Children's Aid Society records
Language of Materials
The collection consists of the historical records of the Children's Aid Society (CAS). The charitable organization was founded in New York City in 1853 to aid, educate, and provide lodging for poor children in the city, and/or to place them in foster homes or with employers outside of the city. The bulk of the records relate to the CAS lodging houses, industrial schools, convalescent homes, health centers, farm schools, and, especially, the emigration programs ("orphan train") and foster care and adoption programs which operated during the period 1853-1947. The collection also includes material, such as minutes and financial data, from 1948-1970 and annual reports to 2006. Most records involving specific children require special permission to be viewed. Portions of the collection have been digitized and can be viewed on flickr.
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.
The collection is arranged in fifteen series.
Series I. Minutes of the Board of Trustees, 1853-1963, 1966-1970
Series II. Certificates of Incorporation, Constitution, and Other Organizational Records, 1854-1936 (bulk 1854-1899)
Series III. Reports, 1853-2006 (bulk 1853-1942)
Series IV. Officers and Trustees of the CAS - Correspondence and Other Materials, 1853-1959
Series V. Diaries, Memoirs, and Historical Sketches by CAS Employees, circa 1853-circa 1980's
Series VI. Financial and Fund-Raising Records, 1853-1949
Series VII. Legal Records, circa 1861-1925
Series VIII. Real Estate Records, circa 1869-1964
Series IX. Facilities Records: Industrial Schools, Lodging Houses, Summer Camps, and Farm Schools, 1854-1972 and undated (bulk 1854-1958)
Series X. Convalescent Facilities and Medical Programs, 1885-1965
Series XI. Records of the Children's Emigration, Placing-Out, and Foster Home Programs, 1853-2006 (bulk 1853-1939) (some records restricted)
Series XII. Records of Other CAS Programs and Services, 1874-1947
Series XIII. Photographs, 1890-circa 1960
Series XIV. Newspaper Clippings and Articles from Periodicals, circa 1854-circa 1984
Series XV. Materials Produced by Other Organizations, circa 1836-circa 1934
Please see individual series descriptions for additional subdivision into subseries. Materials are arranged chronologically within each series, subseries, or sub-subseries.
Scope and Contents
The collection consists of the historical records of the Children's Aid Society (CAS). The charitable organization was founded in New York City in 1853 to aid, educate, and provide lodging for poor children in the city, and/or to place them in foster homes or with employers outside of the city. The records relate to the CAS lodging houses, industrial schools, convalescent homes, health centers, farm schools, and, especially, the emigration programs ("orphan train") which operated during the period 1853-1947. The collection also includes material such as minutes and financial reports from 1948-1970 and annual reports to 2006. A large portion of the collection consists of case files from the emigration program which are restricted and need special permission to be viewed. Materials most represented in the collection are reports, bound volumes, photographs, and correspondence, among other material types.
The collection is arranged in 15 series, according to subject matter and/or type of material. It is contained in 994 archival boxes and two oversize boxes, as well as 807 bound volumes. Portions of the collection have been digitized and can be viewed on flickr.
"Orphan Train" and Farm School Records: The records of the CAS programs which placed children in homes outside of the city constitute the bulk of the collection. These records may be found in Series XI, box numbers 45-971 and volumes 362-473. Boxes 56-971 are restricted and need special permission to be viewed. Many of the volumes in this series are also restricted. Restricted volumes are noted in the container list. Boxes 45-971 include the case files and correspondence of foster or adopted children sent to the country, and of boys who had completed the CAS farm school program and who were then placed on farms for wages. (The case files for both paid and unpaid placements were kept together by the CAS). Non-restricted materials in this series include correspondence from children from before the CAS began keeping case files (boxes 45-55), a small number of broadsides, pamphlets, and reports, and some volumes. Other unrestricted material from the Emigration/Placing-Out program can be found in the photographs in Series XIII. The facilities series, Series IX, also has a significant percentage of records from the farm schools where boys were trained before they were placed in the country.
CAS Facilities Records: Although the records of the placing-out programs constitute the bulk of the collection, the collection also includes a substantial amount of material produced by the lodging houses, medical department and convalescent homes run by the CAS, and a smaller amount of material on the industrial schools and camps operated by the society. Materials related to CAS facilities include narrative registers which tell the stories of people taken in by the CAS, statistical record books which provide precise intake numbers and data about those who passed through CAS facilities, and brochures and pamphlets produced by the facilities or programs. These materials support research on the lives and experiences of poor, immigrant, sick, or homeless children, and young men and women in the city from 1853-1930s.
Photographic Prints and Tintypes: The collection includes a significant number of vintage photographs and tintypes. Photographic materials include 2 boxes of photographs of companies of children sent to the country together, 3 boxes of photographs of farm school boys, and 4 boxes of photographs documenting activities in CAS industrial schools, lodging houses, summer camps, and convalescent homes. The CAS hired photographers, including Lewis Hine, to take these photographs for annual reports, brochures and other CAS public relations purposes, between the years 1893-1930's (bulk 1911-1931). Hired photographers also made portraits of CAS officers and trustees, and portraits of children to represent the type of child the CAS helped. Additional portraits among the photographs include thousands of formal portraits and snapshots in the case files, and in 2 boxes of duplicate photographs removed from the case files.
Business and Organizational Records: 517 bound volumes and 13 boxes contain the business, financial and fund-raising records of the CAS. These materials include ledgers; correspondence accompanying donations; appeals, pamphlets, brochures and invitations sent to donors; and records related to donations and other income, and payroll and other expenditures. The materials support research into the business of running a major charitable organization from 1853-circa 1960.
The collection includes Minutes of the Board of Trustees from 1853 to 1970 (except for late 1963 through 1965, which are missing), Annual Reports from 1853 to 2006, and founding, organizational, and constitutional documents. It includes a relatively small and incomplete selection of executive correspondence, and small quantities of legal and real estate documents. It includes a strong number of reports and articles composed for the public, public addresses and radio speeches, as well as reports submitted to supervisory and other agencies, documenting the work of the CAS. The annual reports and other reports provide a window onto the way the CAS perceived and articulated its mission and communicated its accomplishments, and the ways the mission changed over time.
Other materials and Notable Materials: The collection includes several diaries written by nineteenth century agents of the CAS documenting their encounters with poor children in New York City and the earliest days of the CAS's operation. There are also some memoirs and historical sketches by CAS employees relating their experiences in retrospect.
The collection includes photocopied newspaper clippings organized by year and by subject.
Unusual or notable items in the collection include broadsides and pamphlets from the "orphan train" emigration/placing out program (Series XI), architectual drawings by Calvert Vaux, who designed many Children's Aid Society buildings (Series VIII), diaries by agents of the CAS who found and visited needy children and intervened to help them (Series V), vintage photographic prints of groups ("companies") of children sent to the country together as part of the emigration/placing-out program (Series XIII.5), vintage photographic prints of Children's Aid Society programs and facilities (Series XIII.2-3), amateur minstrel show programs from the Newsboys' Lodging House (Series IX) along with other pamphlets and materials from Children's Aid Society lodging houses, industrial schools, farm schools and convalescent homes, and volumes describing the activities of those facilities in both narrative and statistical form (Series IX and X).
Researchers who wish to view restricted children's files or restricted volumes should contact the library of the New-York Historical Society. These researchers will be referred to a designated specialist from the Children's Aid Society who will interview the potential researcher to determine what he or she may consult and will then supervise the reader's use of the appropriate material. Guidelines currently in place for family history research at CAS, as determined by legal restrictions on the accessibility of adoption and foster care records, will be followed. Such researchers will follow as well the general registration procedures of the New-York Historical Society.
Researchers who wish to view open materials will register as Manuscript users, and be allowed access to the unrestricted materials in the collection.
This collection is stored offsite. For more information on making arrangements to consult it, please visit www.nyhistory.org/library/visit.
Permission to quote from this collection in a publication must be requested and granted in writing. Researchers will be asked to agree that no names of principals (children, families, etc.) will be included in any published material. Send permission requests, citing the name of the collection from which you wish to quote, to
The New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
The copyright law of the United States governs the making of photocopies and protects unpublished materials as well as published materials. Unpublished materials created before January 1, 1978 cannot be quoted in publication without permission of the copyright holder.
The collection should be cited as Records of the Children's Aid Society, The New-York Historical Society.
Location of Materials
Immediate Source of Acquisition
The collection was donated by the Children's Aid Society in 2007. From 1985-2007 the collection was consolidated and preserved by Victor Remer, who had been Chief Executive of the Children's Aid Society from 1965-1981.
A large supplementary donation of volumes was later received by N-YHS and added to the collection in July 2018.