- The Charleston Orphan House: Children’s Lives in the First Public Orphanage in America by John E. Murray
Orphanages, Poverty, Charleston, Class, Market economy
Childhood poverty in the United States today is appallingly high. Approximately 16 million children, more than one out of every five, currently lives in households that earn less than half of the national median income—one of the standard measurements of poverty as defined by the United Nations. In a ranking of the 35 wealthiest countries, the United States is 34th in its level of poverty among youngsters. In reality, more than 22 percent of American children are impoverished at some point during their young lives, since poorer households tend to cycle back and forth across the poverty line. Furthermore, their material futures are bleak: 45 percent of youngsters who live in poverty for half of their childhood will still be poor at age 35. The safety net for children in the United States likewise is also dreadful, and it is getting worse rather than better; proportionally speaking, government assistance has been growing more rapidly for the oldest rather than the youngest members of our society during the past few decades.
John Murray’s marvelous new book examines one aspect of the safety net in the past—the first orphanage in the United States. He tracks thousands of orphans, their families, and officials at the institution in Charleston from the time of its establishment in 1790 until the Civil War. Murray is my kind of historian: He strains his eyes with microfilm and gets his hands dusty from handling records, and lots of them. His impressive, prodigious research draws primarily on the applications written by parents (or their literate friends) for admission of their children into the orphanage. It surely is a remarkable set of documents, perhaps even, as Murray claims, “the greatest collection of first-person reports on work and family lives of the poor anywhere in the United States” (4). Moreover, the author makes the records yield a great deal of information about poorer families in Charleston throughout the antebellum era. [End Page 798]
Why was Charleston the first city in the United States (and for many years the only urban center) to establish an orphanage? Murray’s answer is one of the book’s major arguments. Like so many American institutions, especially in the South, the orphanage grew in part out of tensions between slavery and freedom. One resolution was to solidify class solidarity among whites by emphasizing that they all belonged to the superior race. The orphanage thus served the political and social functions of allowing elites to express their sympathy for lower-class whites, and in turn, for poorer whites to enjoy at least the assurance that in the worst of circumstances, their children would have a place to live. In this instance, race trumped class.
This book also makes an enormous contribution to our knowledge in its richly detailed reconstruction of the family lives of poorer whites. Murray displays great sensitivity in recounting their stories. Mrs. S. L. Wright, for example, applied in 1814 for admission of two of her four children to the orphanage when her husband, a plasterer, died. Like many other women, the demise of her husband spelled economic disaster. Without a piece of property, like a boardinghouse, widows simply could not earn sufficient money in the jobs open to them (usually washing or sewing clothes) to keep their families together. When four other men attested to “Mrs. Wright’s probity” (80), thus demonstrating that she was deserving of assistance, the commissioners accepted the two boys into the house.
In studying the poor and the institutions that held them in early America, Murray joins a long list of distinguished historians, including Seth Rockman, Ruth Herndon, Simon Newman, John Alexander, and Gary Nash.1 While Murray interprets the institution in a somewhat more benign fashion than do some other scholars, he still clearly recognizes the limitations of the orphanage. In the course...