The Project

From 1850-1930, large cities on America’s east coast relied heavily on a system of “placing out” (i.e., the provision of care outside of institutions) for dependent children. The most well-known mechanism of placement during this period is the “Orphan Train”: a rail-based system that moved dependent children from northeastern cities to potential adoption placements on working farms in the developing Midwest. Yet, history has long ignored the fact that many of these children never made it to the Midwest; instead, they were placed on in-state farms. In fact, in-state placements were both central to the development of the orphan train period and significant in number. For example, The Children’s Aid Society, the New York City organization with the busiest placement office, developed its Midwestern program around lessons learned in 1850, when they began placing orphans with Upstate New York farm families (da Costa Nunez and Sribnick 2013). Additionally, in 1893, at the peak of the placing out phenomenon, this same organization sent more New York City orphans to Upstate New York farms than it did to any other region of the country (Holt 1992).

Given that in-state placements complicate much of the orphan train narrative—a narrative that privileges Westward expansion and the role of physical distance in successful urban-to-rural placements—we jeopardize our understanding of the placing out phenomenon as a whole when we ignore them.[1] Likewise, because in-state placements juxtaposed urban centers against neighboring rural areas, such ignorance limits our understanding of the phenomenon’s role in the interactional development of regional identities, cultures, communities, families, and economies within single states.[2] Finally, and perhaps most significantly, when we ignore in-state placements we deny the impacted orphans their rightful place in this forgotten period of American history.

This blog represents initial thoughts from a research project designed to unearth, explore, understand, and generalize from the particularities of in-state placements. Focused exclusively on the placement of orphans from four New York City organizations with Upstate New York farm families, this project reflects the principles of social history and historical sociology. As a work of social history, it aims to lift up the voices of those previously ignored in the telling of America life (Skocpol 1987). In this way, the project builds on Birk’s Fostering on the Farm: Child Placement in the Rural Midwest, a new detailed narration of the placing out phenomenon in one region of the United States. As a work of historical sociology, it also looks for causal mechanisms of social change processes (Abrams 1982). In this effort, the project reflects Zelizer’s Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children, which describes the placing out phenomenon as central to the sentimental revaluing of children in America. Through this interdisciplinary lens, the project stands to reveal how, when, and why New York City orphans were placed with Upstate New York farm families, as well as the regional implications of those placements.

Works Cited

Abrams, Philip. 1982. Historical Sociology. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Birk, Megan. 2015. Fostering on the Farm: Child Placement in the Rural Midwest. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Da Costa Nunez, Ralph and Ethan G. Sribnick. 2013. The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Poverty and Homelessness in New York City. New York: White Tiger Press.

Holt, Marilyn Irvin. 1992. The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Reef, Catherine. 2005. Alone in the World: Orphans and Orphanages in America. New York: Clarion Books.

Skocpol, Theda. 1987. “Social History and Historical Sociology: Contrasts and Complementarities.” Social Science History 11.1:17-30.

Zelizer, Viviana A. 1985. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. New York: Basic Books, Inc.


[1] Placing an orphan a great distance from his/her urban home was thought to facilitate a clean break from the stigma and entanglements of his/her birth family.

[2] Reef (2005) uses census data to evidence the scope of the placing out phenomenon: in the period between 1850-1900, one-fifth to one-third of American farms registered children who were not the biological offspring of the farm-owning adults.


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