Established on February 7, 1826, the Philadelphia House of Refuge provided an alternative to prisons for incarcerating juvenile delinquents and child vagrants. Although the House of Refuge purported to aid poor and delinquent children, in practice it became a paternalist organization that strove to implement social control over the city’s lower classes.
A project of wealthy white merchants, philanthropists, and politicians, the House of Refuge began with a Board of Managers that included John Sergeant (1779-1852) and Alexander Henry (1763-1847), two of the city’s wealthiest men. With powerful connections across the city and state, the Board of Managers attained twenty thousand dollars in government grants and more than eight thousand dollars in private donations. This endowment of public and private funds allowed the board to purchase a five-acre plot at Fairmount and Ridge Avenues in April 1827. By December 1, 1828, construction was complete and the House of Refuge was ready for its first class of eighty boys and girls.
Earlier practices of incarcerating children in prisons perturbed reformers, who argued that delinquents deserved a place of rehabilitation rather than punishment. Advocates for the House of Refuge suggested that delinquents needed “an asylum for poverty and helplessness and ignorance, not a prison for malefactors.” White youth under the age of twenty-one could be referred to the institution through a number of means, such as through an order of a judge or the mayor. As a result, youth who had been abandoned, convicted of a crime, or homeless, became eligible to stay at the House of Refuge for at least one year.
In structuring the institution, the board followed the examples of the New York House of Refuge and Boston House of Refuge, where children’s days were highly regimented and aimed towards moral, intellectual, and physical improvement. Days at the Philadelphia House of Refuge began at 5 a.m. with children laboring for six to eight hours and learning for three to four hours. Other than a brief period of play after dinner, the days were devoid of any idleness or frivolity. The managers declared restraint to be “necessary no less for the good of the subject, than for the security of society.” The board also claimed to train children to become self-reliant. Children received lessons in reading, writing, geography, and mathematics and they attended lectures on Protestantism. The children also received vocational training. Boys were assigned to apprentice as farmers, printers, tanners, carpenters, blacksmiths, and shoemakers while girls were trained in housewifery, sewing, washing, and cooking.
During the late 1840s, the board began discussing the possibility of opening a division of the House of Refuge for African American children. After raising nearly fourteen thousand dollars from private donors to cover construction costs, the House of Refuge for Colored Children opened its doors in December 1849 with a speech by Judge William D. Kelley (1814-90). While Black and white boys and girls shared curriculum and trained in similar crafts, the House of Refuge was strictly segregated with Black and white children occupying separate buildings.
Despite reformers’ intentions, the House of Refuge rarely lived up to its mission of rehabilitating delinquent children. In 1876, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives initiated a nine-day investigation into abuse and found that the board punished children by banning play, sending them to bed without supper, placing them in solitary confinement, and even imposing lashings. The board forced children to labor in institutional workshops six days a week without pay and, to make matters worse, thousands of dollars in profits from the goods produced went directly to the board. Despite the prevalence of punishments, the House committee deemed that the board’s actions were not abusive.
By the late 1880s, the House of Refuge had grown too large for its quarters in Philadelphia and moved in 1892 to a more spacious location in Thornbury Township, Delaware County. In 1911, the board changed the institution’s name to the Glen Mills Schools and continued operation as an educational institution for troubled youth.
James Kopaczewski is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Temple University. (Author information current at time of publication.)
Copyright 2016, Rutgers University
Connecting Headlines with History