In 1877, railroad tycoon Chauncey Rose made a very generous donation to the people of Vigo County, Indiana. County officials had announced plans to build a home for orphaned and abandoned children; Rose’s funds allowed them not only to build facilities superior to most in the Midwest but to hire the best director. The newly-named Rose Orphan Home, which opened in 1883, was headed by Lyman Alden, a pioneering childcare advocate who had been testing his theories of institutional care in Michigan.
In the late nineteenth century, most orphaned or abandoned children spent a brief amount of time in a county home and then were placed out into private homes. Administrators claimed that children received superior care and upbringing in a real home. In fact, the practice probably persisted because it was simple and inexpensive. Children issued through the system quickly because very little interest was paid to matching them to appropriate homes. As a result, many children served as unpaid labor; children could also be passed from family to family when they became too expensive or inconvenient.
In contrast, the Rose Orphan Home housed children in small cottages, 30 children and a matron to each building. Children were given toys and encouraged to play; they were disciplined with positive enforcement for good behavior and only punished for severe rule breaking. Alden emphasized careful nurture and training of children before they were sent out to carefully selected homes. He corresponded with children who had left the Home to ensure that they were happy and well-treated, and, in response, many of his former charges wrote to him as they grew up, sending greetings to staff members and informing him of their progress.
It would be many decades before theories of child social work caught up to Alden’s ideas—that children should be individually evaluated to understand their background and their suitability for a particular home; that placement homes and foster parents should be carefully screened; that follow-up visits and evaluations were crucial to children’s welfare.
Lyman Alden was ahead of his time, and the children who passed through Rose Orphan Home benefited from his compassion and dedication.
Source: Megan Birk, “Lyman Alden: Setting an Institutional Example,” Indiana Magazine of History June 2013.
A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.