Skip to main content

The Charleston Orphan House

Children’s Lives in the First Public Orphanage in America

The first public orphanage in America, the Charleston Orphan House saw to the welfare and education of thousands of children from poor white families in the urban South. From wealthy benefactors to the families who sought its assistance to the artisans and merchants who relied on its charges as apprentices, the Orphan House was a critical component of the city’s social fabric. By bringing together white citizens from all levels of society, it also played a powerful political role in maintaining the prevailing social order.
John E. Murray tells the story of the Charleston Orphan House for the first time through the words of those who lived there or had family members who did. Through their letters and petitions, the book follows the families from the events and decisions that led them to the Charleston Orphan House through the children’s time spent there to, in a few cases, their later adult lives. What these accounts reveal are families struggling to maintain ties after catastrophic loss and to preserve bonds with children who no longer lived under their roofs.
An intimate glimpse into the lives of the white poor in early American history, The Charleston Orphan House is moreover an illuminating look at social welfare provision in the antebellum South.

296 pages | 13 halftones, 5 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Markets and Governments in Economic History

Economics and Business: Economics--History

History: American History


"John E. Murray is an accomplished economic historian who here turns his hand to social history. The Charleston Orphan House brims with new insights into family life, labor markets, health conditions, and attitudes about class and race in antebellum South Carolina. Murray’s most distinctive contribution is access to the voices of the poor urban white population, who are allowed to speak for themselves in this superb new book."

Gavin Wright, Stanford University

“In The Charleston Orphan House, distinguished economic historian John E. Murray uncovers a world about which previous generations of scholars knew next to nothing: the world of orphaned children in early national and antebellum America. Employing a unique cache of records, Murray offers a sensitive and sympathetic account of the history of the institution—the first public orphan house in the US—while at the same time making it clear that Charleston’s beneficence toward white orphans was inextricably linked to the racial ideology of the city’s leaders. In Murray’s hands, the voices of poor white families in early America are heard as never before. At once vivid, poignant, and analytically rigorous, The Charleston Orphan House makes major contributions to a half dozen different fields of history.”

Peter A. Coclanis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“This is an exemplary history from the bottom up. Focusing on the lives of poor families allows John E. Murray to illuminate, as never before, who placed children in the Charleston Orphan House and why. Murray documents the day-to-day activities of the children themselves and their lives after they left the institution. The Charleston Orphan House is the best and most thorough treatment in existence today of a pre–Civil War orphanage.”

E. Wayne Carp, Pacific Lutheran University, author of Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption

“Mining the rich archives of the first US public orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina, John E. Murray unravels the world of poor whites, the wealthy commissioners who ran the institution, the artisans who apprenticed the children, and the relations among them, from the late eighteenth century to the Civil War. . . . This is thorough research with previously unavailable data on orphanages from this period. Highly recommended.”


"Provocative and utterly absorbing."

“Combining quantitative methods with qualitative analysis, Murray is able to offer scholars of family life and gender roles much more plausible generalizations about poor Americans’ family dynamics than previously has been possible.”

Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Murray is my kind of historian: He strains his eyes with microfilm and gets his hands dusty from handling records, and lots of them. His impressive, prodigious research draws primarily on the applications written by parents (or their literate friends) for admission of their children into the orphanage. . . . This book also makes an enormous contribution to our knowledge in its richly detailed reconstruction of the family lives of poorer whites. Murray displays great sensitivity in recounting their stories."

Journal of the Early Republic

"Murray [creates] a richly textured portrait of the lives of poor Charlestonians. . . . [His book] is full of the real stories of individuals whose start in life was hard but who often succeeded against those odds to lead rewarding lives."

Charleston Post and Courier

"Ordinary people don’t make history; often they don’t leave many records at all. Murray has mined a set of records that, in his words, 'may be the single greatest collection of first-person reports on work and family lives of the poor anywhere in the United States that covers the entire period between the Revolution and the Civil War.' These are the records of the Orphan House of Charleston, South Carolina, from its founding in 1790 as the first public orphanage in the United States. . . . No nuance, no child, no foster mother is left behind in this revealing and riveting book."


The Charleston Orphan House is valuable for what it adds to several understudied areas—publicly managed orphan asylums, southern asylums, and pre–Civil War asylums. It is also a touching account of the negotiations between government officials, interested private citizens, and parents to provide for children in need.”

South Carolina Historical Magazine

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1 Introduction
2 Charleston
3 Orphan House
4 Families
5 Education
6 Sickness
7 Leaving
8 Apprenticeship
9 Transitions
10 Epilogue



South Carolina Historical Society: George C. Rogers Jr. Book Award

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press