In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Orphans

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Abandoned Children and Foundlings
  • Apprenticed and Indentured Orphans
  • Street Children
  • Wards and Legal Orphans
  • Fostered and Adopted Orphans
  • Orphan Trains

Childhood Studies Orphans
Cheryl Nixon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0121


Bereft of parents, the orphan is a child who requires protection, care, and guidance. The orphan thus reveals his or her culture’s understanding of both the underage child’s essential needs and society’s responsibility for meeting them. Because debates about the importance of the child often crystallize around the orphan, the orphan proves to be a figure of concern across cultures, throughout history, and in the contemporary world. The orphan is defined by the deprivation of parents, and is commonly understood to be a child who has lost both parents to death. However, historians and organizations such as UNICEF include the child who has lost one parent, often termed a “half” or “single” orphan, in the definition of “orphan.” The category of “orphan” can thus encompass numerous types of parentless children, ranging from children who have lost both parents to children who have living parents but live separate from them, such as the foundling (typically an abandoned child found and cared for by non-kin or an institution), the ward (typically an orphan cared for by a legal guardian), the pauper apprentice (typically an orphaned or abandoned child consigned to labor and cared for by an apprentice-master), and the street child (typically a child who has left his or her family to live and work on the streets). The research defining each of these types of orphans, among others, is detailed in separate categories in this article. The questions asked of the orphan are often defined by the time period and geographical area under investigation, and this bibliography is organized to address historical and contemporary orphaning by region. Past orphaning is the focus of historical and literary studies emphasizing Europe, Great Britain, and America, while contemporary orphaning in Africa and Asia is often approached from a sociological or psychological perspective or is the focus of governmental and agency studies. Many studies of the orphan emphasize orphaning’s causal factors. Historically, orphaning resulted from high mortality rates, and it remains common in areas ravaged by war or disease. Child abandonment’s contribution to past and present orphaning has also been an area of extensive research. Alternatively, many studies examine the solutions proposed for orphaning, investigating institutions such as the orphanage. The solution of adoption is explored briefly in this biography, as the subject has its own article within Oxford Bibliographies Online, titled Adoption and Fostering. In addition to being a figure of social concern, the orphan is a figure of imaginative possibility, serving as a character in numerous fictional plots. The focus of extensive literary study, the fictional orphan offers insight into changing cultural understandings of the child. The study of the orphan must take into account the different types of orphans, the historical shape of orphaning, national and regional differences in orphaning, responses to orphaning, and literary fascination with the orphan.

General Overviews

No comprehensive cross-cultural, transhistorical general overview of the orphan exists. Orphaning will sometimes appear as a subtopic in general overviews of the history of childhood. For example, Cunningham 2005 and Heywood 2001, two wide-ranging histories of childhood, mention orphans, foundlings, and pauper apprentices, while King 2007, a review of research in childhood studies, covers child abandonment and foundling homes. Focusing on America, Ashby 1997 offers an insightful examination of the orphan, tracing the historical changes in the cultural position of the dependent child. Askeland 2005 provides the most comprehensive overview of orphaning in America, collecting primary and secondary source materials that cover both the historical and contemporary situation of the orphan. The orphan is often discussed as a unique aspect of a more general children’s issue, such as adoption or family structure. When a study focuses on the orphan, it will typically provide a detailed examination of the orphan within a specific historical period, geographical area, or institutional setting; those studies appear in the other sections of this bibliography.

  • Ashby, LeRoy. Endangered Children: Dependency, Neglect, and Abuse in American History. New York: Twayne, 1997.

    Taking dependent children as its topic, this book provides a good introduction to the social position of the orphan in America. Chapters explain the colonial apprenticeship of orphans, the 19th-century use of orphanages, the “placing out” structures of orphan trains and fostering, and the 20th-century interest in child welfare.

  • Askeland, Lori. Children and Youth in Adoption, Orphanages, and Foster Care: A Historical Handbook and Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005.

    This informative collection of primary sources, critical essays, and bibliographies examines orphaned, fostered, and adopted children. Focusing on the United States, the materials trace changes in the care of orphans, from Native American forms of adoption to colonial practices of apprenticeship, the 19th-century reliance on orphanages, and the 20th-century use of foster care. The book has sections devoted to orphanages, orphan trains, and orphans in literature.

  • Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1550. 2d ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.

    An accessible overview of Western culture’s changing ideas about childhood. Cunningham addresses the orphan in sections that detail the institutional care of orphaned and abandoned children. Within his larger argument that children were valued and loved, he discusses the widespread philanthropic and governmental interest in “saving” the child.

  • Heywood, Colin. A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times. Cambridge, UK, and Malden, MA: Polity, 2001.

    Offering a comprehensive history of childhood from the Middle Ages to the present, Heywood’s study discusses the plight of orphaned or parentless children. The chapter “Caring for Infants?” examines abandoned children and the institutional solution of the foundling hospital, while the chapter “Children at Work” discusses pauper apprentices.

  • King, Margaret L. “Concepts of Childhood: What We Know and Where We Might Go.” Renaissance Quarterly 60.2 (2007).

    This article provides a concise overview of the major debates defining research on the history of childhood. Orphanages and foundling hospitals are mentioned, as is child abandonment, poverty, and the care of children outside of the family. A comprehensive bibliography points to sources for further research on these topics.

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