution. Resolved, that the thanks of this Board are due, and are hereby , tendered N. S. Bouton, Esq., and the Executive Committee of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society for their uniform courtesy and aid to this institution during the past winter, as well as in their kind remembrance to I their communication of the 8th inst. We hereby certify that at a meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Chicago Protestant Orphan Asylum,held on Thursday evening, April 11, 1872, the foregoing resolutions were unanimously adopted. Geo. S. Bowen, President,Elbridge G. Keith, Secretary

One hurdle remained before the money reached the Treasurer. A committee from the Society arrived on the orphanage doorstep to inspect the house from garret to cellar,and to look for any sign that fire victims received treatment differing in anyway from that of the usual inmates. It also scrutinized the Asylum’s finances,reporting that the Trustees valued the property at $120,000, and that the books showed a debt of $30,000 with plans to defray it by building rental dwellings on the grounds. The Asylum could house 150. The population on inspection day was 115 and fifteen servants. Apparently the institution passed all tests; in addition to $10,000 it received a monthly stipend for six months from the private A. T. Stewart Fund (administered by the Society) for the relief of children with widowed mothers. The Society’s records place this stipend at $400.00 per month, the Annual Report of the Asylum at $175.00. Whatever the amount, it and the grant must have been welcome additions to income in this year when many of the usual benefactors, financially depleted by the fire,failed to send contributions. By 1875 Chicago was no longer in a state of fire emergency but was slowly rebuilding. At 2228 Michigan Avenue the Directresses were building too — reinforcing their program to train the children to be useful members of a community. That must have seemed a peculiarly important goal at the time.

The ladies’ Board was going forward with a new Matron. Worn out by the hectic years of 1871 and 1872, Miss Swan felt unable to continue. As she said in her letter of resignation: “I need rest and you need someone who can come in fresh and strong for the work.” She departed amid compliments from the Board and expressions of anxiety over her replacement. But Mrs. Harriet Bigelow, her successor, was strong and commanding, and in a few years she was being praised for running a taut ship: “Her executive ability enables her to manage her large family with great success, and control her assistants so that the work goes on as quietly as in our own houses.” The ladies were relieved;they could turn their attention to other aspects of life in the orphanage.

The ladies’ Board had enlarged its membership in 1871 and so had the Admission Committee, officially rechristened the Reception Committee. It included at that time the President,Corresponding 49 Secretary, two Board members, and the Matron. And it continued to grow: seven members in 1880, nine in 1888; and in 1889 it was put on a rotating basis; three different Boards members joined the Matron each quarter.Throughout, it was one of the most hard-working committees of the Board, and it had an important educational function. Through the Asylum parlor on Tuesday mornings came the whole spectrum of human distress arising from the complexities of a growing industrial, urban society. Applications were no longer relatively simple: the girl orphaned by cholera, the needy immigrant boy whose family had not found the pot of gold in Chicago. The ladies were not trained in psychology or the social sciences. Their decisions were made on a basis of their religious and moral training and on their own common sense.During the last thirty years of the century, particularly in the eighties and nineties, outside forces began to question the validity of such decisions, not in Chicago Orphan Asylum specifically, but in the whole range of child caring institutions and agencies. The growth of charitable institutions in Chicago led inevitably to questions about program and administration. A need to meet and discuss mutual problems was expressed in various ways.

The Asylum on the whole seems to have been on the fringes of these efforts, perhaps because direct relief was almost always one of the problems under discussion. That task was never part of the orphanage’s program. Trustees and Directresses approved of cooperation but did not become much involved in promoting it at this time. An example is their relation with the Charity Organization Society, founded in 1883 to investigate the extent and causes of need, to help the employable poor find work, and promote the “general welfare of the poor by social and sanitary reforms and by the inculcation of habits of providence and self-dependence.” The Society held a monthly “Assembly of Charities” where persons or organizations interested in philanthropy could exchange views.” On the practical side it opened and operated a creche on Clark Street. The Trustees of Chicago Orphan Asylum immediately went on record as “cordially” approving the work and promising “hearty cooperation.” A few years later Mrs. A. R. Gray from the ladies’ Board became a liaison member on the Society’s board. Very soon after that, Associated Charities was formed by a merger of the Charity Organization Society and the Relief and Aid Society, a disastrous move for the first agency since gradually many of its innovative programs were dropped in favor of the old pattern of distributing alms. When Associated Charities offered to investigate applicants for the Asylum, the Directresses hesitated. They would have to think about it a little further. They were of course in sympathy with”any movement that would aid the honest person and prevent imposition,” but they had a person who investigated for them and were satisfied with this procedure. In the end, cooperation was little more than the referral of a few women, mothers of boarders, to Associated Charities for help in finding employment.

The ladies had a more productive relationship with the ((Children’s Aid Society)), incorporated as a private home-finding agency in 1883. Mr. Glen Wood from the Society visited the Reception Committee and the Board a number of times offering home finding service and also help in taking children to homes outside Chicago. The Directresses again expressed preference for their own method, but offered to take, on a temporary basis, any of the Society’s children waiting placement.The offer was accepted and through the eighties and nineties this cooperation continued. Only infants were excluded. The nursery was chronically overcrowded.

The Asylum also expressed interest in a conference, set up by the Children’s Aid Society in1891, to discuss cooperation of all children’s institutions in Chicago, Presumably they sent delegates, for their minutes of 1891 record agreement with the Resolution adopted at the Conference: Resolved that it is the sense of this meeting the cooperation of effort upon the part of the several institutions of this city having for their object the care of homeless and dependent children, should be encouraged, especially in the direction of finding family homes for such children as are suitable to be placed and when in no way violating the rules and regulations of any particular institution or society.

One can only conjecture what was behind a further cryptic statement in the minutes: the “officials” seemed to think it advisable that “some arrangement be made to pass the children through these institutions in order that they might be polished up in manners, etc., before going out to homes.”

By 1895, the Directress had reconsidered Children’s Aid’ Society’s offer. They would allow it to find homes for some Asylum children, but they would not “surrender” them.If there were problems in the placement, the Asylum would try to solve them; it would keep the primary responsibility. In the same year the Reception Committee accepted the investigation of the Bureau of Charities and Associated Charities without feeling its own investigator had to confirm their findings.

The Trustees were not unaware of these decisions, although the 51 Directresses alone met the day-to-day situations of cooperation. The men usually heard of the increasing pressure in that direction when policy decisions were brought to them. A growing belief in the ladies’ Board that admission should be limited to orphans and half-orphans, for example, led to appointing a committee to place the matter before the Trustees in 1895. The ladies supported their position with two arguments: one, the founders had named the institution the Chicago OrphanAsylum; and two, the policy will be an important step in the direction of grading institutions…when the existing charities in our city will understand how better to supplement one another’s work, and, instead of having more institutions, make better use of what we have by increasing their capacity for helping without materially increasing the expense.

The Trustees discussed the proposal, and voted adoption of the policy. Allocation of services was in the air.

On the whole, however, the ladies were more comfortable cooperating on one-institution-to-one-institution basis rather than on a general exchange of ideas. The Reception Committee was still in touch with the usual agencies and,later, with many new ones: The Foundlings Home, the Illinois Humane Society (after it extended its work from protecting animals to protecting children),the Home for Incurables, the Home for Crippled Children, River Forest School for Boys, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home, Florence Crittenton, and a group of Catholic agencies — St. Vincent’s, St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum, and the Visitation and Aid Society. The Asylum accepted referrals from United Hebrew Charities,the Central Relief Association, German and Swedish Asylums, and two fraternal organizations, the Knights of Pythias and the Odd Fellows. And in 1892 it had its first referral from a settlement house — Hull House. Jane Addams’ note stating that she knew all about the family, and it would be a “deed of charity” to do something for the child, opened the orphanage doors without further investigation.

Contact with the proliferating Catholic agencies in the city led to an interesting situation.The institution had always accepted Catholics. Over 200 had been admitted in the first twenty years; between 1880 and 1890, 125 were accepted. An increase in Catholic applicants in the mid-eighties probably led to the Board’s decision in February of 1885 to amend the bylaws by omitting the word “Protestant.” A special meeting was held and the bylaws amended. But, at the Board’s March meeting the President announced the whole procedure had been “illegal”; only the Trustees could amend bylaws. She defended the Board’s action with the statement: “Having been left hitherto so free and untrammeled in our management of the Institution, it was not perhaps so surprising that we should have fallen into this error.” A motion was made to recommend the change to the Trustees. No minutes record the Trustees’ discussion of the recommendation, but Annual Reports from that year on omit the word “Protestant” from the title page.

Then in 1892 an agent from the Visitation and Aid Society (a Catholic home-finding agency) visited the Reception Committee to request the transfer of a Catholic boy to one of their agencies. In the course of the visit, the agent told the Committee their agency would gladly take care of “all destitute Catholic children.” The Committee had only to refer cases to them and they would bear the responsibility from that point. Again no policy, apparently, was adopted, and Catholics continued to be accepted but many were referred to Catholic institutions, particularly when Chicago Orphan Asylum was pressed for beds.

The Asylum drew close to the Industrial Schools in Chicago in the nineties, particularly the Burr School and the Glenwood Manual Training School (incorporated in 1887 as the Illinois School for Agriculture and Manual Training for Boys). Two Illinois statutes (1879 and 1883) permitted the state to subsidize the work of these schools, although funds were available only if the court had committed a child. Although the Asylum’s own Industrial School had grown rapidly, the Trustees never applied for funds under these statutes. But the Directresses frequently turned to tax-supported schools for help. In 1894 after the Board had fixed ten years for boys and twelve for girls as their upper age limit, they suggested to Glenwood a reciprocal arrangement “to relieve both institutions” and secure”the greatest good to the greatest number.” If Glenwood would take their older boys, who for one reason or another had not been placed in homes,they would take care of the School’s younger children. Unfortunately the records do not show whether a formal arrangement was made, but children were referred back and forth frequently for many years.

The Board’s suggestion to the Burr School in 1898 was, however, formally accepted and implemented. Twelve-year-old girls were sent to Burr for a year’s training; the Asylum paid something for their support, retained custody, and took them back at the end of the year.

By these arrangements the Asylum benefited from publicly supported institutions but preserved its policy of not accepting public money. Oddly enough, however, the only instance of public subsidy in the institution’s records of the nineteenth century is from this period. In 1886, the courts committed a dependent child to the Asylum; the city paid $10.00 per month for his board and $25.00 to clothe him for a year. The fact is recorded by the Reception Committee without comment.

Weekly contact with all these institutions must have broadened the ideas of the Reception Committee and the Board of Managers (its official name after 1894), even if they gave lip service only to cooperation through conferences. There was a growing awareness in Chicago of social factors which contributed to dependency and delinquency,and new methods were being studied to prevent these conditions. Hence the spread of the settlement house (from six in 1891 to over one hundred in 1900),and the stirring of forces which brought about the first Child Labor Law in 1889 and the Juvenile Court Act in 1899. Change was in the air.

Stephen Hawes, writing about children in an urban society, observes that until about 1890 American social scientists were gentlemanly amateurs,philanthropists, and charity workers who attended the annual meetings of such organizations as the American Social Science Association (established in 1865)and the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (1879). But gradually administrators and trained workers, together with some board members, began to consider their work a profession. Volunteers who did so much of the actual work were some times regarded as obstacles to this movement. In 1892 a paper was read at the Columbian Exposition calling for training schools for charity volunteers. A series of congresses (much like the White House Conferences of the twentieth century) followed the Exposition. To one of these,”Charities, Correction, and Philanthropy,” the Board of Managers sent as delegates Mrs. George Darrow, Miss Sarah Horton, and Mrs. C. M. Hotchkin. Mrs. Henry Wilmarth, another Board member, helped run the Congress. The ladies listened to lectures on “The Care of Dependent, Neglected, and Wayward Children,” and “The Organization and Affiliation of Preventive Work Among the Poor.” Could the substance of either of these lectures have led to the School Committee’s statement in 1894: “Institution life, however ameliorated, is warping to the physical and mental condition of childhood,” or its defense of the Asylum family as showing “none of the restraints so often associated with institutional life?”

The conclusion of another paper from the same Congress must have been discussed at many a Chicago dinner table. The subject was “Public Relief and Private Charity,” the conclusion: It is generally agreed that personal and private charity surpasses official charity in spontaneity,versatility, adaptability, idealism, and religious fervor. It is thought that official charity surpasses private charity in completeness, adequacy, equality of burden, and in control of criminal tendencies often mixed up with pauperism. Thus it is agreed that it is wise to combine the working of public and private charity as far as possible.

Applications increased and space was available (wings had been added to the building in 1884-85) but a familiar question plagued the Board: “Can we afford the expense?” The ladies decided the answer to that question was the Trustees’ responsibility. The Recording Secretary’s report for the year 1887 states:…like many a good housewife, we have laboured on with cheerful hearts, and willing hands, leaving the solution of this problem to our worthy trustees, with the hope that ere another year rolls around, their ingenuity may be sharpened to the extent of not only wiping out the debt, but giving us the joyful news, that we may extend our work in , caring for the fatherless. She estimated that the cost of care per child had averaged $95.98 a year. ‘Where is the family,” she continued, “that can give the children as good a home, with the many advantages received in this Institution, at the same ratio?”

That year the Board held a special meeting to hear Mrs. Wheeler read her history. The ladies were delighted with it and decided the public must be told “what a noble charity” Chicago Orphan Asylum was. They would publish the history. They did, but not until five years later; Mrs. Darrow and Mrs. Kendall helped bring it up to date.

The Asylum was under tremendous pressure from the Great Fire to the end of the century.The Reception Committee felt it first. Which child should they admit, which refuse? There were so many needy cases. The Committee rarely turned an orphan or a really destitute child away, and they were moved when an intemperate or insane parent was in the picture. Yearly statistics in fact, during these years often included the number of insane parents. But the Committee’s reasons for acceptance or refusal are at times obscure. Certainly they always sought to identify the person “worthy of charity,” distinguishing between the honest, industrious, God-fearing poor and those whose path to poverty was strewn with drinking, gambling, and frequenting brothels. The size and state of the orphanage “family” were other factors. When there were few empty beds, the Committee was rather “tough”; when the population was down,they were more lenient. Widespread illness in the city — scarlet fever,smallpox, whooping cough — made them cautious in admitting children who might infect the family, or on the reverse side, illness at home led them to advise applicants to wait until it was safe. They distrusted the applicant with the confused story, particularly if she made contradictory statements about being married. They did not want a habitual runaway. They were not a reform school. It was easy to refuse a boarder whose mother would then be free to become a housekeeper in a house of “ill-fame.” The ladies saw no reason for helping a mother take such a job!

Fathers working in saloons and gaming houses were also frowned upon, but there were few applicants so employed. The women were usually maids, cleaning, or washerwomen. Occasionally one worked in a store or shirt factory and there were some waitresses and “sewing-women.” Later, jobs were more varied: nursing,canvassing for Mark Twain’s last book, cooking on a lake streamer or in a hotel.The men were painters, sailors, janitors, bakers, and also cooks in hotels and on boats. Sometimes an artist or actor wandered in; his working hours were so erratic he couldn’t keep his children off the streets, and his arrangements with relatives had broken down. The latter is given over and over as a reason for turning to Chicago Orphan Asylum. In a moment of emergency a grandmother, aunt, or older sister had taken a child, but soon they found they were too old, too confined, or unable to restrain their charges. They wanted to get out of the arrangement.

The Committee was very understanding in these situations. They usually tried to work out a plan to keep a child in the applicant’s family; if that were impossible they added him to the orphanage family. It was on such occasions they often divided siblings,urged the relative to keep the baby while they took the older children, or vice versa. Keeping siblings together began to concern the Reception Committee and the Board more and more. Sometimes applicants for boarding care themselves refused to leave older children if the baby were refused. Mrs. George Darrow was particularly moved by this problem. The Annals credits her persistent efforts with the inauguration of a baby department with its own special doctor. In 1886, when this nursery was opened the Board moved to admitchildren under one at the discretion of the Reception Committee.

From time to time,depending on pressures from the outside and the situation inside the orphanage the Board passed age qualifications, both lower and upper limits. While these served as guidelines for the Reception Committee, they were sometimes observed in the breach. The children ranged in age from one to sixteen in 1872 (twenty babies were under fifteen months), although the rule denying admission to anyone under two having a mother still held. In 1879 the family’s age range was three days to twelve years. Hard pressed by illness in the Asylum, the Board in1882 reminded the Reception Committee it was not supposed to admit sick children. Would it appoint two of its members to attend the nurse’s examination of entering children to insure that no sick babies slipped in? Even that idea didn’t help and the Asylum family continued to be exposed to disease.

No guidelines from the Board helped the Reception Committee when faced with physically handicapped children. The realities of the situation led to a practice of accepting the mildly handicapped child: a lame boy, another “partly paralyzed,” adeaf girl, and one deaf and dumb, but refusing the badly handicapped because the staff could not handle them. One such child they referred to St. Luke’s Hospital which had, on occasion, sent them a convalescent child for care.

A few mentally handicapped children were admitted over the years, although sometimes they referred an applicant to the Asylum for the Feeble-Minded in Jacksonville or the State School at Dunning. One or two children who had been in their own institution for years were eventually sent to Jacksonville or Dunning. The Board kept up with these children through gifts, visits, and letters. They seemed to feel that in some way they had failed.

Obviously, references given by the applicant influenced the Reception Committee’s decisions. If ministers, doctors, Board ladies, or friends of the orphanage testified to the”worthiness” of the applicant, the way was smoothed to acceptance.Other references were examined with increasing care during this period,particularly, one feels, because the Committee had Miss Charlotte Blake as a resource.

She had served the orphanage in many capacities after 1866, with a two-year absence because of ill health. She had been teacher, nurse, and after 1872, solicitor. She was enthusiastic, devoted, imaginative, and indefatigable. One runs out of adjectives describing Miss Blake. She was also willing to make “house calls,” a necessity in the growing city. Population had reached 500,000 by1881 (over one-third foreign born), passed 1,000,000 in 1890; a growth of 268 per cent in twenty years. No longer could one expect the minister and the doctor to know almost everyone. In particular the references of those wishing to board children in the Asylum, and they increased materially from 1871 on,needed careful checking. Boarders, too, had to be “worthy” of care and, if they were to pay fees, need and ability to pay had to be established.

So useful did the Board find Miss Blake that 1889 they promoted her from Solicitor to Investigator, a post created for her. Her duties were many: one, investigate more fully cases before the Reception Committee; two, take children to homes; three, when necessary visit children placed out for adoption; four, show visitors over the Asylum; five, oversee the Baby Nursery during the absence of the nurse; and six, ] perform such other duties as might be assigned from time to time. Her salary was $30.00 per month and maintenance; it was later raised to $50.00 plus board and expenses.

According to the Annual Report, 1889 was a year of unequaled prosperity for Chicago Orphan Asylum, characterized by a “spirit of doing.” Chicago itself was gearing up for the Columbian Exposition of 1893; it too had an air of excitement and boom. New hotels and restaurants opened every week, the El was under construction to facilitate transportation for the expected visitors; the whole city was being cleaned and polished for the world to view. And on the orphanage front was the enthusiastic Miss Blake.

From 1889 to 1899 when she retired because of ill health, she performed her duties tirelessly. Hunting down references of applicants was her forte. If her target was not at home, she called on neighbors, employers, ministers, and teachers;sometimes, surreptitiously, she looked in at a tavern door. And although her grammar was faulty and her spelling shaky, her Book, from 1888 to 1899, is full of vivid reports. She had a sharp eye for the appearance of an applicant and an equally keen one for the neatness and quality of her home. She noted signs of neglect in children — were they clean, well cared for, although shabby? She disliked finding an applicant’s statements untrue; her satisfaction was clear when she could write: “too true…she is a good, hardworking, industrious woman.” Often she records the details of industry: “…he knew her to be an industrious hardworking woman and had set up till 12 to 1 o’clock night sewing on the Machine making ” lite coats for 10 to 12 cts. apiece and coats with linings and buttonholes for 60 ct. down and other things accordingly.”

Miss Blake was quick to detect rumors of men going to see women in their rooms, or of either sex wasting money at the corner saloon. Records of desertion, poverty,illness, bigamy, and abuse fill the pages of her book, but she rarely moralizes. She notes matter-of-factly that a troubled marriage is racially mixed, that a woman is “on” drugs or that a man has three wives. Once, when a Canadian woman was seeking to board an illegitimate child, she commented, “she does not look at such things as Americans do.” And when she ran into a homosexual situation she wrote: “He told me so much that was vile and mean that I thought it not-best to put more on paper.”

Her follow-up of reports of abuse of indentured children was vigorous. On a second visit to a butcher in Lake Geneva to investigate a charge of mistreatment, she stopped at City Hall and collected the Mayor to go with her. Another time she had to drive on a muddy spring road to a farm six miles from the railroad. Armed with a stout pole, she jumped down every few miles to unclog the wheels of the wagon.Fortunately that time she found the indentured boy happy and all well.

Her comments could be shrewd. Of a mother wishing to board a child she remarked, “I think her boy has got the upper hands of them all and they want him in here for discipline for a few weeks and then if he is naughty they could have this for a bugbear to hang over him.” A father who complained at length of his wife’s faults,was summarized with the statement: “I do not think he is a saint/” A recommendation to refuse an applicant concludes: “I did not like the looks of things … I think they want the child to amuse the lodger’s baby. They looked too poor to take a child and do well by it.”

The mores of the period led Miss Blake to judge a home by its appearance as much, if not more, than by other qualities. She writes of an adoptive home that the house is “very nicely situated,” every room carpeted and nicely furnished and “the personification of neatness.” And of another: “I like her appearance,her furniture was upholstered with brocade satin, everything looked very clean and nice.” The unmade bed, the dirty dish, and the unscrubbed floor weigh heavily in her reports.

In her first six months as investigator Miss Blake placed three children in homes out of the city and visited another; and she made 159 calls investigating applicants for admission. Since the new solicitor was sick, she also solicited $175.00 worth of toys and merchandise and $56.00 in cash. She estimated as well that she had saved the institution $500.00 by buying coal at a discount and getting a freight reduction on hauling wood and “other things.” She might have included in her summary several other duties: “took 9 girls to Prof. Thomlin’s singing class”; called on the Treasurer of the Trustees to collect money for orphanage bills; accompained a child to court; took an “inveterate runaway” back to his mother; inspected a clothing store at Clark and Madison to see if one of “our” boys should apply for errand boy there; and selected a gas lantern for the front porch. Miss Blake was worth her weight in gold.

Perhaps the extensive and intimate picture of applicants in the Investigator’s Book led to the Reception Committee’s decision in 1891 to keep a fuller account of their own interviews and decisions. The new format highlights the struggles of the Committee with many intake problems and reveals new policy decisions of the Board — a happy circumstance since the minutes of both Boards for this period are missing.

There was, for example,the illegitimate child. From 1849 on these children, never a large number, were treated as all others were — sometimes admitted, sometimes rejected, but not because of illegitimacy. More important was the question of surrender, easy in the early days, but more difficult later when boarding was an acceptable alternative. The opening of the Baby Nursery in 1886, with its accompanying decision to admit infants under one, soon put the Committee in a bind. The Nursery was small, seven memorial cribs at first, given and furnished (at a cost of $16.00 each) by Board members and friends who had lost children. Even when the number increased to twelve, and then to fourteen, accommodations were very limited. And one of the reasons for opening the nursery was to make room for infant siblings. In 1891 the Board adopted a new policy — to reserve Nursery beds for “legitimately born babies who are in part, or wholly orphans.” Perhaps the policy “legalized” the practice, for as early as 1889 the Chicago Tribune, listing qualifications for admission to Chicago Orphan Asylum, stated, “illegitimate children under two years of age are not accepted.” The new ruling caused some trouble. The Children’s Aid Society had to be reminded over and over of the Asylum’s new policy. It held firm even if care was to be temporary. Once the Committee itself forgot and had to write hastily to an applicant whose illegitimate baby had been admitted that “it had not occurred to them they couldn’t receive her baby as she was not married.” The policy (with a very few exceptions)held through the remaining years at 2228 Michigan Avenue.

There is no indication in the records that the ladies were uncomfortable with their decision or felt righteous. And they continued to accept older illegitimate children: a boy of three whose mother “was an honest woman but had been deceived by a rascal”; one of five whose mother “had always regretted the sin”; and a third, six years old, whose mother was a domestic in the home of a Board member.

Crowded dormitories at the other end of the age range, together with the increasing number of other child care institutions in Chicago, led to another policy shift in the nineties. The average number of children in the Asylum then was perilously close to the 250 it could accommodate even after the additions were opened. The Reception Committee, and then the Board, began to take a hard look at the family. They had been worried for several years about the older boys and girls.Many of them had been in the institution for a long time, often because a physical or slight mental defect had prevented their being adopted or even indentured. The Matron usually found work for them in the Asylum and the Board paid them $3.00-$5.00 per month and maintenance. The result was not always harmony. Two of these girls complained to the Matron in 1891 that their salaries were not high enough, and one of them added that she was tired of being with children all the time. The Board raised the salary of the latter to $10.00 and the first to $6.00, and discussed the practice of retaining girls to help. No policy was formed, but the Board came down heavily on the side of the institution:We must consider two things, the good of the girl, and the result of her retention on the institution itself. We are representing an institution and we are here to study the best interest o fthe institution. We would have to hire someone else if we did not have these girls.

The older boys had greater problems. The Annual Report of 1885 expresses the Board’s growing concern: “A source of anxiety … is the oft recurring question of what is to be done with our boys after they reach the age of 12. It is obvious that they should not remain here for many reasons; but suitable homes are not always to be found for them.” Could the Trustees help place the boys until they were able to care for themselves? Four years later they were pondering the fate of a twenty-one year old man still in the Asylum. His education had gone beyond the elementary grades to three years in an Industrial School, and he had a job which paid $6.00 per week, but he had paid only one month’s board in several years. Gentle suggestions that he seek other lodgings had not brought action.The ladies voted firmly that he be requested to leave but be given the contents of his room so that he might feel he had something of his own to start life.

That case was unique,but there were a good many boys over twelve in the institution; a fair proportion were unruly, hard to manage. Mrs. Wheeler and Mrs. Manniere of the School Committee came before the Reception Committee in 1891 to report on the bad conduct of two such boys. Their teachers were unable to control them, as a result they demoralized the class. Setting fire to their bed was the last straw, they had been put in solitary confinement on a diet of bread and water.What could the Reception Committee do? It was decided to make an example of them by public dismissals. Their parents were asked to remove them, and the opportunity was seized to notify all other refractory inmates that they too would be dismissed promptly for any further misconduct. The mothers of several incorrigible girls were also advised to make other plans, perhaps an Industrial School if the girl couldn’t be handled at home. One mother was “shown wherein both she and her daughter had exhibited ingratitude forbenefits received.”

These children were by no means a majority of the family, but their number was large enough to prompt the Board of Managers in 1894 to adopt the policy of keeping boys only until they were ten, girls to twelve. Under very special circumstances that time was extended for the girls. The Managers were not very happy with their decision as they tried to plan where they could place some of these older children. Once again they longed for a graded system; its lack, they felt,presented “a serious, practical difficulty in planning.” And they could not just turn the children out.

At the suggestion of the Trustees, still another change in admission policy was made before they left 2228 Michigan: no child having two parents living would be admitted, unless one parent was insane. Working within that restriction was difficult; in fact, many children in the institution had both parents living but separated, and the Committee felt they were “worthy” cases. The Board did not like it;in June, 1898, two years after the policy was endorsed, the Reception Committee reported that out of sixty-five applicants during the past six months,thirty-three had to be rejected because of the rule, and many should have been admitted. A month later, the Trustees rescinded the rule. Admission was beset with problems; so was placing out. Back in 1868 Miss Swan had voiced the desires of the Board.Thoughtful care of the children, she said then, extended far beyond the doors of the orphanage:

Our mission is to study the nature and disposition of the child; develop and cultivate all the good that we may find; correct any bad habit which; may have been formed, and when we have arrived at a true estimate of the general character and tendency, to place it in a home exactly suited to its needs.

Such a statement suggests a study in depth of homes to which children were sent, but this was far from the case in early days. The Board’s concern was matched then by neither resources nor investigative techniques. References were required but,for the most part, were followed up by letter until late in the eighties. The Corresponding Secretary bore the brunt of this task and it was by no means her only responsibility.

She was a busy person.The Corresponding Secretary’s Book, kept from 1875 on, records the substance of the letters she received and her answers. To her went requests for adoption and apprentices, and also permission to return children who hadn’t “worked out.'” Mothers who had rashly left their babies on the orphanage doorstep wrote begging to retrieve them. Neighbors reported abuse of an indentured child, and occasionally a child wrote asking to return “home.” The Secretary also sent notices of Board meetings, and letters requesting ladies to serve on committees or on the Board itself. She thanked people and organizations for donations and for invitations to take the “family”on outings. She replied to offers of benefits, or wrote requesting them. She pressured parents for unpaid board. And she also tried to keep track of adopted children, writing if the Board had not received a report every six months or so. Very infrequently she wrote to inquire about an indentured child, usually because there had been a report of abuse.

After 1876 the Annual Report regularly notes how many pieces of mail the Secretary handled in a year.The number rose steadily from 254 the first year to 1,075 in a peak year. The yearly average was 600 to 700. Mrs. Wheeler estimated that Miss Sarah Horton,Secretary for fifteen years, wrote 10,000 letters in that time.

Obviously this busy person had little time to pursue references of those wishing to take children for indenture or adoption. If the usual sources, minister, doctor, neighbor,friend, vouched for the family as worthy, true Christians, respectable, with good standing in the community, ample means, and the like, that family was considered acceptable. But after 1889 the Reception Committee had a seconds tring to its bow — Miss Blake. Through the nineties she regularly picked up questionable references and went to see them.

With this back-up the Committee was probably more comfortable about its placements in the last years of the century. Only 300 papers relating to placing-out remain in the archives for the period 1872 to 1900. Twenty-seven (twenty-five boys, two girls) were indentured for service, 273 were adopted. The tide toward the latter course had indeed turned after the Adoption Act of 1867.

The old indenture form,with intention to adopt written in, was still being used by the Asylum in 1878 when its validity became the subject of a court battle. A boy had been surrendered by his father, who professed to know nothing of the mother’s whereabouts. In due course he was adopted by a prominent Chicago family. Years later the mother turned up, demanding her child. When the adoptive parents refused, she took the case to court. The judge upheld the mother’s claims,declaring both the surrender form and the indenture-adoption form illegal -– “no better than a bond of straw.” The newspaper made the most of the touching courtroom scene when the adoptive mother, “bowing to the superior wisdom of the court,” gave up the child.

Although the need for new forms, “binding in law,” was obvious and pressed by the Managers,it was 1883 before the Trustees asked one of their Board, Mr. Norman Williams,to “look into the matter.” At last in 1884 Chicago Orphan Asylum had a new blank — Articles of Agreement. This form points to adoption, not indenture, and, in fact, there is no record of indentures after 1880. The words “doth bind” are omitted, “instructed, reared, and treated in every way…as if …the natural child” take their place. Termination is fixed at sixteen for both sexes; the amount of schooling is increased; and terminal gifts (Bible, two suits, and $20.00) are mandatory, not left to the decision of the foster parent. This form the Corresponding Secretary sent to adoptive parents from 1884 on, with the statement that filling it out was just the first step. It meant that Chicago Orphan Asylum had released the child for adoption;the foster parents must then apply to the courts to make the adoption legal.

The Solemn words of the Articles of Agreement contrast sharply with the surface nature of many requests for children. The blue-eyed, golden-haired little girl was the desire of many;a few wanted a black-eyed brunette; or one “not too homely,”definitely “not a redhead.” One woman didn’t care too much about “looks” but wanted assurance that the child “had not one drop of Irish blood.” Disposition and health are defined: “clean, healthy, sensible and good dispositioned”; a “strict Christian, well dispositioned”; “light complexion, well disposed”; “a sunny German girl who can sing.” One man requested a boy “possessing some force of character…it would be a home where no tobacco nor whiskey would be tolerated. Please send five photographs.”

Why they wanted a child was often expressed in terms of work: to wash dishes and run errands, to be a companion for an only child or an elderly person living in the family; to “herd cattle, bring in coal, and take care of the cow” (that applicant was turned down immediately); to do light housework; to act as nursemaid. But there were those who loved children and had none, or who wished to extend their love to an orphan. There is only one instance of a woman wanting a child to make a little noise, she couldn’t bear the silence when her daughter left home to be married!

Requests were considered individually, many turned down by the Corresponding Secretary with the comment “have none suitable,” or “none of that age and description.” A back door method of getting a “hard working little servant” was viewed with disfavor. Such requests were regularly turned down if the ladies spotted them.

Next: Children of Circumstance Part 3

4 Replies to “Children of Circumstance: Part II”

  1. James Bellert says:

    Dear Mr. Hansan,

    As your reply to Ms. Hunter was written 5 years ago, I’m wondering if you were able to locate files that might reveal the names and histories of Catholic orphanages?

    My grandmother was born to Catholic parents in Chicago in the 1890’s and orphaned as an infant. Somehow she ended up living in Thawville, Illinois, a VERY small town and only a farming community before age 19. I’m wondering how that could have happened? Unfortunately, she didn’t even know her parents’ names and she died at age 29, so no history could be obtained from her after she married and died. I do know her maiden name.

    I wonder if inmates of the orphanages were sent to poorhouses around the State, or if she could have been adopted or housed by people in Iroquois County?

    Best wishes,
    Jim Bellert

    • jhansan says:

      Jim Bellert: My best advice is for you is to contact the Chicago Child Care Society it is the oldest child welfare organization in the state of Illinois. They are most likely to have information about Catholic orphanages, or some other resource for you to explore. Good luck, Jack Hansan

  2. Mary Ann Hunter says:

    My grandmother and her little brother lived at a (probably Catholic) orphanage from about 1892 or so, for a few years. Her brother, little William Hudson, was said to be adopted and dissapeared from the family. Grandmother’s name was Martha Hudson, and her older sister was Helen Hudson. They were retrieved from the orphanage after a couple of years and raised by family members in Peoria.
    I would love to find my mother’s uncle’s descendants. I understand the family looked for Willie but a fire had destroyed the records.
    Do you have any information about Catholic Orphanages in existance in the early 1890’s
    Thanks, Mary Ann Hunter

    • jhansan says:

      Dear Ms. Hunter: I am trying to learn about the location of files that might reveal the names and histories of Catholic orphanages. Right now, I am in the dark. Sorry. Jack Hansan

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