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.  

23 Comments Comments

  1. Patricia. My orphanage alumni page has members from where you are looking for information


    Mark M Piscitelli Posted April 13, 2019 at 2:37 pm
  2. I am trying to get information for a baby sent to this orphanage in 1887. Where can i find records for St. Joseph Orphanage Asylum?

    Franz Krieger Posted April 19, 2019 at 1:41 pm
  3. Franz Krieger, First try Catholic arch dioceses of Philadelphia, if no luck look to local parish for records, I do information gathering free as a ministry, for I grew up in a orphanage system. Anyone can feel free to contact me

    Mark M Piscitelli Posted April 22, 2019 at 4:09 pm
  4. I’m trying to find out information about Greenwich Home for Children in South Philadelphia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was not exactly an orphanage but a facility for developmentally delayed and physically disabled kids. My adopted son was there for his first 8 years until we adopted him. All records of the Home seem to have disappeared. I don’t know if it was state-run or private, or when it closed. My son is on a search for his birth family and I’m trying to help him. Many thanks for any information!

    Nancy Moore Posted May 31, 2019 at 3:47 pm
  5. I’m wondering if anyone can help me find a young boy named Jonathan or any variation of the name Jonathan. Example John, Johnny, and etc. The years are probably anywhere from 1950-1957 or so. I know that he was most likely in an orphanage for his whole life and the orphanage was located in Philadelphia PA. Thanks!

    Lea Posted July 13, 2019 at 3:30 pm
  6. I was adopted from a Catholic Adoption Agency in Philadelphia in 1950. Anyone have any info on it?

    Karen Posted August 6, 2019 at 1:42 am
  7. Hello, I am trying to find an orphanage called: The Wood in Philadelphia. My Mom and her siblings had been placed there in 1930s. There surnames is: Middleton

    Tina V. Dessio Posted September 4, 2019 at 7:51 pm
  8. I am looking for information on Gonzaga in Germantown and orphange for girls. My mom would have been placed there in the early 1940’s her last name is Rowan.

    christine ross Posted October 4, 2019 at 12:54 pm
  9. My mother, Anna Abrams (married name Schwartz) and her older sister, Ada Abrams (married name Sender), were in the Jewish Children’s Home of Philadelphia from about 1917 – 1925. Children had to leave the orphanage at age 16 to work. Both girls moved into a rooming house owned by Ike and Fannie Wessel of Philadelphia. How can I find out information about the Jewish Children’s Home (not sure if that’s the actual name of it)? How can I find anything about the Home including info of the superintendent running the Home during that time? Thanks for any help you can offer. Janet Abramson janetcabramson@yahoo.com

    Janet Abramson Posted October 27, 2019 at 10:09 am
  10. My dad Paul Russell Jackson grew up in a orphan around 1941 and or after that Year was just trying to find our some information about my dad all we have is pic from them orphans that he was in thank you

    Charlene Posted January 5, 2020 at 7:59 pm
  11. Looking for a orphan back In
    1958 1959 . Not sure where it
    Was. How can I fine a list of orphan
    In PA.
    Thank you

    Linda Bonkoski Posted January 6, 2020 at 8:12 am
  12. In looking at a family member’s 1940s address book, I discovered an entry for Sister David, The Catholic Children’s Bureau, 1706 Summer Street, Phila, PA Phone Rittenhouse 5520, and St Josephs Villa, Orange & Rosetree Sts., Media, PA. This is an unknown and unexpected discovery that has piqued my interest.

    How would you suggest I pursue discovery in this matter.

    Thank you.


    Marie Posted February 15, 2020 at 3:31 pm
  13. My father in-law was put in the Odd Fellows Orphanage at OGONTZ AVE near CHELTEN AVE Philadelphia, PA as a child in the early 50’s. Where would we need to inquire to try to find any/all information about his placement there?

    Thanks in advance!

    Wayne Posted March 22, 2020 at 8:54 pm
  14. My Grandfather John Kacusis and his brother Joey Kacusis were placed in the Stephen Girard Orphanage for Boys in the late 1920s or early 1930s. I see in this article that he founded Girard college that took in boys but I have not seen any information specifically about an Orphanage. Is anyone familiar with this orphanage?

    John Joseph Casey Posted April 18, 2020 at 2:29 am
  15. My father in law was in the orphanage @ 415th south 15th street in the mid to late 40’s.

    Laura Posted May 23, 2020 at 6:44 pm
  16. My dad Bob Prosser was in a Philadelphia orphanage in the 30’s. Wondering if anyone knew anything about him. Thanks!

    Louise Posted May 25, 2020 at 11:32 pm
  17. My Mother in law was placed in orphanage in south philly from the day she was born 1/3/1932 until grandfather took her out in 1934 or 1935. She knows nothing about her father I was hoping someone could tell he how I can get any type of record or microfilm on her records.

    Thank you
    Judy Dominick

    judy Dominick Posted June 22, 2020 at 9:28 pm
  18. My Dad was in Philadelphia orphanage from 1918 when he was two until 1928 when the orphanage burned down. He was probably orphaned as a result of the 1918 flu pandemic. Knowing the name of the orphanage could immensely help to recover knowledge of my patrilineal side of my family.

    Kokavulu Lumukanda Posted July 14, 2020 at 8:10 pm
  19. My dad was adopted from Philadelphia when he was 12 by Harry & Eurith Krewson in Fawns Grove, Pa. He was born July 27, 1922 & was killed in an truck accident July 22, 1951 (I was just 2 months old). His name before adoption was Joseph Holt. His adopted name was Joseph Holt Krewson. Some say he was Italian others say he was Germany and from a very large family. So far I’ve had no luck in finding anyone related to him. My name is Dixie Lee Krewson now just Dixie Lee. I was born May 26, 1951., but I’m not really sure where. You see the woman that said she was my mother told me 30 years ago that I was not hers but I already knew that., she really hated me. The people that could help me will not because they know that they will all be in a lot of trouble for stealing from me. I don’t really care about that but I want to know who my mother was and if I am related to anyone out there. 717-319-7248. Thank You *my dad was said to always talk about someone by the name of Harold

    Dixie Lee Krewson Posted August 29, 2020 at 2:29 pm
  20. My Mother and Uncle were placed in a Catholic orphanage probably sometime in 1920’s. They later returned to their Mother Harriet Payne Mason/Harris . Any information on them would be appreciated Sarah and Thomas Mason.

    Sarah H. Mackie Posted October 6, 2020 at 3:45 pm
  21. Dear Marie,

    My apologies for not seeing your comment sooner.

    Is there a particular aspect of your discovery that you are hoping to uncover?


    Holly Caldwell Posted October 23, 2020 at 12:26 pm
  22. Dear Franz,

    I suggest contacting the Catholic Historical Research Center. https://chrc-phila.org/faq/


    Holly Caldwell Posted October 23, 2020 at 12:29 pm
  23. Dear Karen,

    While the Catholic Historical Research Center does not hold girls’ records, they might be able to point you in the right direction. https://chrc-phila.org/faq/


    Holly Caldwell Posted October 23, 2020 at 12:30 pm

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