Today, we’re talking about the history of poor relief and child welfare in the United States.

Transcript for: Little Laborers: Child Indenture in 18th and 19th century America

Written by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Recorded by Sarah Handley-Cousins and Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Sarah: Recently, I was on a research trip in Albany, NY, sifting my way through hundreds of records men institutionalized at two prisons for the criminally insane in New York State, Matteawan and Dannemora. It was one of the worst research trips I’ve ever been on. I had had to jump through a million hoops to try to get access to these restricted records, and I was finding absolutely nothing. Then, I came across one file that caught my attention. It was about a young, deaf Black man, and I’m not going to tell you his real name because those records are private, so we’ll just call him Levi. Levi lived on a farm in the Hudson Valley region of New York State. According to his patient case file, he was incarcerated at the Matteawan State Hospital because he murdered his white “master” in 1870. A quick google search – let’s face it, that’s often our first research step! – on Levi brought me to an index on Deaf Americans maintained by Gallaudet University that claimed that he was an enslaved farm worker who killed his white master, David Hasbrouck.

Marissa: Ok, so let’s pause and unpack that. In 1870, a young Black man murdered his white “master” in New York State. How does that work? By 1870, slavery hadn’t existed in New York for decades, and had been federally abolished for five years. What was going on on Daniel Hasbrouck’s farm? How could Levi and his other Black companions be enslaved when slavery was illegal, not only in New York, but in the United States?

Sarah: Well, Levi was born to a single Black mother, perhaps the child of a prominent local white man. He was also born deaf, and into real poverty. Unable to care for her son, Levi’s mother placed him and his brother into the county poorhouse – an institution that provided clothing, food, and shelter for the community’s indigent. But children posed a problem for the poorhouse. They weren’t an orphanage, and had no infrastructure for long term child care. There were no state or federal education laws that required children receive a public education, so there was no school for them to attend. They needed to go somewhere. And so Levi – just like thousands and thousands of children all around the United States – were indentured out to local laborers, ostensibly to learn a trade in exchange for their care, but more accurately, to provide free labor in households and on farms. An indenture was a contract (not signed or negotiated by the child, but the state) that kept the child-laborer in the position for a set number of years. So while he wasn’t technically enslaved, Levi was providing uncompensated, unfree labor to Daniel Hansbrouck, and had been for many years.

On this episode, we won’t be talking about Levi’s murder case and all the issues it raised – you’ll have to read my future article for more on that. But instead, we’ll learn more about one of the things that made his murderous act possible. Today, we’re talking about the history of poor relief and child welfare in the United States.

I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins

And I’m Marissa Rhodes

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig

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Sarah: While today you might be able to apply for something like unemployment, social security disability, or forms of temporary assistance, those forms of assistance were largely born out of the 20th century legislative reforms like FDR’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. But while previous forms of poor relief were very different from the ones we’re familiar with today, they had one major thing in common: they were tightly intertwined with social assumptions about poverty and morality. Early Americans, just like modern day Americans, had complicated ideas about the causes of poverty and how to properly solve it. In order to understand how a child like Levi was indentured out to perform labor for a local farmer, we first have to understand the ways that nineteenth century Americans thought about poverty and how to address it.

Marissa: The American system of poor relief is founded on the English tradition, dating to the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor, more commonly known as the Elizabethan Poor Law. This law – or more accurately – a collection of laws, formalized traditional practices of providing care for the poor in Great Britain. This law identified three different ‘kinds’ of poor people. The first group was the impotent poor – people who were by their nature unable to take care of themselves, such as women, children, disabled people, and the elderly. Later, this group was more typically referred to as dependents – in other words, people who were dependent on the care and provision of a head of household, aka, a white adult man. The second group was the able-bodied poor: men who were physically healthy but down on their luck. In England, the able-bodied poor were fit enough to be able to do some labor in workhouses, where they might to menial manual labor (like picking oakum or crushing animal bones for fertilizer). The third group was the paupers, otherwise healthy, able-bodied people (typically men) who could work but wouldn’t. Instead, the idea was that paupers lived off of poor relief – essentially, trying to act like a dependent while actually being independent … at least according to the assumptions of society. To be accused of pauperism was hugely stigmatizing – it was a feminized, racialized term that suggested that a man was ineligible and incapable of manly independence and citizenship.

Sarah: The American colonists based their system of poor relief largely on the English precedent. Rhode Island, for instance, just wrote into their own legal code that the Elizabethan Poor Law would also be their poor law. There were a few main features of the Elizabethan law that were copied into the American system. First, they assumed that poor relief was the responsibility of the community at large. Second, they understood this responsibility as hyperlocal, located usually in a single village or municipality, funded by taxpayers and facilitated by a group of local elders that typically labeled themselves overseers of the poor. While this meant that the community cared for their own, it also meant that they would not care for anyone they believed was not their own – and it was very common for the overseers of the poor to literally bring outsiders across town lines and drop them off to become someone else’s problem. Third, they believed that first and foremost, responsibility for the indigent belonged to kin – anyone seeking public aid would be rejected if they had family members. There was a fourth precedent regarding children, but we’re going to come back to that in a moment after we get a little more context for what poor relief looked like in nineteenth century America.

Punch Cartoon from 1843 criticizing the Poor Law

Marissa: Based on these principles, American towns and villages typically had four ways of dealing with the poor in early America. It’s pretty well summed up by this quote from a report written by social reformer Thomas Hazard in 1851: “1st: By venduing [auctioning or selling] to the lowest bidder, 2nd. By contracting for their maintenance, with an individual, or individuals, through the agency of a committee or otherwise; 3d. By placing all the poor in one Asylum, owned by the town. 4th By placing all such in an asylum as are bereft of home and friends, and administering of out-door relief to such as have.

Sarah: Ok, so let’s pull that apart and try to make sense of it. First, there are two general  categories of relief described here: relief where people are being giving work or other supports but are living in the community; and relief where people are brought in to live inside an institution. These were called “outdoor relief” and “indoor relief.” Hazard describes two kinds of outdoor relief, though there were others like free food, firewood, or cash payments. First, he says that they might auction off  the poor to the lowest bidder. That sounds particularly foreign (and frankly, horrible) to us today, but it actually reminds me of the practice in some states where agricultural labor is in high demand, where a farmer in need of day labor might drive to someplace like a Home Depot and pick up laborers willing to work for the best price. That’s essentially what this form of poor relief was, with the exception that it was required by the local overseers of the poor, and the poor weren’t necessarily being ‘purchased’ to perform labor. Instead, the bidders were hoping to win the meager payments from the town to essentially take the care of the poor off of their hands. This was a pretty limited practice, mostly only practiced in quite rural areas or small towns that didn’t have other kinds of infrastructure to care for the poor. It was also pretty unpopular. Hazard commented that “when stripped of all disguises, selling the poor to the lowest bidder is simply offering a reward for the most cruel and avaricious man that can be found to abuse them.”[1] The other kind of poor relief Hazard described was one where people were “contracted” for the maintenance of the poor. This would be where a family or couple received a contract with the town to provide care for the poor. Like auctioning, contracting was most common in rural areas or very small towns.

Marissa: The last two options (where he refers to people coming in to live in the ‘asylum’) that Hazard describes were more common, and were the systems that dominated poor relief throughout the nineteenth century – essentially, the poorhouse system. There were a number of reasons why the poorhouse became the more common system than outdoor relief. One was just an increase in population – as towns and counties grew, so did the problem of the poor. Another significant reason was the market revolution. As the American economy shifted from an artisanal system to wage labor and the marketplace, traditional networks of community weakened, laborers were deskilled, and people became more reliant on the whims of the market. When times were good and jobs were plenty, they could find work and keep themselves afloat. But when times were bad, employers tightened their belts by laying off workers – meaning that the ranks of the unemployed and indigent grew. In farming areas, the ranks of the poor could grow and contract with the growing and harvesting seasons – lots of work in the spring, summer, and fall, and poverty in the winter. And as people had to leave their homes to work, they were no longer able to provide care for their dependents, such as children and elderly or disabled family members. Many jobless and impoverished people saw cities, where there might be greater opportunity to find work as a their best option, and flooded into urban areas. So all these vulnerable and needy people increasingly turned to the poorhouse as a last resort.

Sarah: So as the impoverished and vulnerable population grew, communities saw poorhouses or “indoor” relief as the better option, rather than ad hoc or complicated outdoor relief. The move to the poorhouse also provided village and city elders to have greater control over those who utilized services for the poor. According to historian Michael Katz, “poorhouses appeared an ideal way to accomplish a broad array of economic, disciplinary, rehabilitative, and humanitarian objectives.”[2] The transition to indoor relief coincided with economic changes, but also with sweeping religious and social changes of the Second Great Awakening. We’ve talked about the 2GA many many times on the show, so we’re not going to go into huge detail here – but recall that the religious revival came with the belief that perfecting society could help bring about the second coming of Christ and a millennium of peace. So it created this huge incentive for religious-minded people to advocate for social reforms – such as ending poverty, encouraging the poor to be more industrious, and ending vice among the underclass. Poorhouses offered an opportunity to further all of those ends.

Marissa: First, poorhouses were more cost effective. They allowed town elders to have greater control over spending as well as centralizing spending – but also because they could be made so odious that they dissuaded people from taking advantage of them. Poorhouses weren’t posh. They had strict rules against intemperate habits like drinking, had rigid work requirements, and offered spartan lodgings. In this way, not only were they saving the town money, but actively reforming the poor into moral, industrious citizens. Residents were responsible for producing most of the food and other goods that kept the almshouse going: the almshouse in Salem, Massachusetts, for instance, produced 4300 lbs of pork, 1000 bushels of turnips, and 2700 bushels of potatoes, in addition to cloth, barrels, brooms, and cabinet furniture, much of which could be sold to support the institution. This was understood almost as a kind of therapy that would reform paupers into upstanding members of society. “The prohibition against alcohol and mandatory work will deter many intemperate wretches,” explained Massachusetts minister Charles Burroughs, “and lazy vagrants from seeking admission to these walls [and] act as a stimulant on their industry and moral feelings.”[3] I should be clear: the turn toward the poorhouse didn’t mean that outdoor relief disappeared – in New York State, for instance, outdoor relief continued to be fairly common, especially in the support of the elderly, who everyone seemed to agree shouldn’t be forced to leave their homes.[4]

Sarah: The poorhouse also represented an opportunity for the moral middle class to make an intervention into the lives of poor children, who they believed were being raised by immoral paupers. In 1824, New York Secretary of State John Yates prepared a report for the NYS legislature – later known as the influential Yates Report – that decried the poor treatment of impoverished children. “The education and morals of the children of the paupers (except those in almshouses) are almost wholly neglected,” Yates reported, They grow up in filth, idleness, ignorance, and disease, and many become early candidates for the prison or the grave.” More over, their health was poor and thus many died young. In this situation, reformers reasoned, children would simply grow up and recreate the current pauperism problem. In a young, growing country rich with resources and with a burgeoning market economy, most middle class reformers believed that young people could succeed if they were properly taught and trained.

Marissa: Away from the negative influence of dysfunctional, poor families and living in almshouses, John Yates argued that “children’s health and morals were alike improved and secured and they received an education to fit them for future usefulness.” So reformers began to create institutions specifically for impoverished, abandoned, and orphaned children designed to provide a kind of perfected version of a family structure. Many of these institutions structured children’s days around both technical and traditional educations – though it’s important to point out that this “training” often had the double effect of providing skills training while also economically benefiting the institution. The New York Colored Orphan Asylum, for instance, had their male students trained in the skill of shoemaking by repairing the shoes of their fellow orphans. The Shelter for Coloured Orphans in Philadelphia had orphaned girls sew clothing for the other children, which historian Crystal Webster says was “a skill identified as a necessary educational pursuit that would prove girls as ‘helpful to the family.’”[5]

Colored Orphan Asylum in Midtown Manhattan in 1850

Sarah: This created something of a double-bind for reformers. Historian Susan Porter sums up their dilemma this way: “middle-class and elite policymakers had a bifurcated social vision: children belonged in good families, but poor families were by definition defective, even when their heads were “deserving” men and women whose suffering was brought on by tragedy rather than incapacity or deviant behavior.”[6] The solution, then, was indenture, which could provide a combination of the two: children would be raised to a certain age in the institution (different from institution to institution, but somewhere between 8 and 14) where they could received some education and stability, then indentured out to get the real-life, moralizing experience of living and working with a family. And the children that ended up in almshouses and orphanages could use that kind of structure: in their study of 18th century indentures, John Murray and Ruth Wallis Herndon found that the children came from a variety of difficult, impoverished, and troubled backgrounds – born out of wedlock, orphaned, abandoned by their parents, without kin. Race was also a factor for admission to poorhouses: in Rhode Island contracts between 1750 and 1790, the explanations for a child’s indenture was most often listed as “poor” or “of color,” essentially equating Blackness with poverty.

Marissa: Indenture was similar to auctioning, except instead of simply auctioning off the poor to someone to provide them with a roof over their head, the idea was that it was an opportunity to provide the child with a family setting and work training. Indenture had existed for a long time – you’re all probably very familiar with the ‘indentured servitude” of the colonial era, where a laborer would contract with a landowner to work for a set number of years in exchange for their passage across the Atlantic from Europe to the Americas. After concluding their contracted years, the servant was released and typically given what were called “freedom dues,” things like clothing or tools that they would need to begin their lives as free people. Another similar colonial era practice was apprenticeship, where a young person – typically a boy – would work for an artisan for a period of years, simultaneously learning the trade and providing much-needed labor for the artisan. (Johnny Tremaine, baby.)

Sarah: Pauper indentures (sometimes also called pauper apprenticeship) could be similar – depending, that is, on the contracting institution. The indentured child would serve in exchange for craft training, and their contract could also include freedom dues like tools, clothing, livestock, or cash. In the eighteenth century, indentured children were often given one or two new suits of clothes, while Crystal Webster found that during the nineteenth century, Black children in Northern cities were sometimes provided with small cash payments. But the experience of any given indentured children lay in the hands of their master. They could be treated like a member of the family, or they could be treated essentially like a servant or slave. According to historians John Murray and Ruth Wallis Herndon, “youths not promised skill training became mere servants for their entire minority and ended their time prepared only for a long life of still more manual labor.”[7]

Marissa: Indenture first became a common approach to institutionalized children in the 18th century. In Boston, the overseers of the poor required that those seeking indentured children provide references from town elders. They also required that masters provide at least some level of education to indentured children: Boston records show that nearly all indentured boys were promised education in reading and math. As this number suggests, work arrangements and educational requirements were vastly different for boys and girls. Boys were most often promised labor that also trained them in a trade for which reading and writing would be important skills. Girls, on the other hand, were given places as household domestics with the idea that they would most likely seomday become housewives themselves. This was less common in the south, as suggested by Murray and Herndon’s study of indenture contracts from Charleston, South Carolina: only 25%  of boys and 6% of girls had education included in their contracts.

Sarah: Freedom dues also played an interesting role in how contracts worked in their local economies. Children, of course, had no role in negotiating their contracts, and couldn’t really understand them even if they wanted to. Instead, they were at the whims of the institutions, overseers of the poor, and masters. Freedom dues, while they could be super useful for a young person aging out of the system and heading out on their own, also had economic functions that extended beyond the individual child. They helped to ensure that as the child worked for their master and grew up, they would have less incentive to run away – they coud only access their dues if they fulfilled their contract. At the same time, this was usually a really good deal for both the master and overseers of the poor – masters got years of round-the-clock work from the indentured child, and the overseers of the poor unloaded the financial responsibility of their day-to-day care. Murray and Herndon sum it up as only economic historians could: “Even if a child who was not to be trained or educated earned more than the value of his or her maintenance, the overseer had o incentive to force a master to pay that rent to the child. The overseer’s job was to minimize expenditures on poor relief, and the master’s concern was to discourage running away. Together, they dominated the child’s interests in structuring compensation for his or her labor.”[8]

Marissa: While it was common for adult paupers to be foisted on any relative they might have rather than admitted to the poorhouse on the public’s dime, children were a very different story. Children could be admitted as “half-orphans,” meaning that one of their parents had died, making it difficult or impossible for the living parent to adequately care for and provide for the child. Rather than trying to reunite families, many institutions – run by middle class reformers who believed that impoverished families were bad influences – limited visitation between children and their relatives, and sometimes even refused to return children to their parents or relatives. Indenture was understood as preferable to reuniting blood family members, especially when the child could be placed with respectable and well-off local muckety-mucks. In 1802, a woman named Hannah Smith requested to take a child named Betsy Durril out of the Boston Female Asylum sooner than institution policies usually allowed. The board of managers, no doubt influenced by the fact that Mrs. Smith had donated an enormous amount of money to the asylum’s building fund, voted “that Mrs. Smith be permitted to take Betsy Durrill as soon as she wises.” Wealthy women, assumed to be moral influences, were even favored over the children’s own family members. Mary Barron’s mother returned to the Boston Female Asylum to retrieve her daughter a year after she admitted her, hoping to get her daughter back when she reached the age of indenture. The managers weighed this request against a request from a Mrs. Susannah Nye Freeman, who applied to indenture with Mary. The managers took Mary’s mother’s hope to be reunited seriously: “The claim of parental feelings obtained its due influence in the decision; which was operated with the utmost tenderness, candor, and resolution.”[9] But in the end, they still placed young Mary with the respectable Mrs. Freeman.

Sarah: But being indentured to a well-placed member of society didn’t always mean that a child had a good experience. The Boston Female Asylum struggled with Mrs. Elizabeth Sumner, the wife of the former governor of Massachusetts, Increase Sumner. Mrs. Sumner had taken Hannah Fovell in an indenture in 1803, but three years later Mrs. Sumner came back to the BFA and wanted to return the “troublesome” child. The asylum reminded her that even the wife of the former governor couldn’t just break an indenture contract and return a child to the asylum. So instead, Mrs. Sumner shunted the girl off to another woman named Mrs. Schelbeck, who treated Hannah with cruelty. Hannah ran away and lived with another, kinder family called the Caswells, but Mrs. Schelbeck demanded the girl back. Following the rules set by the asylum and honoring the girl’s contract, the Caswells surrendered her – only to have Hannah escape again. The Boston Female Asylum was forced to revisit this indenture to try to find a solution that would keep Hannah safe and in a position of indenture. Finally, they determined the best solution was to return Hannah to the Caswells. Later, a manager noted in her casefile that after she was reunited with this kind family, Hannah became a “good and useful girl.”[10]

Marissa: Placements with moral, upstanding members of society, according to reformers’ theories of child welfare, should have meant good lives and good outcomes for orphaned children – but that obviously wasn’t always true. Maybe there were cases where children would be better off placed back with their families. In 1822, the BFA sent Margaret Cuddy back to live with her father William, who had previously surrendered the girl. Since leaving Margaret at the asylum, William had remarried and had “by industry and frugality …. Obtained the means of establishing a home for their family.” The BFA was impressed by William Cuddy’s improvement, and ultimately determined that he was worthy of raising his own child again, saying “These children (meaning Margaret and her sibling) have been preserved from want and vice, and will be restored, prepared to be a comfort and assistance, to a father who will it is believed, discharge with faithfulness his parental duty toward them.”[11]

Sarah: Child indenture was complicated by enslavement. Even during the first few decades of the nineteenth century, slavery was legal in most Northern as well as all Southern states. Murray and Herndon’s statistical analysis shows far more white than Black children indentured in Boston, Rhode Island, and South Carolina. One factor, of course, might be population – there were certainly more white people in the colonies (especially in Boston and Rhode Island) than there were Black people. But more importantly, I think we need to remember that orphaned Black children weren’t typically at the mercy of the poorhouse or orphanage during the 18th c. – they were at the mercies of the peculiar institution of slavery. This is actually something that Murray and Herndon don’t mention, which I found really strange. Now, that wasn’t really the focus of their study, so maybe they just considered it outside their scope. But I think it’s important context to understand that all of these places (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and South Carolina) all had legal systems of slavery during the 1700s. South Carolina, which had the smallest number of indentured Black children, would also have had the smallest population of free Blacks – whereas Rhode Island, where ¼ of the indentured children during the 18th c. were Black, would have had a much larger free Black population.

Marissa: When Northern states began to abolish slavery, many Black children saw no real difference in their day-to-day lives, because they were shunted immediately into indenture. When many states (like New York) abolished slavery, they often included clauses that kept children and teenagers enslaved until adulthood, living under the same conditions. Abolition could also tear families apart as easily as enslavement did: in 1828, an enslaved woman named Lucinda Ricks, newly released from bondage and likely struggling to make ends meet, had no choice but to leave her three sons at the Shelter for Colored Orphans in Philadelphia. While she was reunited with her son Henry after about a year, his brothers Stephen and Simon died without rejoining the family.

Sarah: Once he left the orphanage, Henry had to work, but his labor went to support himself and his mother and helped keep the family solvent. Had Henry stayed in the orphanage in Philadelphia much longer, he would likely have not been reunited with his mother at all – nor would his labor have been his own. He was eight, and in Philadelphia, once children turned 8 years old they were indentured out. In some cases, white slaveowners in Northern states actually exploited the indenture system. As historian Crystal Lynn Webster writes, “evidence indicates that some slaveholders sold child slaves into systems of identured servitude in Pennsylvania in place of emancipating them so they could rid themselves of a moral association with slavery while still profiting economically.”[12]

Marissa: Black indentured children were treated more or less as if they were enslaved. Just as enslaved people, and indeed, apprentices, indentured children tried to advocate for themselves by running away from arrangements they didn’t like. When an indentured child fled, they were pursued just like a runaway slave. Runaway ads read exactly like runaway slave ads, with a fixation on color and appearance. One ad published in 1802 by a man named Frederick Baker seeking his indentured “negro wench”, a 16 year old named Hannah, read like this: she was “stout and well made about the shoulders, small round her waist, she is right black, of a smooth skin, big eyes, and when she looks at one, turns out the white of her eyes very much; had no clothes on or with her but a shift and a low linsey petticoat of a bark colour, a copperas coloured handkerchief.”[13] And indentured people understood the similarities between enslavement and indenture. In 1810, a young Rhode Island woman ran from her indenture to the anti-slavery activist Moses Brown, claiming that she should be free based on Rhode Island’s 1784 gradual abolition laws. Brown agreed, pointing out that she had been held longer as an indentured servant than she would have been in slavery, which stated that women could only be held until age 18. But that wasn’t always the case. At the Philadelphia Home for Destitute Children, orphans would only be considered the responsibility of the institution until age 18 – with the exception of Black girls, who could be kept in indentures as servants and domestics after technically aging out.

Women and children in St. Louis Poor House, 1904

Sarah: As the century wore on, child welfare reformers began to see adoption, rather than indenture, as the ideal solution for orphaned or indentured children. Changing ideas about childhood played a significant role. Mid-nineteenth century Americans revered the middle-class home and family, and children transformed from additional, albeit smaller, laborers within the household into cherished “emotional commodities,” to borrow historian Susan Porter’s phrase. Slowly but surely, reformers began to see indenture as harmful, rather than beneficial, for children. Social worker Homer Folks decried a system in which poor children’s childhoods were stolen: “Any plan which compels or allows these children to work when the others are at play or in school … is a disgrace to the people of any state.”[14] Indenture wasn’t about what was best for the child, but about the labor needs of folks seeking out indentured kids. William Pryor Letchworth, the wealthy businessman and philanthropist, noted in his 1874 report on childhood poverty, “It is important that the person taking the child should feel an interest in it beyond a purely selfish one.” But reformers had to work to get Americans to think about taking in a needy child as something done for the benefit of the child, rather than a benefit for themselves. Another social worker, Hastings Hart, explained to colleagues, “We have a constant missionary work to do, to lead people to realize that they are not to take children for their own selfish gratification.” The Children’s Home Society, a child welfare organization, suggested to readers of their publication to think differently about taking in an orphan, asking them to think of it not in terms of “what you can get out of him, but rather what you can put in to him.” Families could get so much more than just a servant, they promised. “When you receive a baby to raise,” they wrote, “you add to your possessions heaven’s sweetest benediction.”[15] Sociologist Vivian Zelizer has called this switch to the “econonmically ‘worthless’ but emotionally ‘priceless’ child.”[16]

Marissa: In the final years of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th, during the period we call the Progressive Era, child welfare reformers jettisoned indenture entirely, instead focusing on finding ways to place children with families who would value their “priceless” nature – ideally through adoption. The culture of child welfare had changed so radically during the first half of the 20th century, hopeful couples were paying exorbitant fees to try to adopt a child, with major premiums for blond-haired, blue-eyed girls. In 1909, the New York Times recommended to babies that: “every baby who expects to be adopted ought to make it a point to be born with blue eyes. The brown eyed, black eyed, or grey eyed girl or boy may be just as pretty, but it is hard to make benevolent auxiliaries of the stork to believe so.” In 1907, a child welfare organization noted that “a two-year old, blue-eyed, golden haired little girl with curls that is the order that everybody leaves. It cannot be filled fast enough.”[17] Decades earlier, when orphans were understood by potential caregivers as a form of supplemental labor, the premium had been on able-bodied, teenage boys – but now, with sentiment taking precedence, cute and moldable babies were the most desirable.

Sarah: So no, Levi wasn’t enslaved in New York State in 1870. But he also wasn’t free. Levi’s experience was, sadly, similar to the experiences of thousands of orphaned,  abandoned, and poor children who were institutionalized and indentured out in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries.


[1] Katz, Shadow of the Poorhouse, 14-15. Cite

[2] Katz, 22.

[3] Katz, 24.

[4] Katz, 48.

[5] Webster, 77.

[6] Susan Porter, “A Good Home Indenture and Adoption in Nineteenth Century Orphanages,” in E. Wayne Carp, Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 29.

[7] John E. Murray and Ruth Wallis Herndon, “Markets for Children in Early America: A Political Economy of Pauper Apprenticeship,” The Journal of Economic History 62 (June 2002), 357.

[8] Murray and Herndon, 379.

[9] Porter, “A Good Home,” 33.

[10] Porter, A Good Home, 33.

[11] Porter, A Good Home, 34.

[12] Crystal Lynn Webster, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021), 70.

[13] Webster, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood, 73.

[14] Zelizer, 175.

[15] Zelizer, 178.

[16] Katz, 120.

[17] Zeilzer, 193.


Katz, Michael. In Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America. New York: Basic Books, 1988. 

Murray, John E. and Ruth Wallis Herndon, “Markets for Children in Early America: A Political Economy of Pauper Apprenticeship,” The Journal of Economic History 62 (June 2002).

Porter, Susan. “A Good Home Indenture and Adoption in Nineteenth Century Orphanages,” in E. Wayne Carp, Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.  

Webster, Crystal Lynn. Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021). 

Zelizer, Vivian. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985. 

If you’re interested in learning more about life in the poorhouse, check out the Ulster County Poorhouse Project, which shares the history of the institution Levi was born in:


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