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Guide to the Victor Remer Historical Archives of the Children's Aid Society
1836-2006 (bulk, 1853-1947)
 MS 111

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400

New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Cherie Acierno and Alegria Barclay (2009), Larry Weimer (2018-19)

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on April 19, 2023
Finding aid written in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Historical Note

The Founding of the Children's Aid Society

The Children's Aid Society (CAS) was founded in February 1853 by a group of nine men including Protestant minister Charles Loring Brace. Brace was selected by the group to become the Secretary of the new organization. According to the first annual report, the founding was motivated by concern over the burden upon city resources caused by unprecedented numbers of immigrants, and over concern that impoverished immigrant children were turning to crime or barely surviving as homeless vagabonds selling matches or sweeping streets. The founders believed that gainful work, education, and a wholesome family atmosphere would transform New York's street children into self-reliant members of society. The organization raised substantial funds from the public and many wealthy philanthropists including members of the Roosevelt, Astor, and Dodge families, and immediately began opening lodging houses for homeless youths, as well as industrial schools to teach cobbling, sewing, and many other trades. They also initiated an emigration program, which they explicated in the first annual report: "We have thus far sent off to homes in the country, or to places where they could earn an honest living, 164 boys and 43 girls, of whom some 20 were taken from prison, where they had been placed for being homeless on the streets. The great majority were the children of poor or degraded people, who were leaving them to grow up neglected in the streets. They were found by our visitors at the turning point of their lives, and sent to friendly homes, where they would be removed from the overwhelming temptations which poverty and neglect certainly occasion in a great city. Of these 200 boys and girls, a great proportion are so many vagrants or criminals saved; so much expense lessened to courts and prisons; so much poisonous influence removed from the city; and so many boys and girls, worthy of something better from society than a felon's fate, placed where they can enter on manhood or womanhood somewhat as God intended that they should."

"The Orphan Train"

From 1853-1929 the Emigration Department, interchangeably known as the Placing-Out Department, and finally the Foster Home Department, sent tens of thousands of children to the country, placing them most often with farm families. With this program, the Children's Aid Society became one of the first and principal organizations orchestrating the mass migration of children now known as "the orphan train," and established itself as a pioneer in the development of foster care for children, as opposed to institutionalization in orphanages or almshouses. The CAS sent children all over the United States. At first, they sent children primarily to the Midwest and West, taking advantage of new train lines and the need for farm labor during the period of westward expansion. Children were also sent south, often to Delaware and Maryland. By the early 1920's, half of all children placed went north to upstate New York. "Orphan train riders" ranged in age from infants to older teenagers. Some were foster children; the families agreed to treat them like members of the family and send them to school, and in return expected the children to help on the farm or in the house. Other children were formally adopted. Still others (usually older boys) were sent as paid laborers. The Children's Aid Society followed up on all children they placed. The children and/or their foster families were expected to write regularly to the CAS. In addition, field agents made regular visits to homes where children had been placed, and wrote reports after each visit. Children were frequently removed from homes and transferred to other homes when the situation was not harmonious.

Although the emigration program became known as the "orphan train," many of the children were not orphans. They were children whose guardians could not care for them, or who hoped they would find a better life, and who signed surrender documents releasing them to the care of the Children's Aid Society. Many others were adolescents without known guardians who were seeking their own fortunes by heading west. Some children came via CAS lodging houses or schools, or were recruited by CAS agents. Many other children were transferred to the care of the Children's Aid Society from orphanages, almshouses and correctional facilities all over New York City and State. For older boys, the CAS operated a farm school (Brace Farm opened in 1894 in Valhalla N.Y. and was superseded by a more substantial program at Bowdoin Farm in New Hamburg N.Y. in 1929) to train boys in farm work and give them a taste of what to expect, before sending them to farms. By 1929 the emigration program in its original form had ended, and the only children sent to farms in the country were older boys placed as paid laborers after training at Bowdoin Farm. A smaller training program at Goodhue Home on Staten Island prepared girls for foster care and adoption placement, beginning around 1921.

The Children's Aid Society also operated a "Family Emigration Program" through which they provided train tickets for entire families to rejoin a breadwinner who had found work in another state, for example, or paid a portion of the fare to return to Europe. The CAS had occasionally provided help for entire families from its earliest days, but the records of the Family Emigration Program date from 1874-1926.

Schools, Lodging Houses, Convalescent Homes, and Other Programs

The Society did not confine itself to sending children or families away from the city. The CAS also devoted significant resources to helping children in the urban environment. In New York City, the well-endowed society rented spaces and hired world-class architects to build an impressive number of facilities to their specifications. Most notably, the architectural and engineering firm of Vaux Radford built at least a dozen buildings for the Children's Aid Society. The CAS operated lodging houses, a shelter for mothers with children, industrial schools to teach trades, nursery schools, boys' and girls' clubs and children's centers, and playgrounds. It operated nutrition programs, dental programs, and medical programs. In the country (Westchester, Staten Island and Coney Island), the Children's Aid Society operated convalescent homes, a seaside retreat, summer camps, summer excursion programs, and the farm schools. When a neighborhood no longer needed CAS services, the society closed its facilities there and moved to where the demographics indicated a greater need.

Evolution of the Children's Aid Society

The mission of the Children's Aid Society changed as the needs of New York City children changed and as the CAS developed new ideas about how best to serve them. During the 1920's the "orphan train" in its original form slowed to a halt, but the problem of homeless and jobless boys remained urgent, especially during the Great Depression, and boys continued to be placed out as laborers on farms throughout the 1930s. A new emphasis on helping children stay with their families supplanted the goal of transporting children away from the city, but the CAS continued to provide foster care and adoption services for children when staying with their families was not an option. A Foster Home and Temporary Boarding Home Department was initiated in 1924, and it phased out the Emigration/Placing-Out Department by 1929. The Children's Aid Society closed the last of its industrial schools in 1927, leaving education to the public and parochial school systems, and re-fashioned the schools as health centers, boys' and girls' clubs, and community centers. In the 1920's and 1930's the CAS also began to devote a larger percentage of its resources to African American children.

Today the society serves over 150,000 children and other clients annually, at 45 sites in New York City. Their services begin before birth, with prenatal counseling and assistance, and continue through high school, with college and job preparatory training programs, health care, academic, sports, and arts programs, community schools, and an adolescent sexuality and pregnancy prevention program. To stabilize families, CAS also provides services to parents including housing assistance, domestic violence counseling, and health care access. The CAS "concurrent planning" approach to foster care became the basis for the 1996 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, which defines today's modern foster care system.

For more detailed historical notes about Children's Aid Society officers, facilities and programs, please see notes in Series IV, IX, X, XI, and XII.

1853 Charles Loring Brace and a group of social reformers founded The Children's Aid Society in New York City. To reduce the incidence of crime, vagrancy and prostitution, CAS opened its first industrial schools and initiated the first free school lunch program in the United States. They also began the Emigration/Placing-Out Program, in which children were removed from institutional care and/or urban influences, and sent to live with rural families.
1854 Opened the first lodging house for homeless boys (the Newsboys' Lodging House), along with the first Boys' Club rooms, which were connected to the lodging house.
1855 The Newsboys' Bank started taking deposits to encourage boys to save money instead of wasting it on gambling.
1863 Established a program (Mothers' Meetings) that became the forerunner of PTAs, in which teachers helped mothers learn better ways to care for their families. They opened the first Girls' Lodging House, a shelter for homeless girls between the ages of 14 and 18.
1864 By 1864, the CAS was running 8 industrial schools. At the industrial school for boys on East 38th Street, the school schedule included morning schoolwork, a simple lunch and an afternoon carpentry class.
1869 Opened the Henrietta School, an industrial school for colored children.
1870-1871 1,945 girls were trained at the Sewing Machine classes at the Girls Lodging House.
1872 With support from The New York Times, CAS employed teams of nurses and physicians to visit sick children in tenements, establishing the model for Visiting Nurse Services. This pioneering work, called the Sick Children's Mission, began after 1,000 children under the age of 5 died each week during a summer of extreme heat.
1873 Through a gift from Mrs. Anson Phelps Stokes, CAS leased and equipped a large house on Staten Island, establishing the first "Fresh Air"-type vacations for city children and mothers. The New York State legislature passed the first compulsory education law, for which Children's Aid actively advocated.
1874 Operated 21 day schools and 13 evening schools offering vocational education in immigrant neighborhoods. The Italian School served Italian immigrants, the German School served German immigrants.
1876 Established its first kindergarten in the 18th Street School. All teachers were licensed by the State or the New York City Board of Education.
1881 Opened the first day nursery for infants and children of working women. The nursery was urgently needed as New York City was a major manufacturing center and many women were in the workforce.
1884 Developed summer health and vacation homes in Brooklyn's Bath Beach and Coney Island to help poor, sick children recover from illness. The sea air was considered an effective cure for the diseases and malnourishment of city life in unsanitary and overcrowded tenements.
1890 The Rhinelander Industrial School opened. The building (still standing today) was one of at least a dozen CAS buildings designed by Calvert Vaux (co-designer of Central and Prospect Parks) and George Radford. Other notable CAS buildings designed by this team (and still standing today under new ownership) include the Mott Street Industrial School at 256 Mott Street, The Elizabeth Home for Girls at 307 East 12th Street, and the Sixth Street Industrial School, at 630 East Sixth Street.
1893 6 lodging houses were in operation: the Brace Memorial Newsboys' Lodging House (9 Duane Street), the East Side Lodging House (287 East Broadway), the Elizabeth Home for Girls (307 East 12th Street), the 44th Street Lodging House (247 East 44th Street), the Tompkins Square Lodging House (295 East 8th Street), and the West Side Lodging House (201 West 32nd Street).
1894 The Brace Memorial Farm School opened at Valhalla in Westchester County. It provided basic agricultural training for boys, enabling CAS to place them with farm families.
1898 Established the first day school in New York for disabled ("crippled") children. The youngsters traveled by a CAS omnibus ("wagonette") to the Rhinelander School on East 88th Street.
1899 The CAS was operating 19 Industrial Schools for children. In addition, the CAS ran 7 evening schools for older learners, housed in the industrial school buildings, as well as a dressmaking, sewing machine, and typewriting school in the Elizabeth Home for Girls and a print shop for boys at the West Side Industrial School.
1901 Employed the first school nurse in New York City for the Italian School. By 1909, every CAS school had its own school nurse.
1902 Established the first free classes in New York City for children with mental illnesses. The Emergency Shelter for Women and Children was established on East 12th Street.
1906 Opened the first free school dental clinic in the United States in the 52nd Street School. By 1913, there was a dental clinic in every CAS school.
1909 Established the Elizabeth Milbank Anderson Home for convalescent and anemic children in Chappaqua, New York.
1911 An open air class for anemic children was instituted on the roof of the 53rd Street School.
1912 Opened the Goodhue Center on Staten Island, as a summer camp and fresh air program. By 1921, it was also used as a training home to prepare girls for placement in families - the girls' counterpart to the boys' farm training program.
1919 Began nutrition work after a Health Department survey of New York City school children revealed that 19% were malnourished.
1923 Created a foster home department, which included temporary boarding home and permanent adoption services. This new department began to phase out the Emigration/Placing-Out Department, signaling a new professionalization in social work and a shift away from the "orphan train." The Milbank Home for Convalescent Boys was opened at Valhalla, NY.
1927 All CAS "Industrial Schools" were re-named "Health Centers" to reflect changes in their mission.
1928 More services were created for African-American children and families with the addition of the Columbus Hill Neighborhood Center on West 63rd Street and Utopia Children's House in Harlem.
1929 The Farm Training Program moved from Brace Farm in Valhalla N.Y. to Bowdoin Farm in New Hamburg N.Y.. The new program was more comprehensive, and geared toward older boys, ages 16-21.
1933 Established the Housekeeper Service Program in cooperation with the Junior League, with Eleanor Roosevelt serving as its first chairwoman. The new service provided a "mother's helper" for families where the mother was ill or had to leave the home. It also laid the groundwork for the establishment of a wide variety of CAS preventive services, which utilize counseling and outreach to avoid family breakdowns because of abuse, domestic violence, illness or other crises.
1936 Counseling and employment services for teenagers began in CAS community centers.
1939 Organized the Service Bureau for Negro Children to help find foster homes for African-American children.
1940 The U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children asked CAS to help place British children in foster homes in New York City suburbs during World War II.
1944-present A chronology of more recent work of the Children's Aid Society can be found at The timeline from 1853-1940 was adapted from the same source, with additional information garnered from the collection.