Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Orphanages and Orphans

Philadelphia’s earliest orphanages grew out of social projects intended to help impoverished families. As early the first decades of the eighteenth century, city officials created organizations such as the Overseers of the Poor (later the Guardians of the Poor) to provide relief to those, such as the elderly, widows with children, and orphans, who faced poverty through no fault of their own. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, private groups established orphanages to care for children whose parents could not support them because of poverty or death. By the late twentieth century, group homes and foster care largely replaced orphanages as the primary means of caring for such children.

A photo from 1914 of the St. Joseph's Orphan Asylum in Philadelphia.

St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum, originally at Seventh and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia, was established in 1797 after a yellow fever epidemic swept the city in 1793. The institution operated until 1984. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Prior to the rise of orphanages, orphans often roamed the streets, worked as apprentices through indenture, or faced confinement to almshouses, jails, or insane asylums (State Hospitals). Although many children were orphaned because both parents had died, in other cases orphans still had one or both parents, but due to poverty, illness, widowhood, or other hardship, their parents were unable or unwilling to care for them. Institutions sometimes took in children on the guarantee that a parent would contribute financially to care for their child. Some orphans were indentured out by their extended family, institutions also indentured orphan children. In exchange for labor, these arrangements provided “bound” orphans with gender-specific training, such as agriculture and trades for boys and housewifery for girls. Though rather harsh in nature, these indenture agreements persisted into the early twentieth century.

At the end of the eighteenth century, both war and disease contributed to child homelessness. Local Catholic and Jewish women responded by becoming involved in charitable work. The Sisters of St. Joseph founded St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum (1797–1984) at Seventh and Spruce Streets following Philadelphia’s deadly yellow fever epidemic of 1793. In 1801, Rebecca Gratz (1781–1869), along with a cohort of women volunteers, established the nonsectarian Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances to address the needs of “honest and industrious” families left destitute through no fault of their own; it operated a soup kitchen as well as a home for widows and orphans. Orphanages were largely directed by women, a trend that persisted until the late nineteenth century, when social work became more professionalized.

Orphan Society of Philadelphia

In spite of such efforts, abandoned children were a serious social problem by the early nineteenth century. Disease, immigration, and growing urbanization continued to put a strain on the city’s limited resources. In 1814, a group of Philadelphia women, including Sarah Ralston (1766–1820), Julia Rush (1759–1848), and Rebecca Gratz, founded the Orphan Society of Philadelphia (1814–1965), the region’s first nonsectarian (though Presbyterian-influenced) orphanage, to provide the city’s poor, white, fatherless children of married parents the support and moral education that would eventually render them valuable members of society. Philadelphia was one of the few cities in the United States prior to 1855 that also established orphanages for what were categorized as “special classes” of children. Since white orphanages barred black children, they were housed with adults at local almshouses. To address this concern, Quaker women established the Association for the Care of Colored Orphans, also known simply as “The Shelter,” in 1822, at Forty-Fourth Street and Haverford Road. The Shelter cared for both boys and girls and offered a homelike environment. New Jersey chartered the West Jersey Orphanage in 1874 to care for “destitute colored children,” which was led by Quakers John Cooper (1814–1894) and his wife, Mary. Located at Oak and Chestnut Streets in Camden, it remained operational until the 1920s, at which point the children were moved to the Camden Home for Friendless Children (1865–1979) at the corner of Fifth and Plum (later Arch) Streets.

An engraving of Stephen Girard.

Stephen Girard, born in Bourdeax, France, moved to Philadelphia and became a successful banker. Upon his death, he left his fortune to charitable institutions in Philadelphia, including funds to establish Girard College. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

By the mid-nineteenth century, reformers viewed orphanages as a progressive alternative to housing children with adults in almshouses, where, they feared, they would be exposed to criminals and social deviants. Girard College, opened in 1848 for “poor white male orphans,” embraced the model of providing young boys instruction in the trades and mechanical training. The school was founded at the direction of Stephen Girard (1750–1831), who left a $2 million endowment in his will to establish the school, situated north of Poplar Street and Ridge Avenue, a location that Girard believed would provide solace from city life and allow boys to escape poverty by obtaining an education that would otherwise have been unavailable to them. Eventually, Pennsylvania (1883) and New Jersey (1899) passed legislation prohibiting the institutionalization of children in asylums designated for adults. Such views led to the creation of several privately funded orphanages, most of which highlighted the need for education, moral reform, and skills training.

Faith-based groups also founded orphanages in the mid-nineteenth century. Rebecca Gratz, who served for forty years as secretary of the Orphan Society of Philadelphia, established one of the nation’s first orphanages specifically for Jewish children. Gratz created the Hebrew Sunday School program in 1838. By the end of the nineteenth century, this program opened branches across Philadelphia and served over four thousand students. Out of fear that orphaned Jewish children would be reared in non-Jewish asylums and be estranged from the Jewish community, she founded the Jewish Foster Home Society (later the Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum of Philadelphia), located at North Eleventh and Brown Streets, in 1855. Catholics also operated institutions to provide care for abandoned children. The Sisters of Notre Dame ran St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum of Tacony, also established in 1855, to serve girls identified as dependent or delinquent.

A black and white photo of a building at 205 Thirty-Fourth Street in Philadelphia.

The Foulke and Long Institute for Orphan Girls was originally established for orphaned daughters of soldiers, firemen, and other civil servants. The building that housed the dormitory, refectory, and kitchens at 205 Thirty-Fourth Street in Philadelphia is now part of the University of Pennsylvania. (Library of Congress)

By the late nineteenth century, orphanages adopted a rehabilitative model, in keeping with beliefs that philanthropy and charity ran counter to progressive ideals of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. New institutions, commonly referred to as industrial schools, emphasized practical skills. Industrial schools did not aim to elevate the social standing of orphans, but rather, to prepare them for a life of genteel poverty. The Foulke and Long Institute for Orphan Girls, originally established at Twelfth and Arch Streets in Philadelphia in 1882 and funded by the endowment of Eleanor Parker Foulke Long (1792–1882) and her husband, Burgess B. Long (1796–1873), served daughters of soldiers from the Civil War, as well as daughters of firemen and other public servants who had “sacrificed for the public benefit,” in accordance with instructions Long had left for the disposition of her estate. Pennsylvania’s first industrial school for girls, the institute provided residence in a Christian setting as well as a traditional education coupled with training in the industrial, social, and cultural arts. In 1888, it merged with the Industrial Home for the Training of Girls in the Arts of Housewifery and Sewing. Other privately funded and run facilities provided practical education for orphaned and abandoned boys, such as St. Francis de Sales Industrial School (1888), in Eddington, Pennsylvania; St. Joseph’s House for Homeless Industrious Boys (1888), in North Philadelphia; St. Joseph’s Industrial School (1896), in Clayton, Delaware; and the Delaware Orphans’ Home and Industrial School (1899), in Wilmington.

In 1909, the White House Conference on Children embraced the notion that home life was the “highest and finest product of civilization” and that, if possible, children should be placed in foster homes rather than institutions or indentured arrangements. In the early 1900s, social agencies began to pay and supervise foster parents. Home inspections became mandatory, and increasing professionalization in the field of social work called for inspectors to maintain records and evaluate the living situations of individual children. While encouraging reunification of children with their families whenever possible, the foster care system paved the way for additional related child welfare reforms, such as adoption, nutrition and vocational training, and child labor laws. 

Orphanage Restructuring

An image of St. Vincent's Orphan's Home on the Delaware River in Tacony, Pennsylvania.

St. Vincent’s Orphans Home in Tacony was opened in 1855 by the Sisters of Notre Dame to shelter orphan girls. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Findings presented at the 1909 conference also led to significant restructuring of orphanages. Organizations that previously functioned independently joined under a single umbrella. For example, the Catholic Children’s Bureau, created in 1919, attempted to centralize child welfare efforts. In addition, the increasing professionalization of the social work coupled with increased regulation of childcare institutions and support of the foster care system contributed to the decline of the orphanage.

Such reforms would eventually lead to more comprehensive reforms to protect children from abuse or neglect in the latter half of the twentieth century. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, the numbers of children needing assistance continued to rise as the prevalence of orphanages declined with the advent of new social programs. The Social Security Act of 1935 represented one federal government attempt to provide financial assistance to families in need. By the end of the Second World War, most orphanages had closed or were replaced by smaller institutions that tried to promote group home environments. Federal legislation concerning child abuse in the 1970s drew national attention to the need for child protection. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 was created to serve children in their own homes, prevent external placement, and facilitate the reunification of families.

An aerial photograh of the Carson College for Orphan Girls from 1922.

This aerial photo of Carson College for Orphan Girls from 1922 shows the college and nearby Flourtown, Pennsylvania. In the early twenty-first century the school was operating as Carson Valley Children’s Aid. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Despite such reform, the late 1980s and 1990s experienced increases in child neglect and foster placements. Cuts in public funding led to a decrease in child welfare resources. Church-based organizations such as Catholic Social Services (previously the Catholic Children’s Bureau) stepped in and expanded outreach beyond foster care and adoption to include programs for immigrants, the elderly and medically fragile, and those in need of transitional housing. Catholic Social Services became one of the largest nonprofit providers of social services in Southeastern Pennsylvania, with centers such as Casa del Carmen (originally located at Seventh and Jefferson Streets), created in 1954, which supported the transitional needs of Puerto Rican immigrants. Institutes such as the Foulke and Long Institute and the Carson Valley School broadened their scope. The Foulke and Long Institute merged in 1960 with the Youth Study Center of Philadelphia, an organization that began in 1909 as the House of Detention. Its primary role was to provide education and medical care to abused and neglected children, as well as to those who had been accused of minor delinquency infractions. The Carson Valley School merged with the Children’s Aid Society in 2008 and shifted to serving families in need of drug and alcohol outpatient services and crisis counseling.

By the twenty-first century, community group homes for families in need of transitional housing, family preservation programs, and services such as those offered by the Department of Human Services, delivered in client homes, had largely replace orphanages. Charitable organizations that had formerly provided care for orphans had broadened their agendas to provide services to those suffering from mental illness and homelessness, as well as to those in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

Holly Caldwell received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Delaware, where she wrote her dissertation on the medicalization of deafness and deaf education reform at Mexico’s Escuela Nacional de Sordomudos (National School for Deaf-Mutes). She is an adjunct assistant professor of history at Chestnut Hill College and has also taught at Susquehanna University.

Copyright 2017, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Alexander, John K.  Render Them Submissive: Responses to Poverty in Philadelphia, 1760–1800. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.

Ashton, Dianne. Rebecca Gratz: Women and Judaism in Antebellum America. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1997.

Clement, Priscilla Ferguson. Welfare and the Poor in the Nineteenth-Century City: Philadelphia, 1800–1854. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985.

Contosta, David R. Philadelphia’s Progressive Orphanage: The Carson Valley School. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Cooter, Roger, ed., In the Name of the Child: Health and Welfare, 1880–1940. London: Routledge, 1992.

Crenson, Matthew R. Building the Invisible Orphanage: A Prehistory of the American Welfare System. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.

McCarthy, Kathleen D. American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society, 1700–1865. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

O’Connor, Stephen. Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Piven, Francis Fox. Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare. New York: Pantheon Books, 1971.

Smith, Billy G., ed. Down and Out in Early America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004. 


Almshouse Records, Girard College History Collection, Orphan Society of Philadelphia Records (1815–1965), St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum Records, and St. John’s Orphan Asylum Records, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Association for Jewish Children Records (1855–1973), Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Temple University, Philadelphia.

David Contosta Collection, Chestnut Hill Historical Society, 8708 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia.

Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives, St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum, 341 South Seton Avenue, Emmitsburg, Md.

Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, Haverford College Quaker & Special Collections, 370 Lancaster Avenue, Haverford, Pa.

Foulke and Long Institute for Orphan Girls records, Germantown Historical Society, 5501 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia.

Guardians of the Poor Records, Philadelphia City Archives, 3101 Market Street, Philadelphia.

Places to Visit

Carson Valley Children’s Aid (formerly Carson College for Orphan Girls), 1419 Bethlehem Pike, Flourtown, Pa.

Casa del Carmen, 4400 N. Reese Street, Philadelphia.

Delaware Orphans’ Home and Industrial School, 1123 Walnut Street, Wilmington, Del.

Foulke and Long Institute, 205 & 209 S. Thirty-Fourth Street, Philadelphia.

Girard College, 2101 S. College Avenue, Philadelphia.

Jewish Foster Home Society (original location), 799 N. Eleventh Street, Philadelphia.

Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum of Philadelphia (also previous site of Ancilla Domini Academy), 700 E. Church Lane, Philadelphia.

St. Joseph’s House for Homeless Industrious Boys, 1515–1527 W. Allegheny Avenue, Philadelphia.

St. Joseph’s Industrial School, 355 W. Duck Creek Road, Clayton, Del.  

22 Comments Comments

  1. I am looking for a picture of the Philadelphia Methodist Home for Children, was also called The Methodist Home for children or Methodist Orphanage. My Mother was there in 1923 -1931. If I remember correctly was located on Montgomery Ave near City Line. I remember it was locaed near the police station on the same street. Any information you can provide or suggested research places would be so helpful. I know the home is still there but has a different purpose. I believe it is used to help at risk children and they have a farm there where the kids grow plants,vegetables and sell them. i reside in California otherwise I would jump in a car and drive to the place.
    Anna Whittet-Pitts

    Anna WHittet-Pitts Posted July 29, 2017 at 6:58 pm
  2. Looking for information on Burd School for girls, under ST, Stephen’s Episcopal Church.
    the address was 4226 Baltimore Ave. Philadelphia, Pa.

    Barbara Warburton Posted August 11, 2017 at 2:31 pm
  3. Looking for Information on Burd School for girls 4226 Baltimore Ave , Phila, Pa
    I was there from 1935 – 1945

    Barbara Warburton Posted August 11, 2017 at 2:38 pm
  4. Looking for info on Gonzaga home for girls on church lane in Germantown pa

    Gary Breen Posted September 18, 2017 at 2:14 pm
  5. My mother was there from 1934 to 1946

    Gary Breen Posted September 18, 2017 at 2:15 pm
  6. Looking for info from St.Joseph Gonzaga Orphanage from 1948 to 1956 The years that I lived there. Run by the Daughters of Charity Thank You

    Eileen Duffy Collier Posted October 26, 2017 at 8:42 pm
  7. Looking for info for my grandmother and her sister who lived at Saint Mary Magdalen di Pazzi home in Philadelphia. They were shown in the 1910 census and were shown as “inmates” there. I am trying to find out when their mother died, as there are no records that I can find. Thank you.

    K. Stone Posted October 31, 2017 at 9:36 pm
  8. I have information on most orphanages in Philadelphia area. Includes the above mentioned.
    Free. Plus a Alumni Site for students, family and friends of alumni so all can have knowledge of how we grew up mark@pa.net

    Mark Piscitelli Posted November 4, 2017 at 8:35 pm
  9. Most alumni I am associated with bear favorable views

    Mark Piscitelli Posted November 4, 2017 at 8:38 pm
  10. Looking for information on my dad, who passed away in 1980. He was in St. Vincent Orphanage . He was born in January of 1926 and entered when he was 6 or 7 years old. He had 2 brothers and a sister who entered with him. He entered with his birth name which was changed to a Catholic name and was forced to convert to Catholicism.

    Chris McCartney Posted November 22, 2017 at 10:12 am
  11. Looking for information on the Baptist Orphanage, Quaker Orphanage [also know as Friend’s
    Home for Children] at 4011 Aspen Street, and Church Home for Children at 54th and Baltimore Avenue- in the 1940’s to late 1950’s. Researching novel, need pictures and stories.

    Cathy Irvine Posted November 27, 2017 at 1:07 am
  12. Looking for 2 orphan children, mother passed 1918 from flu. Boy and girl, last name Conace.

    Ellen Posted February 11, 2018 at 2:58 pm
  13. Good morning,
    I am desperately looking for my husbands 2nd great grandfathers descendants . Do you have any records for Harry or Henry Musnoff, born in 1853 in Philadelphia, both parents from Germany, possible birth mothers name Catharine Masnaf or Musnauf. Please let me know.

    Thanks for you help

    Sue Musnoff

    Sue Musnoff Posted March 8, 2018 at 11:40 am
  14. I was 16 month old when I got adopted. I was born 11/11/1951 they tell me my name was Frances Kemp. My case worker was ms toy and Monsignor Lynch.. I have medical issues and so to my children. I feel alone my adopted family does not associate with me , I feel like an out cast I feel like the storybook when the duck goes around and ask “are you my mother”? I am 66 years old and I would love to belong to someone. What Does a Mother’s love feel like real love. Can you help and give me some answers.
    Thank you

    MaryMcAllister Posted May 18, 2018 at 12:26 am
  15. Looking for my sister who was adopted in December, 1956. Her birth name is Winifred Devlin. Her birth mother is Theresa Clancy Devlin and her birth father is Frank Harry Devlin. If anyone knows anything about her I would appreciate you contacting me. Thank you.

    Maryanne Devlin Posted May 20, 2018 at 3:46 pm
  16. My mother Rose Julis Salmon and her brother Walter Salmon were an orphanage in Philadelphia, PA from about 1923 to 1926 Mother had said she was in a German Orphanage: her birth date was March 28, 1918 and Walter ‘s was February 11, 1920. Their mother died in 1922 and their father Walter Salmon, Sr. was in the Army. I have not been able to find a German Orphanage in Philadelphia. I will appreciate any information you can give me. I am 81 trying to complete my mothers life story.. Thank you for any leads you can give me!! Gail

    Gail Sanders Posted June 20, 2018 at 11:13 am
  17. Looking for information St Joseph Gonzaga home for girls, 910 Church Lane, Germantown, Philadelphia. I lived there 1950 to 1952 with my 3 sisters: Maggie McCafferty, Kathy McCafferty, and Josie McCafferty. I have information to share.
    Patty McCafferty McLaughlin gpattymac@aol.com

    Patricia Mclaughlin Posted August 15, 2018 at 12:55 pm
  18. My father’s Aunts were in St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum for girls in Philadelphia in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Where would I look to find these records for genealogy and family history?

    You can answer me at the email provided. Thank you,
    Barbara Hess

    Barbara Hess Posted August 25, 2018 at 4:59 pm
  19. St. Joseph’s Home for Destitute Girls
    2901 W. Allegheny Ave.
    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

    Anyone there from 1964 to 1968. I remember Sister Catherine Dolores was Mother superior. Cotact me at 909-645-3899

    Rosalyn Dow Posted October 29, 2018 at 3:54 pm
  20. This message is for Maryanne Devlin. I grew up on West Oak Lane website and I have connected with some St. Benedict’s crew from back in the 50s and 60s. One of our other St. Benedicts friends, Michele, and I were running through names of kids we remembered from there and your name came up. Michele also remembered you had a sister. Sorry I don’t have any information about your sister but I will pray you will connect with her soon. I just wanted you to know that you were remembered through the years by some of the St. Bs. crowd. Susan

    Susan Eckman Rosano Posted October 30, 2018 at 11:08 pm
  21. ATTN: Cathy Irvine

    My grandfather was at the Friend’s Home in Philadelphia and I too am trying to find information on the home. My Aunt has researched and told me that it and all the records were destroyed in a a fire. Please contact me if you find out any information on the home. charchappell56@gmail.com


    Charlene Angstadt Chappell Posted December 31, 2018 at 1:53 am
  22. Trying to find any info to help my husband get a lil piece if mind all he knows is he was born in Pittsburgh in April 1987 and came from a orphanage in Philadelphia

    Rachel Neely Posted January 28, 2019 at 3:12 pm

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