The Next Page / How an orphanage kept my ancestors together

When Jessie B. Ramey decided to write a dissertation on Pittsburgh's old orphanages, she didn't know that the subject would hit so close to home.

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It all started with a photograph, the one that's now on the cover of my book, "Child Care in Black and White: Working Parents and the History of Orphanages."

The photo shows my great-great-grandfather, James Caldwell, with four of his children. He and his wife, Jessie, came to the United States from Scotland in 1880. She gave birth to their first child on the boat on the way over. (After having children of my own, I am convinced that my ancestors were made of much hardier stuff than me.)

James and Jessie arrived in Philadelphia with their newborn and walked 400 miles, all the way across Pennsylvania, to Pittsburgh. They settled in West Mifflin, where James went to work in Andrew Carnegie's steel mill. They had seven children before Jessie died in childbirth, leaving James with no way to care for the kids.

It's a typical Pittsburgh immigrant story. And James did what so many single, working parents did at the time: He put his children in an orphanage. This photo was taken about 1891, shortly after he placed four of them in the home. (Two others had died very early on, and another was institutionalized with what we now know as epilepsy.)

I was thinking about this story one day while looking at the photo and suddenly realized: Wait a minute. These kids weren't orphans. They had a living father. There he was right there with his three-piece suit and big, thick mustache. So what were they doing in an orphanage?

It turns out that most children in orphanages in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were not what would have been called "full" or "true" orphans. The vast majority of kids had at least one, sometimes two, living parents.

Because I was working on my doctorate in history and casting about for a good dissertation topic, I started poking around archives to see what I could learn about orphanages. In fact, there were dozens of them in the Steel City at the turn of the 20th century, and I started to re-conceptualize orphanages as a form of childcare. Remember, this was long before the New Deal of the 1930s and the development of social-insurance programs. These private charities were struggling to meet the overwhelming childcare needs of wage-earning families in the age of industrial capitalism.

I quickly decided that I wanted to write about African-American child-welfare institutions because we don't know nearly enough about them. I was immensely fortunate that Three Rivers Youth -- once the Home for Colored Children -- still had its records (and later donated them to the Heinz History Center's Library and Archives).

Then I discovered that the Home for Colored Children had a sister orphanage for white children, founded by the same person, called the United Presbyterian Orphans Home. This institution -- now MHY Family Services in Butler County -- also had its records and generously gave me full access to them.

Old records are like diamond mines for historians. With these two archives, I was able to create a large, relational database, tracking 1,597 children as they came and went through the doors of the orphanages from 1878 to 1929. That trove of data allowed me to write a study that eventually won three major national awards. But none of that would have been possible without a key insight.

I had been sitting up in Butler County for several months, sifting through dusty old boxes brought down from the attic, when I made a discovery that changed everything. I had been looking at the admissions records for the orphanage, which felt like tragic moments frozen in time as one family after the next seemingly "gave up" its children, when I came across the application from James Caldwell. I was stunned.

I had no idea that my great-great-grandfather had placed his children in that home. Through tears, I peered at his neat signature agreeing to pay 50 cents a week for each of the four children. Of course, it's not good archival practice to cry on your documents.

But knowing the end of this particular story -- knowing that James eventually retrieved all four of his children from the orphanage -- changed the way I looked at these (slightly damp) records. James succeeded in preserving his family: His children grew up knowing each other, and their children -- his grandchildren -- grew up knowing him. Later in life, James divided his time between the homes of two daughters.

My grandmother, with whom I was very close, told me stories about James Caldwell. This was her own grandfather, who brought candy, spoke in a wonderful Scottish brogue and taught her to dance the Highland Fling. So I have a direct connection to him -- a memory that has been passed through the generations -- because James used that orphanage to keep his family together.

With this new insight, I was able to re-think what I was seeing in those boxes. I realized that parents simply were not giving up their children or dropping them off to be raised in the orphanage. But rather, as the evidence suggested, they were being incredibly strategic in their use of the institutions for their own childcare purposes.

Forget that Dickensian impression you might have of orphanages. Parents in Pittsburgh (and across the United States in this period) placed their children in orphanages during hard times and then came back for them. Families often faced overlapping crises, from the loss of a spouse to inadequate housing to major illness.

Pittsburgh was an incredibly difficult place to be a working-class family. Mill and factory jobs were physically demanding and dangerous and horrible accidents all too common. Healthcare was poor, and many women died in childbirth. Heavy industry polluted the air and water; sanitation was abysmal; raw sewage ran along the streets; the housing stock was old and scarce as immigration and migration rapidly expanded the size of the city; and the legacy of slavery and racism kept black men and women largely at the bottom of the urban economy. Many families lived just one boiler explosion or tuberculosis case away from having a real childcare crisis on their hands.

Those in need of childcare help frequently tried a combination of strategies -- leaving children with family or neighbors, sending older children out to work or even leaving quite young children home alone -- before turning to orphanages as a last resort. Black and white men typically waited more than a year after losing a wife before turning to orphanages. Black women held out the longest, generally waiting more than three years before placing their children.

On average, African-American children remained in the home for just over two years. This was a full year longer than their white counterparts, suggesting that black parents faced greater obstacles before they were able to retrieve their children. But for all families, orphanages served as a relatively short-term, temporary form of childcare.

And while their children were in the homes, parents remained quite involved with them. They paid boarding fees, sent clothing, supervised healthcare decisions, wrote letters and visited during weekly visiting hours. They negotiated with the orphanage managers over many issues, such as dismissal and aging-out policies, effectively shaping institutional practices for the next hundred years.

In my book, I explain how orphanages laid the foundation for modern childcare, complete with assumptions about class, race and gender that are still with us today. Knowing my great-great-grandfather's story powerfully shaped this work and helped me to see how ordinary people affected the development of social welfare.

I still have the candlesticks that James and Jessie brought over with them and the christening gown worn by their first baby, born on the boat in 1880. They remind me of the great lure of industrial capitalism that brought thousands of people to Pittsburgh and the simultaneous havoc it wreaked upon families.

But another photo of James, taken late in life as he visited Jessie's grave with three generations of his family, also reminds me of the way in which working parents used orphanages strategically for their own purposes and often succeeded in keeping their families together. Now that's a Pittsburgh story.

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Jessie B. Ramey ( is an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow in women's studies and history at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research, published last year by University of Illinois Press, won the Herbert G. Gutman Prize from the Labor and Working-Class History Association, the Lerner-Scott Prize in women's history from the Organization of American Historians and the John Heinz Award from the National Academy of Social Insurance. She also writes the public education policy blog Yinzercation. Her two children are sixth-generation Pittsburghers.


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