Orphans down the street: Passing through

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”?


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