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  • Two Cheers for Orphanages
  • E. Wayne Carp (bio)
Nurith Zmora. Orphanages Reconsidered: Child Care Institutions in Progressive Era Baltimore. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994. xiii + 240 pp. Tables, notes, and index. $44.95.
Reena Sigman Friedman. These Are Our Children: Jewish Orphanages in the United States, 1880–1925. Hanover: Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, 1994. xiv + 298 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $39.95.
Kenneth Cmiel. A Home of Another Kind: One Chicago Orphanage and the Tangle of Child Welfare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. viii + 243 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $24.95.

Orphanages are much in the news today. In May 1994, soon-to-be House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich touched off a national uproar when he proposed denying welfare payments to unwed mothers under the age of twenty-one and placing the children they were unable to support in orphanages. Congressional Democrats denounced Gingrich’s proposal as callous and wrongheaded; Hillary Rodham Clinton declared the idea “unbelievable and absurd.” 1 Gingrich invited the first lady to visit Blockbuster Video and rent the 1938 movie Boys Town, which depicts an idealized vision of orphanages. 2 Clinton advisor George Stephanopolous countered by promising to send Republicans a copy of Oliver Twist. 3

The historical record has long favored the Democrats. Orphanages’ unsavory reputation first surfaced during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Both Gilded Age and Progressive-era child-welfare reformers denounced them as jail-like, overcrowded, unsanitary institutions that both killed infants and warped children’s moral development. 4 The deinstitutionalization movement of the mid-1960s, directed primarily at residential treatment centers, revived the earlier animosity toward institutions. 5 In the following two decades, the “new” social historians reinforced the negative image of orphanages by interpreting the motives of officials and policymakers and the function of social welfare institutions in terms of social control and [End Page 277] hegemony. They argued that institutions like almshouses, insane asylums, reformatories, schools, and prisons arose not so much from humanitarian and benevolent motives as from a design “to impose order on society, to create a tractable and low-wage labor force and to enforce discipline in the workplace, to impose middle-class values and behavioral norms on lower-class and immigrant folk, and thus to control the ‘dangerous’ classes.” 6

Critics pointed out that the social-control thesis was too simplistic and its generalizations too sweeping. They convincingly challenged the identity of the controllers, the motivation attributed to them, and the effectiveness of control. 7 Other scholars questioned the methodology and research base of the social-control school. They noted that their studies were written from the “top-down,” concentrated on the “movers and shakers,” and represented a form of intellectual history resting for the most part on official reports of spokespersons and institutional managers. What was missing from these studies was a sense of how these institutions actually functioned and what role they played in the community. Even more importantly, they failed to consider the perspective of the “inmates” themselves. 8

In response to these critiques, many studies since the 1980s have focused on how “the inarticulate”—poor people, students, delinquent adolescents, unwed mothers, single parents—experienced these institutions and the strategies by which they used them to their own advantage. 9 Surprisingly, although several studies of orphanages have appeared, few published ones systematically addressed these themes. 10 The three studies of orphanages under review fill this gap by using hitherto overlooked sources, including orphanage case records, children’s letters, autobiographies, interviews with former wards, and annual reports. Rather than clarifying the current policy debate, however, these new studies complicate the historical record by providing evidence for both ideological camps.

Of the three books, Orphanages Reconsidered is most directly concerned with refuting the historical position that orphanages had deleterious effects on orphans and that officials acted from motives of social control. Zmora examines three private, Progressive-era orphanages in Baltimore that together represented the city’s diverse gender, ethnic, and religious population: the Hebrew Orphan Asylum (Jewish), the Samuel Ready School for Girls (Protestant), and the Dolan Children’s Aid Society (Catholic). As in most orphanages throughout American history, there were few “true” orphans in...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6628
Print ISSN
0048-7511
Pages
pp. 277-284
Launched on MUSE
1996-06-01
Open Access
No
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