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

by Deborah Shapiro
(First draft)

In the early 19th century, the first generation of female 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 SRHO lasted the longest, not moving to 104th Street until 1891; but the OAS moved to West 73rd Street in the late 1830’s, and 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.

I hypothesize that the uptown upheaval was not a coincidence; nor was it based simply on each charity's financial need. Rather, the institutions’ moves were a result of a developing understanding of urban growth and public health. My web exhibit will focus on how the asylums' early administrators viewed the urban environment, both in Greenwich Village and the downtown neighborhoods where their charges largely came from. I will in particular pay attention to discussions of overcrowding, disease, pollution and cleanliness, as these subjects will reveal the motivations I suspect to underlie the uptown shift.

I plan to conduct the bulk of 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, which holds the records for the Society for the Relief of Half-Orphan and Destitute Children.

I will relate my archival findings to the following 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.
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.
Duffy, John. History of Public Health in New York City, 1625-1866. Russell Sage Foundation, 1968.
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.

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