Title Reviewed:
A Home of Another Kind: One Chicago Orphanage and the Tangle of Child Welfare

Author Reviewed:
Kenneth Cmiel

Ruth Crocker


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 93, Issue 2, pp 198-200

Article Type:
Book Review

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A Home of Another Kind: One Chicago Orphanage and the Tangle of Child Welfare. By Kenneth Cmiel. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Pp. viii, 243. Illustrations, notes, tables, index. $24.95.)

A commissioned history of an orphanage seems to promise a dull read, but Kenneth Cmiel has used the voluminous records of the Chicago Nursery and Half-Orphan Asylum to illuminate the history of child welfare in Chicago over a hundred-year period in a wellwritten study that has much wider implications for social welfare history than the story of a single institution.

The orphanage was founded around 1860 and by 1880 housed one hundred children, all aged less than ten years. Children were generally admitted because of family crisis; they were often brought in by a mother and stayed an average of two years. Thus, in its first five decades the orphanage served "dependent" not delinquent children. It was an institution for the working poor founded and closely managed by upper-class matrons, the wives of Chicago's business, legal, and medical elites. Chartered by the state in 1865, the orphanage was privately run and funded until the 1960s. It began excluding black children after World War I but readmitted them in the 1960s.

The traditional, custodial orphanage was put on the defensive by Progressive-era child welfare innovations such as the juvenile court and the "cottage homes" idea; nevertheless, the orphanage survived with little change until the 1920s and 1930s, decades Cmiel calls "the end of the nineteenth century." The home was still nominally managed by elite women, but these suburban matrons now lacked the confidence of the nineteenth-century managers (often their own mothers and grandmothers) and sought the advice of professionals on admissions and policy. In 1949, Chapin Hall, as it was now called, entered a city-wide federation of private social service agencies.

From this point on, Cmiel tells a story of decline and fall. The sense of loss and irony is particularly evident in his account of what he calls "the unravelling"-the period after 1963 during which Chapin Hall was first the beneficiary of state and then federal funding, then suddenly in 1984 was closed down in the name of "deinstitutionalization" by reformers who condemned as Victorian an institution that was in fact a fully funded, modern treatment center serving as a therapeutic center for troubled youth.

Cmiel provides a useful corrective to social welfare history narratives of "a progressive elite ousting a Victorian elite" at the turn of the century (p. 207). His assertion that "conservative institutions" like Chapin Hall far outnumbered "cutting-edge institutions" like Hull House (p. 204) confirms other recent scholarship on Progressive-era social welfare. Private associations to oversee and coordinate public and private charities, notably the Charity Organization Society (COS), also predated the better-known 1920s initiatives. Rationalized, bureaucratic social welfare emerged in the gilded age and was led by reformers experienced in the Civil War era's United States Sanitary Commission. In Chicago, the Associated Charities, not the settlements, provide the prehistory for twentieth-century social-work federation and bureaucratization, including the important medical-social model of casework. The settlements, which turned social welfare inside out, putting the reformers inside and leaving the clients on the outside, were, in contrast, a kind of anti-institution.

Cmiel's sympathetic account of the pre-1945 orphanage reflects in part the strengths and weaknesses of his sources. These sources document the intentions of managers and professionals but rarely the experiences of children, even when he supplements them after 1957 with psychiatric social-work case records.

The author sidesteps some opportunities to criticize the orphanage. For example, what are we to make of Chapin Hall's 1870s "industrial training system" that produced a division of labor where the girls darned "the socks of the asylum" (p. 24) while the boys were allowed to find part-time work, presumably paid? This and other clues to the orphanage's internal organization and conservative ideology go largely unexplored in a study that focuses mainly on its external relations with private social welfare providers and public regulatory agencies. Ellis Hawley's theory of an associative state provides a useful framework for Cmiel's case study: the drama comes from the rise of private associations, from the story of how "institutions without any ongoing accountability to the public [wound up] …regulating agencies like Chapin Hall" (p. 83). Cmiel's well-written study makes a contribution to the scholarship on the history of the private sector and voluntarism. Since it is also a story that resonates with 1990s Republican plans to turn over social services to state and local elites and to replace entitlements with private charities, it is even more to Cmiel's credit that he makes a reader raised on Charles Dickens's Hard Times feel a little sad at the demise of Chapin Hall.

RUTH CROCKER is associate professor of history at Auburn University and the author of Social Work and Social Order: The Settlement Movement in Two Industrial Cities, 1889–1930 (1992).

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.