Poor Mothers, Stepmothers, and Foster Mothers in Early Republic and Antebellum Charleston


Between 1790 and 1860, over two thousand children spent part of their lives in the Charleston Orphan House. Just over half of these children were brought to the Orphan House by their mothers, who in most cases had recently been widowed. An unknown share of children lived with female relations and even strangers before entering the institution. Letters written by and for these women illustrate the course of their lives and those of their children prior to coming to the Orphan House. Three relationships characterized the women who sought relief from the Orphan House: strangers who had brought orphaned or abandoned children into their homes temporarily, whom I call foster mothers; women of some blood or legal relationship to the child that was short of motherhood, whom I call stepmothers; and mothers who had borne and raised these young ones. Although it is clear that the mothers themselves enjoyed the closest bonds with their children, it is also clear that even unrelated women felt and acted in a loving way towards their charges.