Charles Loring Brace

From New World Encyclopedia

A sketch showing the Scandanavian Borgund stave church from The Norse-folk; or, A visit to the homes of Norway and Sweden. by Charles Loring Brace published by C. Scribner in 1857.

Charles Loring Brace (June 19, 1826 - August 11, 1890) was an American minister and early social work pioneer, perhaps the best known representative of nineteenth century child advocacy. He is considered a father of the modern foster care movement and was most renowned for starting the Orphan Train movement that was active in the decades just preceding and following the Civil War and lasted until about 1930.

He was also a prolific author whose best known works were The Best Method of Disposing of Our Pauper and Vagrant Children (1859) and The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years’ Work Among Them. (1872).

Brace was an evangelical reformer who claimed the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) he founded in 1853 was not sectarian. He often faced charges of being anti-Catholic because most of the children he relocated were urban Catholics and they were all sent to rural Protestant homes. His response to the charges was: "The evils are so great and the means of diminishing them so small, that persons honestly seeking to remedy them can work together without difficulty…. We have in our schools Jews, Quakers, and Agnostics working with others to aid the poor."[1]

While the instilling of Protestant morality was a primary mission of the CAS during its formative years, the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century resulted in new ideas about the nature of childhood, education, and philanthropy.[2]

As a result, a dramatic shift in its policy during the Progressive Era resulted in an increased emphasis on family-saving strategies as opposed to its previous child saving strategies. By the early twentieth century, the Children's Aid Society claimed that one of its central goals was the "preserving of homes that are in danger of breaking up."[2]


Brace was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1826. The Braces were among the leaders in the religious and political life of Connecticut, and members of the family served the State on the bench, in the pulpit, and in the legislature. Captain Abel Brace, the great-grandfather of Charles L., was an officer in the Revolutionary War and a representative to the General Assembly.[3]

At the age of seven, his father moved from Litchfield to become principal of the Female Seminary in Hartford. His mother died when he was 14, and from that time he was raised by his father.[4] He graduated from Yale in 1846, and then went on to study divinity and theology at Yale, but left to study at Union Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in 1849. He was drawn to New York because it was viewed as the hotbed of American Protestantism and social activity. Although an ordained minister, he never accepted a position as pastor of a church.

In 1850, he made a trip to Great Britain, Ireland, and other European countries. He spent the winter studying in Berlin and also visited Hungary, where he was arrested for suspicion of being a revolutionary spy. He was quickly released with an apology from the Austrian government. While in Europe, he studied various charitable organizations and the reforms taking place there.

Life's mission

Did you know?
Charles Loring Brace is considered a father of the modern foster care movement and was most renowned for starting the Orphan Train movement.

In 1852, at the age of 26, Brace, who had been raised as a Calvinist, was serving as a minister to the poor of Blackwell's Island (now known as Roosevelt Island) and to the poor of the Five Points Mission, when he decided he wanted to fulfill his humanitarian tendencies in the streets, rather than in church. Brace was aware of the impoverished lives of the children in New York City and for this reason he concentrated on improving the children’s situations and their future. A year later, in 1853, Brace established the Children's Aid Society.

He married Letitia Neill in Belfast, Ireland, on August 21, 1854, then returned to New York City. She proved to be a great support to her husband’s social reform efforts. Letitia's father was an avid abolitionist and he opened his home to some of the world's most famous anti-slavery orators, including Frederick Douglass.

Brace witnessed many children in New York City living in poverty with parents who abused alcohol, engaged in criminal activity, and were unfit parents. These children were sent to beg for money and sell newspapers and matches in the streets. They became known as "street Arabs" or "the dangerous classes" due to the street violence and gangs they inevitably became a part of. In some cases, children as young as five years old would be sent to jails where adults were imprisoned as well. The police referred to these children, who fell into a life of crime, as "street rats."

His signature program in New York, was the Newsboys’ Lodging House, opened in 1854 above the New York Sun’s offices at 128 Fulton Street. Between 1854 and 1881, a growing number of Lodging Houses took in no fewer than 170,000 boys. Not all were actual newsboys—that is, boys who sold newspapers on the street—as the Society’s 1858 annual report noted; their ranks also included "boot-blacks, match-sellers, apple-vendors, button-peddlers, baggage-carriers and those engaged in other petty pursuits."[5]

According to an essay written by Brace in 1872, a crime and poverty ridden area around Tenth Avenue was referred to as "Misery Row." Misery Row was considered to be a main seed-bed of crime and poverty. Other children, who were orphans or runaways, found themselves drifting into this destitute area, as well as the old sheds of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets. In 1854, the estimated number of homeless children in New York City was as high as 34,000.

Brace sought to mold boys into moral adults, people who, as they encountered novel situations, would naturally make the right choices because they held the right values. Brace’s smaller Industrial Schools for Girls was what would today be called a job-training program—in sewing and the other domestic arts—but they, too, emphasized character development.

Although orphanages existed, Brace did not believe they were worthwhile institutions because they merely served the purpose of feeding the poor and providing handouts. He felt that such institutions only deepened the dependence of the poor on charity. Brace was also influenced by the writings of Edward Livingstone, a pioneer in prison reform who believed that the best way to deal with crime and poverty was to prevent it. Brace focused on finding jobs and training for poor and destitute children so they could help themselves. His initial efforts in social reform included free kindergartens, free dental clinics, job placement, training programs, reading rooms, and lodging houses for boys.

Public support

He also worked to popularize his cause with the aid of Horatio Alger, one of the most popular writers of the day. Alger’s novels about the bootblacks and newsboys of New York, along with accounts of the Lodging House went a long way in helping Brace gain public support for his projects. In his preface to the best-selling Ragged Dick, Alger even credited the improvement in these boys’ condition to the "Superintendent of the Newsboys’ Lodging House, in Fulton Street," and added: "The author hopes that [the stories] may have the effect of enlisting the sympathies of his readers in behalf of the unfortunate children whose life is described and of leading them to cooperate with the praiseworthy efforts now being made by the Children’s Aid Society and other organizations to ameliorate their condition."

From 1854 to 1861, annual revenue grew by a factor of five, and the number of individual donors increased from 420 in 1855 to 960 in 1862.[5]

Emigration plan

The mission of the emigration program was the removal of as many poor children as possible from the "contaminating influence" of their families to "good Christian homes" in the Midwest. Brace endeavored to place children into farm families of northern New York State, the Midwest, and, after the American Civil War, some southern and a few western states. From 1853 to 1864, 384 children were sent each year to families in New England states, the North Atlantic states and East North Central states. Nearly 1,000 children per year were sent, from 1865 to 1874, to Michigan, Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri. This was carried out through Brace's Emigration Plan, now known as The Orphan Trains, where children were "placed-out" in new homes.

The Orphan Trains transported children removed from lodging houses, orphanages, private homes or the street, and sent them by train to towns where local organizers had created interest in the children. Posters (circulars) were placed throughout town, as well as newspaper advertisements, notifying locals of the date of the children's arrival and viewing location. The Children's Aid Society (CAS) had made arrangements with train companies for the children (in groups ranging in size from three to 35) along with at least two adult "agents" to travel in regular trains, not wooden box cars as depicted in novels. The boys and girls were asked to stand on boxes at the train station or were brought to opera houses, schools, or town halls and placed on stages for the community to meet them. "In every American community, especially in a western one, there are many spare places at the table of life," Brace wrote. "There is no harassing struggle for existence. They have enough for themselves and the stranger, too."[6] Brace’s vision of migrating children to live with the western Christian farming families was widely supported by wealthy New York families. The first $50 was given by Mrs. John Astor in 1853.


Brace and his peers considered Catholic parents unworthy almost by definition, but the philosophy of child rescue also emphasized nurture over nature. Malleable and innocent children, if removed early enough from depraved parents, could escape the inferior culture inherent in their homes and communities and become upstanding citizens. Not surprisingly, an ideology that seemed benevolent and humanitarian to many Protestants earned Brace a reputation in Catholic communities as a child-stealer rather than a child-saver. As a result, sectarian groups developed their own social services and child-caring institutions, such as orphanages. In the late nineteenth century, the Catholic church built institutions at a furious pace, a sharp contrast with the trend toward placing-out children. By 1910, there were 322 infant asylums and orphanages serving almost 70,000 children annually.[7]

Brace's Emigration Plan was also an anti-eugenic movement because Brace believed that one's gemmules (an early, pre-genetic concept that blood carried a family's inherited character) did not predetermine one's future. Brace was deeply moved by Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. Brace was also an amateur naturalist who corresponded with and once was a house guest of Darwin. He also engaged in spirited conversations with Asa Gray, the most important American botanist of the nineteenth century, on the subject of evolution and religion.[8]

Brace was also an outspoken abolitionist. In a bold move that was perhaps inspired by his abolitionist and Darwinian mindset, Brace did away with the centuries-old custom of indenture so that the "placed" children were allowed to leave a home if they were uncomfortable with the placement.

The plan had failures and critics, but there were many success stories as well. Many children placed in the program grew up to become productive citizens. The Children's Aid Society (CAS), the best known organization responsible for finding homes for children, made every effort to screen the host families, and follow up on the welfare of placed children. By 1909, at the first White House Conference on Dependent Children, the country's top social reformers praised the CAS' emigration movement, but argued that children should either be kept with their natal families or, if they were removed as a result of parental neglect or abuse, every effort should be made to place the child in a foster home nearby. In a report in 1910, the Children’s Aid Society estimated that 87 percent of children placed through “orphan trains” had done well.[4] While there were occasional abuses of children placed in the foster families, most people agreed that overall, the children were better off in foster care than on the streets of big cities without shelter, food, clothes or health care.

Final years

By 1920, the CAS and approximately 1500 other agencies and institutions had placed approximately 150,000 children in what became known as the largest migration or resettlement of children in American history. The CAS' Orphan Train movement ended in 1929, 75 years after it had begun as a social experiment.

By the late nineteenth century, other CAS departments and activities also began to focus more attention on younger children. In 1876, for instance, the Children's Aid Society began its first kindergarten in its Eighteenth Street School. By 1897, the society operated nineteen kindergartens, one in nearly all of its schools. In 1906, the CAS kindergartens enrolled over four thousand children.

Charles Loring Brace served as an executive secretary of Children's Aid Society for 37 years, overseeing the foster care program. He died in 1890, from Bright's disease.[4] After his death, the Brace Memorial Farm was created for street children to learn farm skills, manners, and personal social skills to help prepare them for life on their own.

Without the charismatic founder setting the tone for the entire organization, his sons—Charles Loring Brace, Jr. as the secretary and Robert N. Brace as the director of the emigration program—felt more comfortable about altering the long-standing emigration patterns and started focusing on younger children and began placing Protestant children in Protestant homes.

The most dramatic shift in the philanthropic organization's policy during the Progressive Era was an increased emphasis on family-saving strategies as opposed to its previous "child saving" strategies. While the emigration department sought to break up the poor families among the "dangerous classes," the philanthropic organization was establishing a number of new programs that attempted to hold them together.

By the early twentieth century, the Children's Aid Society claimed that one of its central goals was "the preserving of homes that are in danger of breaking up." "No child," the society continued, "should be taken from its natural parents until everything possible has been done to build the home into a proper place for the child;" such work resulted in "the saving not only of the children, but of the parents as well."[9]


Those who seek to start new nonprofits will always be able to learn from his methods. He identified and described a social problem: Child homelessness and its potential to fuel “the dangerous classes.” He established a freestanding organization, not linked, for instance, to any one church; assembled a board; successfully solicited thousands of donors; and brought together volunteers and paid staff. He conceived and implemented original programs and empirically tracked their results in order to report to donors.[5]

To operate the program efficiently, CAS developed innovative organizational methods still employed by modern social service agencies, such as using salaried caseworkers instead of volunteers, maintaining client case records, and conducting home visits to assess need and to provide ongoing supervision.[10]

The Children's Aid Society (CAS), today serves more than 150,000 children and their families at over 45 locations throughout New York City.

Currently, the Children’s Aid Adolescent Sexuality and Pregnancy Prevention Program is replicated at 21 locations in eight states and adapted in 29 additional locations across the country. It's community school model has been adapted by public schools throughout the U.S. and as far away as South Africa. Children’s Aid’s concurrent planning approach to foster care helped to provide the basis for the federal 1996 Adoption and Safe Families Act, which defines today’s modern foster care system.[11]

  • The song by Utah Phillips called Orphan Train has been performed by numerous modern bluegrass singers.[12]
  • The book Gratefully Yours describes a nine year old girl's feelings about her new family who adopt her from the orphan train.[13]
  • There is a ballet entitled Orphan Train presented by Covenant Ballet Theatre of Brooklyn, which tells the story of Brace and shows stories of orphans on the train. It is choreographed by Marla Hirokawa.
  • Authors Al and Joanna Lacy have written an Orphan Trains Trilogy, depicting the lives of fictional orphans.
  • The ballad "Rider On An Orphan Train," written by David Massengill, describes the inevitable tragedy of the separation of siblings in spite of the efforts to keep brothers and sisters together.


  • Brace, Charles Loring. 2001. The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years' Work Among Them. Adamant Media Corporation ISBN 1402181493.
  • Brace, Charles Loring. 1863. The Races of the Old World: A Manual of Ethnology. New York: C. Scribner.
  • Brace, Charles Loring. 1885. Gesta Christ, or, A history of humane progress under Christianity. New York: A.C. Armstrong & Son.
  • Brace, Charles Loring. 1869. The New West or, California in 1867-1868. New York: G.P. Putnam & Son.
  • Brace, Charles Loring. 1863. The Races of the Old World: A Manual of Ethnology. New York: C. Scribner.
  • Brace, Charles Loring. 1890. The Unknown God; or, Inspiration Among Pre-Christian Races. New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son.
  • Brace, Charles Loring. 1853. Home-life in Germany. New York: C. Scribner.
  • Brace, Charles Loring. 1852. Hungary in 1851; with an Experience of the Austrian Police. New York: C. Scribner.


  1. City Journal, Uplifting the Dangerous Classes. Retrieved June 18, 2008.
  2. 2.0 2.1 History Cooperative, Wrestling with Modernity. Retrieved June 18, 2008.
  3. Rootsweb, The Life of Charles Loring Brace. Retrieved June 10, 2008.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Dwight F. Burlingame (ed.), Philanthropy in America: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2004, ISBN 1576078604).
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Howard Husock, Uplifting the “Dangerous Classes,” City Journal. Retrieved June 12, 2008.
  6. Charles Loring Brace, The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years' Work Among Them (New York: Wynkoop & Hallenbeck, 1872).
  7. University of Oregon, Adoption History. Retrieved June 10, 2008.
  8. Historica Botanica, Asa Gray and Charles Loring Brace. Retrieved June 10, 2008.
  9. History Cooperative, Wrestling with Modernity. Retrieved June 18, 2008.
  10. Clay Gish, The Western Emigration Program Of The Children's Aid Society. Retrieved June 10, 2008.
  11. Children Aid Society, The CAS 2007 Annual Report. Retrieved June 12, 2008.
  12. Traditional Music, "Orphan Train" Lyrics. Retrieved June 10, 2008.
  13., Mark Twain Award Master List 1971-2006. Retrieved June 10, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Dummer, Shirley. 2006. The Orphan Train. Holmen, WI: Dummer. ISBN 0963347985.
  • Langsam, Miriam Z. 1964. Children West: A History of the Placing-out System of the New York Children's Aid Society, 1853-1890. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin for the Dept. of History, Univ. of Wisconsin.
  • Mandler, Peter. 1990. The Uses of Charity: The Poor on Relief in the Nineteenth-Century Metropolis. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812282140.
  • Myers, John E.B. 2006. Child Protection in America: Past, Present, and Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195169352.
  • O'Connor, Stephen. 2001. Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children he Saved and Failed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0395841739.

External links

All links retrieved December 4, 2023.


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