History of Orphanages: Discovering the Heartfelt Journey

The basic framework of child care institutions can be traced back to the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. These civilizations established primitive forms of orphanages initially designed for the purpose of rearing and education of orphaned children, particularly those whose parents had died in wars. It’s intriguing to note that these early orphanages also accepted abandoned children—an inherent social issue of those times often driven by poverty, disease, or stigma.

Early Beginnings of Child Care Institutions

However, it is important to delineate that the concept of child care was vastly different from our contemporary comprehension. During this period, child care institutions were predominantly guided by the collective goal of societal welfare rather than individual child protection or personal development. It was a time when the primary focus was safety, nourishment, and rudimentary education rather than psychological well-being and emotional growth.

Rise of Orphanages during the Middle Ages

The concept of orphanages as we know them today took root during the Middle Ages. The primary factors prompting this phenomenon were the grim realities of war, disease and poverty, which often left numerous children orphaned. Monastic and religious communities stepped up to this need, offering shelter and the most basic form of education to these unfortunate children. These early forms of orphanages were mostly found within or attached to monasteries and churches, providing the neglected kids with food, shelter, and spiritual guidance.

Churches or religious establishments were usually responsible for the maintenance and running of these establishments during this era. Children living in such institutions were expected to participate in religious services and adhere to a disciplined routine, whilst receiving fundamental education in reading, writing, and even trade skills. This approach, though far from perfect, provided a structure in existences of the otherwise lost children, laying the foundation for modern institutionalised child care.

Click here, if you would like to donate to us!

Impact of Industrial Revolution on Orphanages

The Industrial Revolution, a period of rapid industrialization from the mid-18th to mid-19th century, brought about significant changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and transport which had a profound effect on the socio-economic and cultural conditions of the time. One of these changes was the dramatically increased number of orphanages, as urban areas grew and families living in impoverished conditions found themselves unable to care for their children. Child labor laws were virtually non-existent, and many times, orphanages served as a source of cheap labor, with children often working in harsh and unsafe conditions to contribute to the booming economy.

The sprawling factories and mills required a large and expendable labor force, and orphanages, unfortunately, fitted the bill perfectly. Some even directly ran factories using labor from their inhabitants. While the money earned helped maintain the institutions, the children often lived and worked in appalling conditions. Additionally, the Industrial Revolution brought about changes in family structures and societal attitudes. With the emergence of the concept of childhood, people started becoming aware and less accepting of the poor conditions in which these orphans were living and working. The grim reality of these institutions came to fore, leading to subsequent reforms. Despite the dark aspects, the Industrial Revolution also indirectly led to improved conditions and increased focus on the welfare of orphans in the long run.

Influence of Victorian Era on Child Care

During the Victorian era, significant changes were observed in the domain of child care. This era, which spanned from 1837 to 1901, was marked by the rapid growth of industrialization and urbanization. Increases in poverty and destitution led to a rise in child abandonment, thus exerting immense pressure on existing child care systems. Notably, the destitute conditions pushed the societal bigwigs to reevaluate the child care systems that were in practice.

This period saw the introduction of a series of child-centered legislations and laws that sought to improve the haphazard approach to child care. The ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’ of 1834 and the ‘Act for the Regulation of Parish Apprentices’ of 1843 were prime examples of such legislation. These laws were designed to alleviate some of the hardships faced by children living in poverty, particularly those in workhouses or manufacturing industries. The idea was to ensure that children were not exploited and were offered a safe and conducive environment for their growth and development.

Shift from Orphanages to Foster Care during the 20th Century

The rise of the foster care system in the 20th century signaled a significant turn in society’s approach to child welfare. It sought to resolve the shortcomings of institutional support provided previously by orphanages. These institutions were often overloaded, unsanitary, and insufficiently staffed, leading to less than desired living conditions for children. As such, there was an increased understanding and recognition of children’s need for family-like environments which led to progressive legislation promoting family-based foster care.

The foster care system, pioneered in the United States, placed orphaned, abandoned or maltreated children into state-certified caregivers’ homes, with the ambition of providing a more personalized and nurturing environment. This shift represented a significant transition in societal attitudes to prioritize the overall well-being of children— prioritizing their psychological, emotional, and social development in addition to meeting their basic material needs. The transition to foster care demonstrated a collective value shift towards a more holistic perspective considering the child’s best interests, an element missing from orphanages.

Role of Wars and Disasters in Orphanage Growth

The proliferation of wars and natural disasters throughout the course of history has unfortunately led to a significant increase in the number of orphanages worldwide. Major conflicts such as the two World Wars and the Korean War, alongside catastrophic natural calamities such as droughts, famines, earthquakes, and epidemics, have profoundly impacted family structures. These grim events have caused the loss of countless lives, leaving many children orphaned and vulnerable, intensifying the demand for more dependable and structured child care institutions.

Simultaneously, these heart-wrenching circumstances have sparked numerous humanitarian efforts, leading to the establishment of numerous orphanages during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of these institutions were established by international and non-governmental organizations aiming to provide safe shelters for the children affected by wars and tragedies. They were designed to provide the important necessities of life, such as food, medical care, education and a semblance of normalcy in their disrupted lives. Despite the bleak origins of their establishment, these institutions have had an incontrovertibly significant role in mitigating the impact of wars and disasters on homeless and parentless children.


What initiated the early beginnings of child care institutions?

The early beginnings of child care institutions were initiated by religious organizations and charitable societies.

How did the Middle Ages contribute to the rise of orphanages?

During the Middle Ages, many children were orphaned due to plagues and wars, leading to the establishment of more orphanages to accommodate these children.

What was the impact of the Industrial Revolution on orphanages?

The Industrial Revolution led to a surge in child labor and exploitation, resulting in an increase in the number of children living in orphanages.

How did the Victorian Era influence child care?

The Victorian Era introduced new laws and regulations to protect children’s rights and welfare, leading to improvements in the quality of care in orphanages.

What caused the shift from orphanages to foster care during the 20th century?

The shift from orphanages to foster care was driven by an increased emphasis on family-based care, with the belief that children would better thrive in a family environment.

How have wars and disasters influenced the growth of orphanages?

Large-scale wars and disasters often result in parental loss, leading to a surge in the number of orphans. This, in turn, contributes to the establishment and growth of orphanages.

What role do orphanages play in contemporary society?

Today, orphanages serve as a temporary solution for children who have lost their parents or whose parents are unable to care for them, providing basic necessities and often educational opportunities until a more permanent home can be found.

Read more of our blog posts about orphanages

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top