Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hastings’ Model Orphanage

Children from the New York Orphan Asylum in Hastings-on-Hudson with their donkey cart pulled by "Jack", the school donkey. (All the pictures in this post are from Dr. Reeder's 1909 book on the orphanage.)

One hundred years ago, in the very southwest corner of Hastings, there was a model orphanage. In 1910, the Review of Reviews described it as “one of the best examples of the cottage system for the care of orphans to be found anywhere in the world.”

The “cottage system” was invented by reformers at the end of the 19th century to counteract the evils of what they called “institutionalism.” In the early 19th century, philanthropists thought they could rescue children from the unsanitary and dangerous conditions of cities like New York by removing them from their homes and placing them in charitable institutions. But many of these were overcrowded and far from the sanitary and orderly places that the philanthropists had envisioned. They were institutions where, as Hastings R. Hart wrote in his book Preventive Treatment of Neglected Children, “children are kept in uniform, with shaved heads; where they do not have individual clothing, but have clothing distributed to them promiscuously from week to week; where lice and bedbugs prevail; where food is meager and of inferior quality; … where sleeping rooms are insanitary; where thin straw beds let the tender bodies down upon hard wooden slats; where cuffs and abuse are more freely distributed than kind words.”

The “cottage system” tried to create an environment that was more like a real home. Different ages of children lived together in fairly small groups with “cottage parents.” The ideal cottage system was also outside the city, where the air and water were clean, and where children could spend part of their day out of doors. This was what the New York Orphan Asylum had in mind when they bought their property in Hastings in 1869.

"Where We Live and Learn." The New York Orphan Asylum in 1909. On the left are the "cottages" and on the right are the administrative buildings.

But it was not until 1899 that the orphanage board decided to begin the move to Hastings, a move that was completed when the buildings were finished, in 1902. To help them carry out their plans, they hired a new superintendent, Dr. Rudolph Rex Reeder. Dr. Reeder is described in the 1913 Who’s Who in America as a “social worker,” a new profession that had developed in the 1890s. Reeder had started his career as a school principal in Illinois and completed his doctorate in education at Columbia Teacher’s College in 1900, the year he was hired by the New York Orphan Asylum.

Reeder was an enthusiastic champion of the cottage system. He wrote books and articles on the subject and spoke at conferences. He described with horror orphanages he had seen where children’s individuality and creativity were stifled. “The life of the child in most of these institutions is so dreary, soul shriveling, and void of happy interests, the daily routine of marching and eating and singing and of lining up for whatever is to be done so stupefying, as to inhibit the child’s normal development.”

Girls from the orphanage caring for a family of chickens.

In Hastings, Reeder tried to create the complete opposite of this kind of institution, and to Hart, who visited the orphanage and wrote about it in 1910, Dr. Reeder had succeeded.

“The ideal of an orphan asylum has been very nearly attained in the New York Orphanage at Hastings-on-Hudson, under the direction of Dr. R.R. Reeder. ... The institution is established on the cottage plan, with cheerful sitting rooms, well-ventilated dormitories, small dining rooms and a separate kitchen for each cottage, partly in order that the older children may assist in the care of the younger ones and partly in order to create a homelike atmosphere.

A class in a greenhouse.

Around the different cottages will be found flowerbeds, chicken coops and pets. Nearby will be found vegetable gardens, beehives, rabbit hutches, stables, etc. …

The school rooms are spacious, affording twice as much room per child as is found in the ordinary public school. This plan permits proper ventilation, exercise in the school room and comfortable seating. The schools are only an incident in the training of the child. The whole life of the child is made to articulate with his education; farming, gardening, grading, building, domestic work, play, environment of every sort, are skillfully wrought into educational material.

At the foot of the bluffs flows the Hudson River, where a bathing place is enclosed, allowing boys and girls alike to learn and practice the joyful art of swimming. ... The evils of 'institutionalism' are practically absent from this beautiful institution, and already its influence is being felt upon the orphan asylums and children's homes of the United States.”

Boys swimming in the Hudson.

Reeder wrote his own book about the Hastings orphanage in 1909, and you can read it online at Google Books, or by clicking here. Reeder was so well thought of that in 1921 he was hired to head the Oversees Child Welfare Association of America in Serbia. In 1929, following a long tradition of orphanages trading the name “asylum” for “school”, the New York Orphan Asylum changed its name to the Graham School in honor of its original founder, Isabella Graham. During the 1950s, the Manhattan branch was reorganized and renamed the Windham Society. In 1977, the Graham School and the Windham Society were consolidated into the current Graham-Windham.

Christmas in one of the cottages in 1909.

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  1. Many, many thanks to Mark McCullough of Glen Rock, NJ, who just sent us a first edition copy of Rudolph R. Reeder's 1909 book about the New York Orphan Asylum entitled "How Two Hundred Children Live and Learn." Anyone who is interested in the orphanage and would like to take a look at the book and its dozen wonderful photographs, please contact the Historical Society.

  2. My great grandmother and her siblings were orphans here around the turn of the 20th century, and I've been trying to track down information about them. Interested to read this post and to learn that there's a book about the New York Orphan Asylum during the years she was there.

  3. Reeder was an enthusiastic champion of the cottage system. He wrote books and articles on the subject and spoke at conferences.

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