JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post
Here are a few things I learned from a ten-minute graze through a pamphlet1 describing the conditions and circumstances of the almshouses facilities on Randall's Island (NYC) in 1876. Randall's Island was pretty far removed from the great bustle of Manhattan and Brooklyn in 1876, having plenty of people to keep and incarcerate at a distance somewhat safely removed from polite society as well as the great unwashed. Today the island is mostly a collection of sports facilities, about an equidistant mile from Riker's Island and the Guggenheim, as the crow flies.)
In any event, the bits and pieces that gave some insight into what was going on there are interesting:
- Most of the children sent to this place (a collection of at least 12 buildings) were done so "by choice" by their parents, and most of those parents promised to pay for the fees to keep the child/children. Evidently fewer than 50% actually wound up paying. Most of the parents resorting to this were near or in a state of pauperism, and could not afford to keep their child,
- There were 91 girls, aged 8-14, housed in the “Large Girls' Department” ; they were tended by one paid assistant and up to eight women from the alms-house and work house.
- "Large Boys' Department": no mention of number, but drill master lives with them, plus 3 boys designated as monitors, and six females from the work house.
- "Small Boys' Department": 136 children, tended by 5-6 women, one of whom received wages with five others being paupers or criminals sent from Blackwell's Island. (Blackwell's--now known as Roosevelt Island--was a skinny island about a mile south of Randall's in the East River. It served to host the first Lunatic Asylum for NYC and was also the country's first mental asylum and also housed prisons, from which I assume the "Blackwell's" helpers came.)
- "Infants' Department": 72 children aged 2.5-5, tended by 6 females, 5 from Blackwell's.
- The children on reception were dressed in blue gingham, white linen aprons and slept on straw beds and pillows, with food cooked by steam in six large cauldrons, mostly by inmates from Blackwell's. I saw twice that children were released from this facility in the clothing in which they arrived, though there was no mention of what happened if that clothing was outgrown, as 50% of the children stayed here for about two years.
- Nursery Hospital held 769 between 2 and 16, most between 5-10
- There were 1115 children on Randall's, the near-majority placed there by their parents who promised to pay for care (half did), mostly Irish or “unascertained” ancestry;
- Occupations of fathers “Unascertained”, mechanics, laborers, and 1 professional
- Most had other family members in the same institution or Blackwells
- Female (employed) helpers were mostly 30—40, widowed, and overwhelmingly Irish.
There's a lot more--actually a whole lot more considering the pamphlet's brevity, including a description of schools and trade houses that were supposed to help prepare the kids for life in NYC once they reached the age of sixteen. Overall from my quick reading I was left a little hollow and tired, thinking about all of those kids, crammed together, many of them with continuing illnesses, eating steamed-everything, performing work tasks in stiff gingham, sleeping on straw, and attended by not many people at all, and most of those were convicts or fellow almshouses/poorhouse residents.
William P. Letchworth. Extract from the Ninth Annual Report of the State Board of Charities of New York, relating to PAUPER CHILDREN, New York County. Albany, Weeds, Parsons, and Company, 1876. 9x6”, 25pp. Original wrappers. Nice copy. Provenance: Library of Congress, with their surplus/duplicate rubber stamp on front and rear wrapper. Old vertical fold through-and-through. Includes a folding plan: “Diagram of Nursery and Nursery Hospital Buildings belonging to the Children's department of the Almshouse of New York on Randall's Island.”