The Children's Aid Society
Photograph from History and Aim of the Five
Points House/Italian House, by Underwood &
Underwood, ca 1909.
The Children's Aid Society was founded in 1853 by Methodist minister Charles Loring Brace (1826–1890) to help the growing number of impoverished children in New York City. Commonly called "street Arabs," these children were often orphaned or abandoned, and some were runaways, petty thieves, or gang members. Because of the heavy immigration that followed the great famine of the 1840s, many of them were also Irish, and their poverty and ethnicity aroused both compassion and fear on the part of middle-class reformers like Brace.
A graduate of Yale University and Union Theological Seminary, Brace worked for two years at the Methodist mission in New York's notorious Five Points district. Financial support from New York businessmen and philanthropists enabled Brace to start the Children's Aid Society, and he soon became a national spokesman for child rescue work. Critical of congregate institutions such as orphanages and almshouses, Brace thought that the rigid discipline of those institutions sapped a child's self-reliant spirit, and that charity only encouraged children to remain dependent. Alternatively, the Children's Aid Society opened low-cost lodging houses for boys and girls, set up reading rooms and "fresh air" camps for their benefit, and established industrial schools to prepare them for employment and self-sufficiency.
Brace's most distinctive effort, however, was the emigration program, commonly known as the "orphan trains." Determining that children needed not only education and employment, but a home as well, the Children's Aid Society sent groups of children by train to be placed with families in small towns and rural communities across the country. In a stable family environment, Brace believed, the children would learn Christian values and develop the skills and the will to work, while the family in turn received help on their farm or shop and in daily housekeeping.
Through Brace's emigration program, the New York Children's Aid Society placed some 100,000 children over the next 75 years, but its success remains difficult to evaluate. Many of the children escaped impoverished circumstances to join caring families, go to school, and build successful work and personal lives, while others may have been exploited or abused. In many cases families were disrupted, as not all the children sent from New York were orphans. Particularly after the Civil War, many widows, struggling to support their children, felt forced to put them into foster care. Other destitute families may have viewed placement as a temporary expedient. Cultural disruption occurred as well, since many of the children placed were Irish or, in the later 19th century, Italian or Jewish, while most of the foster families were Protestant. Brace himself never doubted that his system was humane and effective and that it not only rescued needy children, but helped protect New York City from "the dangerous classes."
After Brace's death in 1890, the Children's Aid Society's child-saving philosophy gradually changed. The Society increased its efforts to maintain children in their own homes and developed a more modern system of foster care, with local placement and closer supervision. The last "orphan train" left New York in 1929. Today the Children's Aid Society assists children and their families with over 100 programs in health, education, housing, and advocacy throughout New York City.
Immigration to the US Resources
Listed below are digital resources from the Immigration to the US collection about, or related to, the Children's Aid Society. These resources represent only a selection of what exists on these topics. More physical materials on these topics may be available at the owning repositories, some of which are open to the public.
Children's Aid Society Italian House Photograph Collection, New York, N.Y.: Underwood & Underwood, c1909.
This collection of 24 photographs documents the Children's Aid Society's activities at Five Points (Italian) House in New York City. A typescript, "History and Aims of the Five Points House (Italian) House," is included with the photograph album. The original prints reside in the collection of Widener Library.
Brace, Charles Loring. The Best Method of Disposing of Our Pauper and Vagrant Children. New York: Wynkoop, Hallenbeck, & Thomas, 1859.
Brace, Charles Loring. The Life of Charles Loring Brace: Chiefly Told in His Own Letters / Edited by His Daughter. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1894.
Children's Aid Society. The Children's Aid Society of New York: Its History, Plan and Results / Compiled from the Writings and Reports of Charles Loring Brace, and from the Records of the Secretary's Office. New York: Children's Aid Society, 1893.