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Children's Aid Society

In the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania are the records of a novel effort to rescue Philadelphia’s poor and orphaned children, the Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania ("CAS"). Founded in 1882, the CAS, unlike existing charities, promised to help all children in need, without regard to sex, race, or religion.   Every year, the CAS helped hundreds of children, some who came to the Society offices at 321 South Twelfth Street with their parents who were looking for temporary help in the form of a foster home and others who hoped to have their children adopted.  Hard economic times brought poor families to the CAS doors, and hard times came in many forms. The death of a father left poor and working-class mothers with few resources at their disposal to care for themselves and their children, and racism or prejudice against immigrants could aggravate an already fragile family economy.  An ill child might become too much for a parent;  so too could a child with disabilities become a burden.  Scholars have studied Charles Loring Brace’s New York Children’s Aid Society carefully, scrutinizing Brace’s intentions and debating the wisdom and the ethics of programs such as the NY-CAS’s orphan trains.  Less attention has been paid to Pennsylvania’s CAS, which began decades later and seemed, in many cases, to be a welcome alternative to institutionalization.

A group of a Villanova students spent this summer exploring the intake records of the Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania, identifying the records of six children helped by the CAS in its early years and telling their histories.  The lesson attached to this unit is a summary of what they found.


19th century

20th century

African American








Big Ideas

Perspective on Events

Essential Questions

How does continuity and change within Pennsylvania history influence your community today?

Background Material for Teacher

Childrens Aid Society Finding Aid from HSP

End of Unit Assessment

After students have assessed various case studies from the Children's Aid Society files have them create an overview of what they believed childhood was like in the late 1800's and how it is different from their own.

Some questions to consider:

  • What was expected of the children?

  • Did they attend school and, if so, how often?

  • How did race or immigration factor into their lives?


Plans in this Unit

Case Files

Grade Level

Middle School

High School

Standards/Eligible Content



About the Author

Dr. Judith Giesberg in conjunction with graduate students from Villanova University.

Adapted for the website by Alicia Parks, Education Manager.

Attention Teachers!

Let us know how you used this plan and be featured on our site! Submit your story here.

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