Brace was the founder of the Orphan Train movement, which grew out of his many years of working to improve the lives of homeless and destitute children. He plays only an indirect role in The Gilded Hour and Where the Light Enters.
He is primarily remembered as a co-founder of the Children’s Aid Society, for his progressive ideas about child welfare. His work helped improve the lives of destitute, disabled and/or homeless children, working women and needy families when social services were few and difficult to access. He was responsible for the establishing lodging houses for thousands of children who lived on the street, for industrial schools and a farm school.
Uplifting the “Dangerous Classes”
What Charles Loring Brace’s philanthropy can teach us today
Homelessness, contrary to those who date its inception to the Reagan administration, is nothing new in New York. In June 1872, between 20,000 and 30,000 homeless and vagrant children haunted the city, sleeping not on their grandmothers’ couches—as homelessness is sometimes defined, as a legal matter, today—but actually on the streets. They included newsboys and bootblacks, scrounging to survive; pickpockets working in teams on Christopher, King, and Rivington Streets; and gang members who stole cotton, iron, or baggage from the docks of lower Manhattan. As early as 1852, the city’s prisons held 4,000 criminals under 21. We know these facts not thanks to some archive of the city’s Department of Homeless Services—which did not exist in the nineteenth century—but to one man who undertook to uplift these “ruffianly masses [who] are simply neglected, street-wandering children and who have come to early manhood.”
These days, we remember Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society, mainly for his work “placing out” thousands of poor urban children into midwestern farm families, a massive foster-care effort featured in the 1979 made-for-TV movie Orphan Train. But he did much more than that, including a great deal for the many more children of the street who remained in New York. In an 1881 speech at Harvard, Brace described these children in a way that brings to mind our own underclass: “The vast immigration of poor foreign peasants and laborers [and] the neglect of the marriage-tie and consequent breaking up of family life, with a certain independence allowed to youth . . . for these and other causes, there has come to be in the United States . . . a growth of a poor, vagrant and criminal class of children, scarcely ever known before in the civilized world.”
Brace’s greatest accomplishment in New York was a privately financed system of shelters and schools that helped tens of thousands of homeless kids a year—at a time when the city’s population was under 1 million. His life is a reminder that the assimilation of poor immigrants and the uplift of the American poor in the late nineteenth century were not inevitable but rather the results of concerted action by committed people. He deserves to be better remembered—both for what he did and how he did it.
The Connecticut-born, Yale-educated Brace came to New York in 1849, drawn both by personal ties—his best friend, Frederick Law Olmsted, who would later design Central and Prospect Parks, already lived in the city—and by a mission to minister to the poor. […]
So it was, too, at Brace’s smaller Industrial Schools for Girls. These were what today we would call a job-training program—in sewing and the other domestic arts—but they, too, emphasized character development. At first, Brace recalled, the schoolroom was in “pandemonium . . . how shocking [was] the language of the little girls. . . . Yet the gradual effects of kindness, the influence of patience and of tact in discipline have steadily changed these schools into the most orderly and most industrious places of education in the city. . . . The effect of the cleanliness and order enjoined, the influence of discipline and industry as well as the moral teachings given, were to raise these little girls above the reach of the usual feminine temptations of their class.”[…]
The scale of what Brace did is stunning, especially for those who believe that only government can undertake large-scale efforts to help the poor. Over its first 27 years, the Children’s Aid Society provided temporary assistance and moral instruction to the 170,000 children who passed through its seven Lodging Houses. It also placed 50,000 orphans and other street children in homes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and other points west, in order to bring them under the “healthy influence of family life.” And it established “21 day schools”—vocational schools for older kids—“and 14 night schools, with an aggregate annual attendance of about 10,000 children.”
Brace’s contemporaries realized that he had made a positive difference. One “W. H. Lefferts, Sergt. D.A. Police” sent the Children’s Aid Society a letter in 1861, asserting that “there are not one half as many petty thieves and female offenders against property as last year, or in former years.” Beach, the editor of theSun, was more explicit in giving credit to the Society and its Newsboys’ Lodging Houses. In contrast to previous years, he wrote, “a fight or a row among the newsboys is seldom seen. The smaller ones pursue their traffic unmolested and all things relating to the newsboys give token of better times among them. If these changes are not all due to the Lodging House, I believe that by far the greater part of them can be traced directly to that as a cause.” A letter from one of the newspaper’s business managers observed that “the newsboys of the present day may be said to be an entirely different class of people.”[…]
“Letter from a Newsboy to the Superintendent of the Lodging House. . . . All the newsboys of New York have a bad name; but we should show . . . that we are no fools; that we can become as respectable as any of their countrymen, for some of you poor boys can do something for your country—for Franklin, Webster, Clay were poor boys once . . . even Vanderbilt and Astor. . . . So now, boys, stand up and let them see you have got the real stuff in you. Come out here and make respectable and honorable men, so they can say, there that boy was once a newsboy.”
Related: An article from the New-York Historical Society on prominent women active in 19th century social reform.