The Industrial Revolution in the 1880s and the influx of 35 million European immigrants to the US swelled the ranks of the poor. Some families were unable to care for their children. Desperate mothers gave their babies to workers at foundling asylums. Lacking resources, these children were sometimes boarded with uneducated women who killed them with neglect.
Any abandoned children found by the police were usually already dead.
Poorhouses were filthy institutions to which abandoned children were sent if they lived to the age of 4. In these places, the children were mixed in with criminally insane adults.
In times like that, orphanages must have seemed like progress. However, early orphanages had mortality rates as high as 50%.
Another option was a “baby farm”. These were homes or apartments where, for a fee, uneducated women housed babies whose parents were unable to raise them. Some baby farmers received periodic payments, others were paid in lump sums. Some of these farmers starved, suffocated or drowned “paid for” babies.
If the owner of a “baby farm” took out insurance on the lives of the babies in their care, the death toll rose higher. An 1895 editorial in the New York Times suggested that “life insurance for children should be declared invalid because it was a temptation to inhuman crimes.”
Understandably, children growing up in poorhouses or baby farms, who survived into adolescence, often fled as soon as they were able. Therefore, by 1872, the number of street urchins was high. These children were left to beg, steal, sell newspapers and at times even prostituted themselves for food.
They were the “apple boys” and “flower girls” who sold their goods on street corners, the “singing girls” who boarded docked ships at night to entertain the men with music (and were sometimes raped).
These children slept on steps, in filthy cellars, on the iron tubes of bridges or burned-out safes on Wall Street. Ten would pile together on cold winter nights for warmth or fight for spots near grates through which hot air blew, generated by underground presses.
Homeless children had been so poorly valued that one orphanage in Nashville was called – The Home for Friendless Children. These children were often referred to as “ragamuffins”, “little wanderers”, “street Arabs” or “guttersnipes”.
Massachusetts passed the country’s first adoption law in 1851. Looked at it historically, it would seem an improvement. Poverty has always been – and continues to be – the reason that children are separated from their natural parents. Sadly.