Question of the Week
In what year was Philadelphia's first orphanage founded?
Answer: The Orphan Society of Philadelphia was founded in 1814.
In 1814, a group of Philadelphia women met in a schoolroom of the Second Presbyterian Church and founded one of the city’s first orphanages, the Orphan Society of Philadelphia. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Philadelphia had cared for poor or orphaned children under a system rooted in the English Poor Law, where children were usually indentured at a young age and often housed at the Almshouse with the adult poor of the city.
In March 1815, the Orphan Society of Philadelphia opened in a rented house on Market Street and cared for 25 children. The organization’s first Constitution, adopted on January 29, 1816, declared that the society’s purpose was “to rescue from ignorance, idleness and vice, destitute, unprotected and helpless children, and to provide for them that support and instruction which may eventually render them valuable members of the community.” However, children were accepted into the orphanage based on their age, race, and the marital status of their parents. For at least the first 100 years of operation, admission was restricted to “destitute fatherless children of married parents.” Boys were not admitted over the age of seven and were housed until the age of sixteen; girls were not admitted over the age of nine and were housed until the age of eighteen.
The orphanage operated continuously for 150 years in three different locations, caring for about 80 to 100 children each year. By the 1950s, applications to the society had decreased significantly, caring for only 23, and in order to avoid financial stress, it merged with the Elywn School in 1965.
About the Author
Look for these history stories every Sunday in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The stories, called Memory Stream, are published in the Currents section of the newspaper.