The Charleston Orphan House
Charleston, Charleston County, South Carolina

Introduction taken from 'History and Records of the Charleston Orphan House'
Volume 2: 1860-1899
By Susan L. King


What you will find: Names arranged alphabetically by surname of child or children admitted, these records contain written request to admit a child or children into the Orphan House. Additionally information includes references, medical records, a brief family history and letters. The actual admission form includes name of applicant, name of child, age, sex, place of birth, religion, references, additional comments and the report of the Visiting Commissioner.



The Charleston Orphan House was the first municipal orphanage in the United States. Established in October of 1790 at the instigation of John Robertson, a philanthropic citizen and member of City Council, the Institution cared for over five thousand children until 1952 when the building was demolished. Robertson believed that placing a child in the Alms or Poor House was not beneficial and only taught the child evil practices. City Council Created the Orphan House for the "purpose of supporting and educating poor and orphan children and those of poor and disabled parents who are unable to support and maintain them." (1)

Many distinguished citizens of Charleston were placed in the Orphan House as children. Christopher Gustavus Memminger, Confederate Secretary of the Treasury and founder of the Charleston Public School system, was admitted in 1807. (2) Andrew Buist Murray, admitted in 1856, (3) was a member of City Council and one of Charleston's wealthiest citizens.

Murray Park and Murray Boulevard are named for him. During his lifetime, Murray donated hundreds of thousands of dollars for municipal projects and upon his death in 1926 left the Orphan House one hundred thousand dollars. Other former inmates became doctors, judges, and legislators.

The Orphan House stood at 160 Calhoun Street on the site of Revolutionary War barracks. (4) Designed by Thomas Bennet (5), the structure was officially occupied on October 18, 1794. (6) The plans describe the building as having "a center 40 x 40, the wings 65 by 30 feet each. The foundation to the first floor, to the top of the floor, 2.5 bricks high, 3 bricks thick. The first story 10 feet high, 2.5 bricks. The second Story 15 feet high, 2.5 bricks. The third story 13 feet, 2 bricks. And the fourth story 10 feet high, 2 brick." (6) The building's "South Front [was]...250 feet from Boundary Street [Calhoun Street], 24 feet Northward of the House to be Inclosed as a yard, and the remainder a kitchen garden, the South front to be laid out in walks to be determined by the Commissioners." (7) Brickwork was done by Anthony Toomer and Cannon and Bennett performed the carpentry work. (8)

Due to the increase in the number of children cared for by the Institution, the building was completely remodelled in 1852. Designed by the firm of Jones and Lee, (9) the building was described as being "on the Italian style...236 feet long by 76 feet wide. The main building is five stories high, including the portion being surmounted by a pediment and with wings rising the whole height of the building, perforated on the several stories by windows with characteristic embellishments. The building is surmounted by a Mansard roof, the attic windows projecting from the first slope of the roof, with moulded pediments. Above the roof of the central section of the front rises the belfry, constructed for the city alarm bell. This belfry is supported by an octagonal stage, the centre of which arises the main cupola, being two stories high; on the first story there are four porticoes of Corinthian columns with rustic blocks, surmounted by entableture and pediment. The second story is perforated on the four sides, in which is suspended the alarm bell.

This stage is surmounted by a square dome, which supports a figure of Charity." (10) Other local companies who worked on the renovation were Louis Rebb, Contractor and Carpenter; G.W. Bushy, Bricklayer; W. H. Gruver, Plasterer; W.T. White, Stonecutter; W.S. Henerey, Cast Iron Work; Horton and Parks, Tinner and Plumber; T. Newel, Gas Fitter; J.U. Boesch, Coppersmith; Wm. Arnot, painter; James Cook, Steam Fitter; J.M. Eason & Bro., Engine Maker; R. Wing, Bell Hanger and J.M. Mulvany, Slater.(11)

Until 1802 the children attended area churches in rotation. This practice was found to be impractical and in August 1801 a cornerstone was laid for the Orphan House Chapel. (12) Although Gabriel Manigault is generally credited with the design of the building there is no mention in the records of the architect. The Chapel was "erected by voluntary benevolence of the citizens." (13) A cemetery for children and staff of the institution was placed next to the Chapel. This area continued to be used for burials until 1855 when six lots were purchased at Magnolia Cemetery. (14)

The Orphan House was governed by a Board of Commissioners annually elected by City Council. It was considered an honor to be asked to serve on this Board. Many familiar Charleston names including Ravenel Middleton, Cheves, Aiken, DeSaussure, Huger, Ladson, Rutledge and Lowndes can be found on the list of Commissioners. The Board met weekly and each Commissioner served as Visiting Commissioner on a rotating basis. The Visiting Commissioner conducted religious services on Sunday and inspected the house and ground daily; however, his primary duty was to investigate applicants for admission or indenture. (15)

The Commissioners annually elected staff members or Officers to perform the day-to-day activities of the Institution. A Steward was in charge of the overall operation of the Orphan House. Included in his duties were ordering and distributing supplies, supervising the staff, recording the Minutes of the Commissioners' meetings and conducting daily religious training. (16) A Matron supervised the food preperation, sewing room activities, and clothes washing. (17) Nurses were responsible to the day-to-day supervision of the children. Each Nurse supervised a dormitory of boys or girls of a certain age. (18) A Sewing Mistress taught the older girls how to make clothes, blankets, sheets, etc. In order to save money, the girls of the Institution made most of the clothes worn by the children. (19)

Children received an education in the Orphan House. A School Master and School Mistress taught the children. Until the 1850's, this education consisted of little more than basic reading and writing. In 1854 two Commissioners, Washington Jefferson Bennett and C.G. Memminger, visited New York City and were impressed by a young woman named Agnes K. Irving.

The Commissioners hired Miss Irving and no event in history of the Orphan House was more influential. Miss Irving completely reorganized the school and soon was appointed Principal. Under her leadership, new courses such as higher mathematics, literature, geography and elocution were taught. Conflicts between Miss Irving and other staff members were frequent. The Steward and Matron often complained that she was overstepping her authority and causing dissension within the Institution. Miss Irving finally won total control of the Orphan House in 1869 when the offices of Steward and Matron were abolished and the position of Superintendent was created. (20) Although Miss Irving died in 1910, her influence continued into the 1940's. She established the practice of "pupil teacher." Promising girls were chosen to be assistant teachers who later were employed full-time. These teachers in turn trained future teachers. many women spent their entire lives within the walls of the Institution. Three later Superintendents, Miss Dora Sweatmann, Miss Mary LeQuex and Mrs. Elizabeth Payne, were trained by Miss Irving.

The orphan House functioned as a self-sufficient and isolated entity as much as possible. Vegetables were grown on the grounds. Girls sewed and washed most of the clothing and linens of the Institution. Boys milked cows and chopped wood. Children rarely left the grounds and were not permitted to visit family or friends. In 1855 a Commissioner refused to allow a fifteen year old girl to attend a family picnic on a Saturday afternoon because "it would so materially disrupt the operation of the House." (21) In 1845, a citizen of Charleston offered to furnish the Ophan House girls with calico dresses a year. The Commisioners refused this offer becasue the homespun uniforms that the girls had been wearing for over forty years identified the children and reminded them of their place in society. (22)

Children or Inmates as they were called, were admitted to the Orphan House by a parent, guardian or Church or City Warden. In order to insure that the taxpayers of Charleston did not pay for the care of other cities' children, a residency requirement was enforced. (23) Over the years, the period ranged from one to three years of documented residence within the city. Although the Institution was called the Orphan House, children with one or both parents living could be admitted if dire necessity was shown. After an investigation by the Commissioner of the Week, a child was bound to the Orphan House until age eighteen for girls and twenty-one for boys. Upon admission, the parent or guardian signed the top portion of an imdenture form relinquishing all control of the child.

The bottom portion was completed when the child was bound out to a trade.

The Commissioners prepared a Binding-Out List of suitable children for prospective Masters to study. Boys were apprenticed at age fourteen and girls at about age thirteen. (24) A Master agreed to house, clothe, feed and train an apprentice in a particular trade. Boys were indentured to trades such as cobblers, tinsmiths, carpenters, mariners, clerks, farmers, or blacksmiths. Girls were always apprenticed as seamstresses or domestics. Masters were supposed to annually inform the Commissioners of the progress made by their apprentices. These letters are almost non-existent; however, there are numerous letters written to the Commissioners by apprentices complaining of ill-treatment. If these charges could be substantiated, the Commissioners would transfer the indentures to another Master. At the conclusion of the indenture period, the apprentice received a sum of money, a suit of clothes and a set of tools relevant to the trade he was taught.

In addition to annual appropriations by the City Council, the Orphan House also received money from escheated property. (25) For "donations given directly to the Board of Commissioners for the personal comfort and private benefit of the children," a Private Fund was established.

Usually the money was invested in stocks and bonds and the interest used for items not paid for by City Council such as dowries for girls and expenses of boys sent to college.

In 1863, the children were removed from the City because of the Federal bombardment. They were sent to Orangeburg and housed in a young ladies seminary [now Claflin College]. The building served as a Confederate hospital until the end of the War. (27) It is ironic that had the children remained in Charleston, they would have suffered much less because Federal troops attacked the area around the Institution's "safe haven."

The building suffered little damage during the War and the children returned in the summer of 1865. The records for this time period are poor.

Apparently the bound records remained in Charleston. If a child was admitted to or discharged from the Institution, notations could not be made in the Registers or Minutes. In 1868 someone went through the Registers and attempted to update the records. Notations such as "Left" or "Not in House" or "Given to a Relative" are placed next to many  names from this period.

The Orphan House celebrated its Centennial in 1890. A volume documenting the event was published and several parades and exhibitions were held to commemorate the event. The Orphan House was perhaps at its zenith during this period. Letters were received from many other cities asking for information on the operation of the Institution. (28) Dr. Charles Veddar wrote the "Strangers are regarded as having missed what is best with us, if they have not visited the Orphan House." (29)

Few changes were made in the operation of the Institution over the years. After 1900 the children were not apprenticed to learn a trade. Most were returned to their famlies or allowed to leave the House at age sixteen to go to work. The attitude of total seperation gradually shifted. A major change occurred in the 1920's when the children began to attend Public Schools with other children. (30) The Bureau of Child Welfare took over the task of investigating applicants for admission at this time.

The day-to-day activities of the institution; however, continued as they had for decades.

The depression brought an influx of children into the Orphan House in the 1930's. During this period the strict isolationist rules of the House were significantly relaxed. Children were allowed to leave the Institution on weekends to visit their families; Orphan House sports teams such as baseball and football competed with other area teams; and high school aged inmates were sent to vocational schools to learn a trade.

Professionals such as social workers were employed to assist with the children.

In 1948 the Board of Commissioners engaged the Child Welfare League of America to prepare a report on the Charleston Orphan House. The final report challenged almost every aspect of the Institution's operation from the way the girls' hair was cut to the fact that there was not a Registered Nurse on duty in the hospital area. The League particularly criticized the dormatory atmosphere of the large building. The cottage system was recommended as the modern way to house children. (31) After receiving this report the Commissioners decided to make immediate changes.

A new plant was purchased in North Charleston and named Oak Grove. The Orphan House building was sold to the Sears-Roebuck Company and demolished in 1952.

After demolition of the building, the records that the Commissioners had retained for over one hundred and fifty years were stored in various locations including closets and out-door sheds. In 1977 the City of Charleston established a Division of Archives and Records and attempted to locate many of the older municipal records in the City. Today the Charleston Orphan House records are preserved and protected for future generations. All records are available to the general public except for Applications to Admit after 1900. Due to the personal nature of these documents, only the former inmate or the immediate family are allowed access.

Although the collection has been processed and microfilmed, there was never a complete listing of children admitted to the institution.

Copies may be ordered from SCMAR
Box 21766
Columbia, SC 29221
Copyright 1994 Brent H. Holcomb


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