The 1910 census entry about the orphanage down the street confirmed a story we’d only sort-of believed about the big Victorian barn of our suburban New Jersey neighborhood.
It was the Children’s Home, operated in my hometown of North Plainfield, N.J. by the Children’s Home Association, based in neighboring Plainfield. (This group has existed in various forms since the 1870s, and today, as the United Family and Children’s Society, it’s one of New Jersey’s oldest family service organizations.)
In 1880 the home was in Plainfield. A staffer at the Plainfield Library’s excellent local history archive mentioned a news item from 1885 about the house on my street being renovated for use as a children’s home. From 1900 through 1930, censuses place the home in North Plainfield. The big Victorian was still an orphanage in 1938, according to city directories, but by 1943 (the next available listing), it was a residence plus antique shop. By 1949 it was the apartment house I remembered.
Fortunately for me, the Plainfield Library had a fascinating artifact: a listing of children received between 1877 and 1892.
This ledger apparently was compiled from earlier records. A covering letter says, in part, “I send you the names of the children as I had written them in my diarys [sic].” It is signed C. [initials illegible] Nevins, who could be the Catharine Nevins listed in the 1880 census as matron of the home.
The ledger includes the names of the child, the father and mother, arrival date and departure date, a space for “Where/how sent” and a “Remarks” column. Though a few children are listed only by first name or as “baby,” there are full names for most, ages for some. The oldest listed is 11. Most of the ages are between 2 and 8.
Only a few entries list a reason for a child’s arrival. “Two children brought by father; mother intemperate” was one. These children left the next day. Leaving with a parent wasn’t unusual: 21 children were reclaimed by one of their parents. A few of the others were claimed by someone they knew — a sister, grandparent or family friend.
Four of the children in the ledger died in the home, all of them in either May or June of 1882 (an epidemic, perhaps?).
While some children stayed only long enough for their relatives to work things out, others went to new homes, at least temporarily. Eighteen children were placed in New Jersey, or elsewhere on the East Coast — Connecticut, New York, Maryland.
For 18 more, there was another notation: “Sent West.” It seems they became part of a famous chapter in the history of orphans in the United States.
Next: A ride on the “Orphan Trains”?
Two doors down from the house in which I grew up sat a big, unusually imposing Victorian house on a huge lot.
“House” doesn’t do it justice; it wasn’t what you’d call a Victorian charmer. It was subdivided into five apartments, but truthfully, it was hard to imagine a single family rattling around in that big barn. It also had the widest, flattest driveway in the east end of town, where every kid on my street learned to ride a bicycle, provided the landlord wasn’t looking.
The grownups called it “the orphanage,” a description I didn’t take 100 percent seriously. It sounded made up. Why would an orphanage be sitting in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, anyway? The grownups also said that our property, and our neighbor’s, too, once belonged to the orphanage. This was interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the odd objects we found now and then, digging around in our backyard — patent medicine bottles, bits of crockery and once, something that looked like a toy doll’s bottle. We thought they were buried treasure. The grownups said they were from the orphanage. We rolled our eyes.
A few months ago I was doing census searches on Ancestry.com, trying and failing to break through one of my brick walls. To give myself a break, I decided to browse the 1910 census for my hometown. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what the big Victorian barn really was in the olden days? Answer: The Children’s Home. In residence were a superintendent, an assistant superintendent and a female domestic servant, plus 11 girls and 10 boys.
The grownups had it right, after all.
How strange that I’d grown up practically next door to an orphanage — a real Victorian orphanage. How long was it an orphanage? How many children passed through its doors?
Since I have at least one adopted relative in my family tree, the topic of orphanages and adoptions in the 19th and early 20th centuries has always interested me. I was mainly interested in the history behind the landmark of my childhood, but I also hoped that studying it might give me insight into my own family’s encounters with adoption.
My curiosity led me to look at more census records, some old news clippings and, eventually, at a detailed register of the children who passed through the home in its first few years of existence. The orphanage’s story is the story of children whose families fell through the cracks in a time of no safety nets. Sometimes the fall was broken, sometimes not. I will share more of what I learned in my next post.
Next: Why did children go to the orphanage? Not always for the reasons you’d think.
After college, I had a temporary job as a reporter at the Bridgewater (NJ) Courier-News. It was called a postgraduate internship, which loosely translated as: “We can’t hire any full-timers, but we could use the help for a few months.”
It was mainly fun. Sure, I often had to poke myself awake at municipal meetings, but I also got to cover Ultimate Frisbee tournaments.
And by far, the coolest perk of the job was the morgue.
“Morgue” is newspaper slang for the files of old clippings and photos. Before digitalization, this meant a roomful of overflowing file cabinets. It varied as to how well the morgue was organized, or if it existed at all. There might be an actual archivist on hand, but at small papers, there might simply be a copy editor who got sick of never being able to find reference material, so the morgue was a labor of love.
I lived for clip file research. Heck, I sometimes made up reasons to check the clips. (I really should have heeded this inner voice and chucked journalism in favor of a career in archiving.)
But today, newspapers are in shrink mode. Papers are closing. Or, like my former employer, they’re moving to smaller, cheaper quarters, with limited space for clip files.
This article, while bringing back memories, is a reminder that in many towns, the priceless resource that is a newspaper archive might be at risk. Fortunately the Courier-News management has donated its holdings to local libraries and historical societies.
But will everybody? What will happen to all that history? Speaking to a Syracuse, NY reporter, author and former newspaper guy Pete Hamill expressed the unique character of the morgues: “They tell you all the detail that historians don’t. How much was a pair of shoes. What did a guy pay to go to the ballpark in 1934 during the Depression. How many people were there.”
Interestingly, at least one business out there has sensed a commercial boon in old newspaper clippings. A few months back, Kevin Roderick at LA Observed reported on Time Capsule Press, whose owners plan to partner with newspaper managements to package material from their morgues into books. Their debut is a history of the Los Angeles Lakers drawn from the files of the Los Angeles Times.
It’s a definite bright spot of potential for a historical resource that can’t be allowed to disappear.
The first 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy challenge from Amy at We Tree was a great excuse for me to re-visit the genealogy and local history shelves at my hometown haunt, the Montclair (N.J.) Public Library.
We’re fortunate to have a room dedicated to the local history collection. It contains so much interesting material that I am frankly bitter that I don’t actually have family roots here; I just live here. Here’s some of what is available:
In the general stacks:
• A global genealogical tour! I counted books on 10 different ethnicities, in addition to guides about general research, preserving documents, writing family histories and conducting oral-history interviews.
• The township’s old Field Books, listing property lots, their owners and tax assessments. Because of them, I know my house was built in 1914 and the tax assessor valued it at $3,400. (It is worth more today, at least for now.)
In the local history room:
• Microfilms for our local weekly, starting in 1877. (They’re only partially indexed, alas, but there are also dozens of clipping files arranged by subject.)
• Boxes and boxes of document collections about local groups, from the township council to Boy Scouts.
• Personal memoirs.
• Microfilmed editions of the Social Register.
• A survey of architecturally significant buildings.
Find of the Day:
A slim volume containing bound copies of The Stroller, a sublimely bratty weekly magazine from the mid-1920s. The Stroller specialized in breathless details of who in town was marrying whom, where the beautiful people were going on vacation and which prominent townspeople (unnamed) had fallen off the wagon again.
Gossip is eternal; so are the joys of research. I hope everyone else has as much fun digging as I did.
When I was a child, my library card was sturdy cardboard, inset with a metal tab, embossed with my ID number. Remember those?
Now my card has an electronic bar code, and libraries have certainly expanded their horizons. As a kid, I’d never have imagined the riches I could uncover in the comfort of my home, 24/7. Here’s some of what I can access from my home computer, using my little old library card:
Genealogy collections: Of course, many libraries carry Ancestry.com, but you must physically be in the library to use it. But many libraries also offer online access to HeritageQuest, where you can search censuses, government document collections, genealogical journal articles and more.
Newspapers: Before you drag yourself outside on a cold and snowy day, consider how many newspaper databases are accessible online. The New York Times electronic database (1851-2005) is one of the most common. Other useful indexes your library may carry include the “America’s Obituaries and Death Notices” database and Newsbank (America’s Newspapers), which currently carries 350 newspapers.
Digital photo collections: Oh, my gosh, do I love these. More and more libraries (like my hometown library) are digitizing their collections of historical photos. I can lose myself in the New York Public Library’s digital collections for hours if I’m not careful. Not to mention the NYPL’s videos on historic topics, also viewable on the site.
Digital maps: Another secret vice. Lately I’ve been rooting around in the Sanborn fire insurance maps for New Jersey, 1867-1970, finding out fascinating things about the neighborhood in which I grew up. To get an idea of how vast this concept is, the Library of Congress has catalogued fire insurance maps of some 12,000 cities and towns in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Not only are they topographically detailed, but because they were intended to help insurers determine risk, they also go into incredible detail about building and street construction, down to the placement of windows and types of roofs. If your ancestors, like mine, were town folks, these maps are an amazing resource.
So pour yourself a cup of coffee and log into your library’s website. You’d be surprised how much you can get done in your pajamas.
Note: I started writing this before the first 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy challenge came up from Amy Coffin at WeTree, urging us to actually visit our local library and report back on their family history resources. Never fear – I don’t need much urging to physically enter my library, and I’ll be taking up the challenge in my next post.