Research Question: Orphan Asylums, Public Health, and Urban Growth

by Deborah Shapiro
(revised draft)

In the early 19th century, the first generation of women humanitarians began their work in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The Orphan Asylum Society (OAS) was founded by a prominent Presbyterian widow on Raisin Street in 1806. In the 1830’s, the OAS was joined by the Society for the Benefit of Half-Orphans and Destitute Children (SRHO) as well as a segregated asylum for black children, organized by the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans. Each of these institutions evolved and flourished throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and, in the case of the OAS and SRHO, even into the present day. Yet, interestingly, none maintained their presence in Greenwich Village past the end of the 19th century. The OAS moved to West 73rd Street in the late 1830’s. The Colored Orphan Asylum had stayed little more than a year in Greenwich Village before its founders sought a new building between 44th and 45th Streets. The SRHO lasted the longest, not moving to 104th Street until 1891.

The uptown upheaval was not a coincidence. Though each organization did benefit from the sales of their Village plants, the move was not based exclusively on financial need, either. Rather, the asylums moved to improve the health of their charges. As Elizabeth Blackmar explains in “Accountability for Public Health: Regulating the Housing Market in Nineteenth-Century New York City,” New Yorkers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were developing a novel understanding of sanitation and urban growth. Sanitary experts and domestic literature taught them that the placement, ventilation and layout of new residential structures, as well as well-apportioned pastoral space in the form of public parks (Clark 31), was essential to city-dwellers’ health. Those who could afford only overcrowded tenements, advised 1840’s physician John Griscom, would have to rely on philanthropic landlords; luckily for the orphans, they had a greater advantage in the Grahams, the Shotwells, and the other “benevolent capitalists” (Blackmar 55) who oversaw the asylum institutions. These humanitarian women recognized “the physical environment as the manifestation of…the source of disease” (Blackmar 46). They placed out some, but not all orphans in the West and the countryside of New York and New Jersey (Heale 30), and the remaining charges were removed uptown to the clean suburban air and modern buildings of Bloomingdale.

My web exhibit will focus on how the asylum administrators viewed the urban environment, both in Greenwich Village and the downtown neighborhoods where their charges largely came from. First I will introduce the administrators and provide background on the inauguration of their respective orphan societies. In particular, I will focus attention on the Orphan Asylum Society’s Isabella Graham and her daughter, Joanna Bethune, forerunners of the 19th century women’s benevolent movement. Next I will discuss the various Greenwich Village locations of each asylum, the overcrowding and ill health that prompted their moves, and the moves themselves. Finally, I will show how the administrators expressed the consequences of the asylums’ uptown relocations to society benefactors and the public at large. I conducted my archival research at two repositories: the New-York Historical Society, which holds the early records of the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans and the Orphan Asylum Society, and Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where the Society for the Relief of Half-Orphan and Destitute Children Records are stored. The bulk of the materials I examined are annual reports, board minutes, financial records and histories. These give a sense of the issues of highest priority for the asylum administrators: the sanitation and population concerns that will feature prominently in my exhibit.

Secondary sources:
Becker, Dorothy G. “Isabella Graham and Joanna Bethune: Trailblazers of Organized Women’s Benevolence.” Social Service Review 61, no. 2 (June 1, 1987): 319–36. doi:10.2307/30011889.
Bender, Thomas. Toward an Urban Vision: Ideas and Institutions in Nineteenth-Century America. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.
Blackmar, Elizabeth. "Accountability for Public Health: Regulating the Housing Market in Nineteenth-Century New York City." Hives of Sickness: Public Health and Epidemics in New York City. Ed. David Rosner. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1995.
Bluestone, Daniel M. “From Promenade to Park: The Gregarious Origins of Brooklyn’s Park Movement.” American Quarterly 39, no. 4 (December 1, 1987): 529–50. doi:10.2307/2713123.
Clark, Frank. “Nineteenth-Century Public Parks from 1830.” Garden History 1, no. 3 (July 1, 1973): 31–41. doi:10.2307/1586332.
Heale, M. J. “From City Fathers to Social Critics: Humanitarianism and Government in New York, 1790-1860.” The Journal of American History 63, no. 1 (June 1, 1976): 21–41. doi:10.2307/1908988.
Machor, James L. Pastoral Cities: Urban Ideals and the Symbolic Landscape of America. Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
Peterson, Jon A. “The Impact of Sanitary Reform upon American Urban Planning, 1840-1890.” Journal of Social History 13, no. 1 (October 1, 1979): 83–103.
Schuyler, David. The New Urban Landscape: The Redefinition of City Form in Nineteenth-Century America. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
Young, Terence. “San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and the Search for a Good Society, 1865-80.” Forest & Conservation History 37, no. 1 (January 1, 1993): 4–13. doi:10.2307/3983814.

First draft

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License