Question of the Week

In what year was Philadelphia's first orphanage founded?

Sunday, 3/20/11

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.


Records of orphans at Presbyterian Orphanage of Philadelphia?

Does Elwyn School have the records from the orphanage from 1916-1929 for the children?
Thank you.

Records of orphans at Presbyterian Orphanage of Philadelphia?

Elaine, to my knowledge, we've never been in contact with Elwyn School about the extent of their records. However, our collection of Orphan Society records contains a couple admittance books from that time period. You could submit a request to or 215-732-6200 x209 if you aren't able to come to HSP in person.

You could also call Elwyn School directly, 610-891-2000. I have referred a few people there who did not find what they were looking for in our collection.

Good luck and thanks for reading!


hi,was wondering if you had any info on my relative alice lucy burke who we believe entered philadelpha in 1880 aged 5 for adoption. mothers name was edith rachel crane. fathers name francis burke. alice left the family shortly after birth and we know nothing more about her. family story has it that she was sent to america for adoption and I have seen a passenger list that fits dates etc. that started in liverpool and took on in queenstown ireland and went via bremmen germany to philadelphia. If you have any records could you contact me please. Any advice would be very much appreciated. adele doughty

Information on Alie Lucy Burke

Adele - I would refer you to speak to one of HSP's librarians. They are happy to address research questions that can be answered in less than 10 minutes. Just e-mail or call 215-732-6200 ext. 209. If you need more assistance, I'd suggest our research by mail program. You can learn more at: Good luck with your research!
Best, Lauri Cielo

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