The history of child welfare for neglected and dependent children in the United States traces its roots to Elizabethan Poor Laws from the 1600's and British common law that came to America via the colonists. Up until the 1800's, abandoned and neglected children were placed in workhouses, and sold into indentured servitude or industrial labor, alongside destitute adults. Poor children often also ended up in poorhouses/almshouses alongside adults. In Robert L. Geiser's book, The Illusion of Caring, (1973: Beacon Press, Boston), he says in 1795, there were 622 paupers in the New York City Almshouse and 259 of them, over 40 percent, were children under the age of nine. He goes on to write, "In 1821, in the Boston Almshouse were 78 sick persons, 77 children, 9 maniacs and idiots, and 155 unclassified inmates, mostly old and decrepit…In 1834, the Boston Almshouse (originally intended to be a workhouse for the able-bodied poor) now contained 134 sick persons, 132 children (104 of school age and 28 at nurse), and a distressing 61 persons insane or idiotic…" (p. 152). Eventually public outrage over conditions for poor children in adult work and poverty institutions removed children into specialized child institutions, which eventually gave way to a foster care revolution, ushered in by Charles Loring Brace, in the mid-1840's. The 1800's saw an economic depression, and the U.S. government began getting involved in child welfare, in addition to existing religious and private organizations devoted to the cause for differing reasons. By the mid-1900's, foster care had begun to replace institutional care for dependent children. Yet even in 2008, we are experiencing what some call a "broken foster care system," with children dying in foster care regularly, without proper state supervision. Hundreds of thousands of children have gone through American child institutions and foster care placements. The problem of what to do with abandoned, impoverished children is one as old as America herself.

Elizabethan Poor Laws: 1600's

The Elizabethan Poor Laws from the 1600's have been highly influential in the treatment of poor persons in American history. These Poor Laws differentiated between the "worthy poor" and the "unworthy poor" and instituted different civil remedies for both. The Poor Laws established a residency requirement for aid to the poor. Poor people had to have lived in a community for at least three years to elicit aid from it, and if a person was found vagrant in a community he had not lived in for three years, they could ship him off to any place he had lived for three years at some time in the past, for that community to take care of. The remnants of this are seen in the need to establish "residency" to receive state "welfare" and private aid today in 2008.

The Poor Laws of 1601 helped establish poorhouses and workhouses in England and the future United States territories, to both punish the "idler" and to help the "worthy poor." Those considered the "worthy poor" were the ill, crippled, insane, aged, etc. The "unworthy poor" were those considered "able-bodied" yet "unwilling" to work. Eventually, due to high unemployment rates, a third category was introduced; the "unemployed poor." Almshouses or poorhouses and hospitals were set up for the worthy poor. "For the unemployed but willing to work, there was the workhouse…Finally, those who would not work (the unworthy poor, the able-bodied poor, sturdy beggars, or the valiant rogues, as they were also called), there was the House of Corrections. This was really more of a jail for misdemeanors where the inmates were forced to work." (Geiser, pp. 150-151). Our current "Department of Corrections" has origins in workhouses and the House of Corrections.

In the 1600's, as the Poor Laws were coming out of England, British companies were simultaneously selling children from British almshouses and streets to American businessmen as cheap labor. "In 1619-1620, the Virginia Company of London recruited in the almshouses and among the poor of London children to strengthen and increase its settlement in the New World. A hundred children over twelve years of age were sent the first year, but a number of them died on that long and difficult trip. In 1627, ships left England with 1500 children, bound for Virginia. The company saw the children as a source of cheap labor, while England saw a way of ridding itself of dependents who otherwise would be a burden on the local parishes." (Geiser, p. 138).

Geiser also says, "the mother country of England didn't help the natural orphan problem in the colonies by its practice of scouring the streets of English cities for homeless children and shipping them off to America." (Geiser, p. 138). In 1654, the Dutch East Indian Company "sought to increase the population of New Amsterdam (New York City) by sending several hundred children to the colony from the almshouses of Dutch cities." (Geiser, p. 146).

Indentured Servitude

In this way, indentured servitude, and industrial labor began to swallow up America's poor youth. Children from poverty backgrounds were shipped to America from around the world, and left here, with "bosses" they were sold to, as working chattel. Up until the 1800's, there were primarily three types of child protection in America. "The most important was indenture and apprenticeship. The second method was to maintain children in the American versions of the almshouses. Lastly, there were limited amounts of outdoor (home) relief." (Geiser, p. 146).

The practice of "indenturing" poor children into work contracts as minors was practiced in England prior to English colonists coming to America. "Binding children out" to indentured positions was a way that colonists dealt with orphans and other poor children, as well as infants.

"Once the colonies were established, indenture became a method of dealing with the children of colonists who had been orphaned, neglected, or who were illegitimate or ill-stricken. Shortly after the founding of the colony in Massachusetts, for example, the first child was placed out by public authority. The year was 1636 and the child's name was Benjamin Eaton. He was probably 7 years old at the time…" (Geiser, p. 147).

Parents could indenture or bind their own children out from any age until adulthood, and sometimes the state forced parents of neglected children to sell them into indentured positions, as well. In New York City, in 1725, there are records of an 18 month old being bound out as an indentured servant, and in 1726, New York City records show the indentured servitude of a four year old. (Geiser, p. 148).

Typical indentured child contracts included the length of the indentured service, the date the child was free, there was usually an education or training clause, and lastly, there was a list of what was due the child once his indentured term was through. Sometimes there were also sobriety, chastity, and confidentiality clauses. Boys were most often indentured until age 21, and females were indentured most often to age 18 or until married. The most fortunate of indentured servant minors were invited to live in the colonies they were indentured in, practicing the trades they were raised with, while others were run out of town as potential competition for their master once trained and of majority age, quickly replaced by a new indentured child. "In Dutchess County, in New York, in the late 1700's, boys received a beaver hat, a new Bible, and 20 pounds of York money in cattle or sheep. The girls also received a new Bible plus 30 pounds of good geese feathers." (Geiser, p. 149). The indentured servant system as applied to children had far less to do with job training and more to do with a cheap labor force. "Children as young as 3 years old were being indentured out and, when they became free, they were lucky if they got one suit of clothes and five dollars for all those years of work." (Geiser, p. 150). ). In Timothy A. Hacsi's 1997 book, Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MASS.), he writes, "Two factors prompted orphan asylums to shift away from indenturing children to placing them out. The first was the growing recognition that childhood was a separate, and distinct, phase of life and that children should not be overworked at an early age. In the late 19th century, middle-class society was increasingly coming to view children as emotionally valuable rather than as economic assets." (p. 137).


"Up until the latter part of the 19th century, the almshouse was the principal place for care of children in America, as it had also been in England." (Geiser, p. 150). The first almshouse in America was built by the Dutch in New York City in 1652. (Geist, p. 150). Boston built an almshouse in 1660, Virginia had workhouses for poor children in 1668, and Rhode Island built an almshouse for children in 1723. New York finished its almshouse in 1736, which included an infirmary area, which grew into the oldest public hospital in the country, Bellevue Hospital. In 1743, Massachusetts supported joint community poorhouses and Philadelphia built its almshouse in 1767, and a poor farm in 1773. By 1800, both Philadelphia and New York City were building larger almshouses. Maryland set up an almshouse in 1768, and Delaware had an almshouse by 1823. (Geiser, pp. 151-152). "If you were a citizen of New York City in 1750, you could read in your newspaper notices to the effect that the almshouse had two children, boys ei eight and ten, waiting for suitable apprenticeships. In 1794, a total of 94 children were bound out from the New York Almshouse." (Geiser, p. 153). Almshouses were not safe or sane places for children, yet children constituted a majority of all almshouse populations.

"The plight of children who lived in the almshouses was far from happy. There was no separation of persons by age, sex, or condition. The old, sick, blinded, crippled, epileptics, idiots, children, unmarried mothers, tramps, criminals, prostitutes, and the insane all intermingled. The last category often comprised ¼ - ½ of the total population…The almshouses were a human scrap heap. The building was often old and in poor repair. Beds were a pile of straw on the floor and sanitary conditions were terrible and sanitary facilities were lacking. It is no wonder the children who lived there were described as "scrawny, sore-eyed examples of unnecessary wretchedness." The "sore-eyed" is a reference to the frequent eye infections that were a scourge in both English and American almshouses….The most likely source of eye infections for children in almshouses was probably venereal disease. One observer describes children being mixed in the almshouse with the "loathsome syphlytic." Sharing the same bed with infected adults and other close physical contacts resulted in the infection of the child." (Geiser, pp. 153-154).

The Industrial Revolution quickly utilized poor children as cheap labor in America, often placating their critics with a claim of "job training" for the indigent child, or feigned "apprenticeships." "Indenture gradually fell into disfavor as other methods of child care developed, but it was still around as recently as the beginning of this century. It had changed its character to become "on the job training" as part of trade schools…" (Geiser, p. 150). It is worthy of note that when these types of "apprenticeships" for children were finally condemned by society, the institution to pick up their slack was the "trade school." Trade schools came out of workhouse and indentured servant roots, not from the loins of academia...more of this article to be posted at a later date...

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