In 1790 the city council established the Charleston Orphan House “for the purpose of supporting and educating poor orphan children, and those of poor, distressed and disabled parents who are unable to support and maintain them.” It was the first public orphanage in America.
Before Independence, St. Philip’s Parish cared for Charleston’s orphans by placing them with local families. After disestablishment of the Anglican Church, such children became a civic responsibility. In 1790 the city council established the Charleston Orphan House “for the purpose of supporting and educating poor orphan children, and those of poor, distressed and disabled parents who are unable to support and maintain them.” It was the first public orphanage in America. Soon the building that would eventually house thousands of children was erected at Boundary (later Calhoun) and St. Philip Streets, accompanied by the notable 1802 chapel designed by the architect Gabriel Manigault.
Some five thousand children, a minority of whom were full orphans, passed through the institution over the next century and a half. Up to the mid–nineteenth century most residents received a few years of formal education in the Orphan House school and then were apprenticed–boys to local craftsmen, and girls to learn housewifery from mistresses. Other inmates spent a relatively brief part of their youth in the institution before returning to their families, often after their widowed mothers had remarried. Some Orphan House alumni such as Christopher Memminger and Andrew Buist Murray achieved fame, but for the vast majority the Orphan House secured a relatively humane childhood and prepared them to work productively as adults.
The Orphan House was an institution of deep pride to Charlestonians, who made sure that prominent visitors such as Presidents Washington, Monroe, and Taft toured the grounds. But the needs of poor families changed over time, and so did the Orphan House. In 1951 all children in residence moved to the new facility at Oak Grove in North Charleston, which continued into the twenty-first century as the Carolina Youth Development Center. The Orphan House and its chapel–survivors of fire, hurricane, earthquake, and Union naval bombardment–were demolished soon thereafter and replaced by a department store, which eventually closed.
Bellows, Barbara L. Benevolence among Slaveholders: Assisting the Poor in Charleston, 1670–1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
King, Susan L. “The Charleston Orphan House: The First One Hundred Years.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1998): 106–15.
Murray, John E. “Fates of Orphans: Poor Children in Antebellum Charleston.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33 (spring 2003): 519–45.