Friday, January 15, 2016

Dwelling in Primary Sources: The Orphan

I accidentally stumbled upon the topic for this post. I started by jumping onto Google Books. If you've never used Google Books, you should start! I have a tutorial that you can use to help navigate online. I'll include that brief tutorial here, for your leisure: 

Topic: 19th Century Orphans

Primary Source:
The Lady's Home Magazine of Literature, Art, Fashion, July 1858, the story Marion.

I started by skimming through the text, looking at the illustrations and the titles of articles. I settled on Marion, by Virginia De Forrest, because it had an accompanying picture. As I read the story, I found myself picking up on the theme of orphaned children throughout the text. I spent more time pouring through the different stories, finding that the orphan was quite a common character in the 19th century narrative.

Collaboration: Mary Breeding

Marion grew to be quite intelligent, and had a "loving disposition," despite her lack of parents and future prospects. As a governess, a certifiable damsel in distress, Marion received the "offensive" attentions of George Morton. The story itself ended with the main character marrying Harry Ashly, one of the wealthy men who rescued her from destitution. A tidy plot, ending with a "rich parure of diamonds" around the handsome young lady's neck.

In six months of issues, I found the word "orphan" 14 times from July-December. Another story, entitled "We Two," The main character, Correl, is a rich orphan, with a poor orphan helping the cook in the house. She "possessed that charm which is above every charm of grace and beauty; which, the older you grow, and the wiser and better you are, will outlast all others..." It was a series piece that followed them through trials and tribulations, ultimately ending in their marriage. Another sad orphan finds true love, wealth, and a happy ending. My curiosity was piqued.

What really caught my attention about this typical "rescue" story was the use of irony in Marion's opening lines, right at the beginning of the story, when the two men happen upon the poor orphan:

Well Harry, you are the hero of this novel! It was as if the author peeked through that fourth wall in writing, which is a technique most used in drama. I found this section to be quite personal, almost beckoning the reader to be a "hero of a novel." And what is the best way to do that? Why, adopt an orphan! It almost felt like an advertisement to adopt...

I brought up this idea at my weekly sewing group. Mary Breeding, a fellow reenactor and history lover, immediately brought up the Orphan Train. I had never heard of such a thing, so of course I spent the next week researching. And then a bunch of puzzle pieces clicked in to place.

The Orphan Train
Tecumseh Chieftain, July 8, 1893
The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern cities of the United States to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1853 and 1929, relocating about 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children.

They would call this process "placing out." Charles Loring Brace, a Methodist minister, decided to address the issue of child poverty in New York. An estimated 34,000 children roamed around the city, earning the name "street rats," as they begged or stole. Brace founded the Children's Aid Society of New York to help alleviate the overcrowded orphanages of the city.
Vincennes Gazette 1860
In 1854 the first train left for Dowagiac Michigan, with 46 children. The placing agents would be in charge of monitoring the children, determining whether or not the placements worked out. Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania received children as well. Pennsylvania. Philadelphia is in Pennsylvania. And The Lady's Home Magazine was based in Philadelphia.

A further search revealed that editor T.S. Arthur and Virginia Townsend wrote nearly the entire magazine, with a few contributors. A History of American Magazines notes that "it was for the family sitting room that this periodical was designed. The stories were highly moral, of course, illustrating the evils of flirtation, the folly of personal vanity, the dangers of ill-temper, and the crime of intemperance." The charity of taking in an orphan would have been a highly moral endeavor. I've included a brief note in the Indiana newspaper, Vincennes Gazette, from April 1860, which illustrates the common nature of such an event.

I further discussed this Mary Breeding, who made the whole connection to the orphan train in the first place. "They did it to make it sound like they were doing something good. Even the idea behind the orphan train was that they were trying to raise the child out of poverty. I think that the stories [in magazines] were positive to give validity to the whole movement." Breeding knew someone who was a part of the orphan trains, a coworker in 1972. He was dropped off in Dearborn Michigan on a farm. He never knew his family, and never could track them down. With poorly kept records, it was difficult to find families later as they grew up. 

So I believe I have found the connection with the articles in The Lady's Home Magazine. Virginia Townsend would have been well aware of the orphan problem in 1858. By writing such stories, they normalized the practice of taking in orphans and raising them as family. In both stories, the little orphans turned out to be intelligent, handsome, and hardworking. And by pairing them off with the wealthy sons, Townsend sends the message that such children, especially girls, can be raised to be contributing members of the household. What a perfect wife, if she grew up knowing the family and understanding their traditions/norms! In a way, I would call these stories advertisements for the child welfare movement, which changed quickly with the invention of the orphan train program. 

I didn't learn about the orphan train until just recently. I would love to see this somehow incorporated into events in the Midwest and other places. How would this look? While some children fared well with this system, others felt like prodded cattle at each stop. Potential guardians would check teeth or muscle strength if they wanted a child to work on a farm. While incredibly demeaning, it is a useful part of history that seems to be left out of many events. The plight of the orphans should not be forgotten. 

How could we incorporate this part of history into Civil War events? 
What other messages are implied in these lady's magazines?


The Lady's Home Magazine of Literature, Art, and Fashion, Volume 12 1858

Vincennes Gazette April 1860

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