Blood and Water: American Adoption Stories – Song of the New York Children’s Aid Society (1850s)

Source:  Nelson, Claudia. Little Strangers: Portrayals of Adoption and Foster Care in America, 1850-1929. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.

The 1850s

Embracing of the philosophy of John Locke that love and nurture would produce better adults than corporeal punishment. Books on child-rearing became a major genre in the United States of America in the 1840s, “when authors such as Catharine Beecher and Horace Bushnell suggested that children were not steeped in original sin, but rather were malleable creatures who might be led to virtue by informed and gentle parents” (Nelson, 9). This trend in viewing children within families extended to needy and orphaned children, and the American public began to desire to protect displaced children from society– “to extract them from the damaging milieu into which they had been born or thrust by loss and to transplant them into a morally nourishing soil” (9).

In 1851 Massachusetts enacted an adoption law that “facilitated the permanent transplanting of children into new families and bestowed upon legal adoptees rights (of inheritance, for instance) equal to those of legitimate biological children.” Though there was notable public outcry in the wake of this reform (mostly by those concerned by ethnicity, social class, religion and the “purification of the nation”), other states followed suit. (Nelson, 10)

The New York Children’s Aid Society

Concerted efforts arose in this time period to not only clean up the streets– but to clean them up by finding stable homes or work placements for the thousands of urban orphans in the United States. One such effort was the New York Children’s Aid Society, founded in 1853, whose work became “synonymous… with the relocation and consequent uplifting of street children.” In true Lockean manner, founder Charles Loring Brace sought to end poverty by building the character of the poor and destitute. Between 1854 and 1929 the New York Children’s Aid Society and other similar groups recruited more than one hundred thousand children from the streets, orphanages, and workhouses to take them West on the famed “Orphan Trains” for adoption. (Nelson; 10, 23)

The writings of The New York Children’s Aid Society, published in popular periodicals such as St. Nicholas and Harper’s Monthly were immensely well-read and established a forum for discussing children’s issues like adoption, foster care, and labor. Charles Loring Brace’s writings “have considerable rhetorical importance,” according to Claudia Nelson, recipient of the Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, because of their dramatic diction and proof of Brace’s “desire to protect society” from low-class criminality, Catholic popery, and moral decline that overrode any feelings of sympathy he may have had toward the children he helped place. (Nelson, 11)

Writings of the New York Children’s Aid Society

The writings of the New York Children’s Aid Society focus on propagating the above-mentioned beliefs. Especially as New York Children’s Aid Society trains carried groups of children West to be adopted by settling families, the hope of the Society was to encourage prospective adoptive parents that the children they proffered needed only good nurturing to become fully-functioning, law-abiding adults now that they had been removed from their questionable origins. One song, reportedly composed by Charles Loring Brace reveals Brace’s (and much of the contemporary public’s) belief that the lives of poor city children were immoral and corrupt– and that removing the children and having them adopted by families that would nurture them was the best chance for the individual children and for society.

No more complaining fills the street

Of children who deserted roam,

For here the houseless vagrants meet

A benefactor and a home.

And girls defenseless, wretched, poor

Snatch’d from the haunts of vice and care

From ill examples here secure,

Instruction and protection share. (Nelson, 23)


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