Charles Loring Brace

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Charles Loring Brace

Birthdate: (64)
Death: 1890 (64)
Immediate Family:

Son of John Pierce Brace and Lucy Elizabeth Brace
Husband of Letitia Waring Neill
Father of Charles Loring Brace, Jr.

Managed by: Private User
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About Charles Loring Brace

Charles Loring Brace (June 19, 1826 – August 11, 1890) was an American philanthropist who contributed to the field of social reform. He is considered a father of the modern foster care movement and was most renowned for starting the Orphan Train movement of the mid-19th century, and for founding The Children's Aid Society.

Early life and education

Brace was born on June 19, 1826 in Litchfield, Connecticut. His mother died when he was 14, and he was raised by his father, a history teacher. He graduated from Yale in 1846 and then went on to study divinity and theology at Yale, but left to study at Union Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in 1849. He was drawn to New York because it was viewed as the center of American Protestantism and social activity. His best friend, Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect, also lived in New York.


In 1852, at the age of 26, Brace, who had been raised as a Calvinist, was serving as a minister to the poor of Blackwell's Island (now known as Roosevelt Island) and to the poor of the Five Points Mission, when he decided he wanted to fulfill his humanitarian efforts in the streets rather than in church. Brace was aware of the impoverished lives of the children in New York City and for this reason he concentrated on improving children’s situations and their future. A year later, in 1853, Brace established the Children's Aid Society.

Brace witnessed many children in New York City who lived in poverty with parents who abused alcohol, engaged in criminal activity, and were unfit parents. These children were sent to beg for money and sell newspapers and matches in the streets. They became known as “the dangerous classes” due to the street violence and gangs they inevitably became a part of. In some cases, children as young as five years old would be sent to jails where adults were imprisoned as well. The police referred to these children as “street rats”.

According to an essay written by Brace in 1872, one crime and poverty ridden area around Tenth Avenue was referred to as “Misery Row”. Misery Row was considered to be a main breeding ground of crime and poverty, and an inevitable "fever nest” where disease spread easily. Other children who were orphans or runaways found themselves drifting into this destitute area, as well as the old sheds of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets. Such was the severity of child poverty in 1854 that the number of homeless children in New York City was estimated as high as 34,000.

Although orphanages existed, Brace did not believe they were worthwhile institutions because they merely served the purpose of feeding the poor and providing handouts. He felt that such institutions only deepened the dependence of the poor on charity. Brace was also influenced by the writings of Edward Livingstone, a pioneer in prison reform who believed that the best way to deal with crime and poverty was to prevent it. Brace focused on finding jobs and training for poor and destitute children so they could help themselves. His initial efforts in social reform included free kindergartens, free dental clinics, job placement, training programs, reading rooms, and lodging houses for boys.

Fostering and the "Orphan Trains"

Main article: Orphan Train

Brace endeavored to place children into farm families of northern New York State, the Midwest and, after the American Civil War, some southern and a few western states. From 1853 to 1864, 384 children were sent each year to families in New England states, the North Atlantic states and East North Central states. Nearly 1,000 children per year were sent from 1865 1874 to Michigan, Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri through Brace's "Emigration Plan”, now known as "The Orphan Trains". "In every American community, especially in a western one, there are many spare places at the table of life," Brace wrote. "They have enough for themselves and the stranger too."

The trains transported children from lodging houses, orphanages, private homes or the street, bringing them to towns where local organizers had created interest in the program. Notices were posted around town and in newspapers, informing locals when the children would arrive and of the viewing location. The Children's Aid Society (CAS) made arrangements with train companies for the children (in groups ranging in size from three to 35, along with at least two adult agents) to travel in regular passenger coaches, not in wooden box cars as is sometimes depicted in novels. At towns along the route, the children assembled at the train station or were brought to opera houses, schools, or town halls for the community to meet and interview.

Emigration Plan

Brace's Emigration Plan was also an anti-eugenic movement because Brace believed that one's "gemmules" (an early, pre-genetic concept that blood carried a family's heritability and character) did not predetermine one's future. Brace was deeply moved by Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, having read it thirteen times. Brace was also an outspoken abolitionist. In a bold move (and perhaps inspired by his abolitionist and Darwinian mindset), Brace did away with the centuries-old custom of indenture so that the "placed" children were allowed to leave a home if they were uncomfortable with the placement. Brace’s vision of migrating children to live with the western Christian farming families was widely supported by wealthy New York families – the first $50 was given by Mrs. John Astor in 1853.

The Children's Aid Society (CAS), the best-known organization finding homes for children, made efforts to screen the host families and follow up on the welfare of placed children. By 1909, at the first White House Conference on Dependent Children, the country's top social reformers praised the CAS' emigration movement, but argued that children should either be kept with their natal families or, if they were removed as a result of parental neglect or abuse, every effort should be made to place the child in a foster home nearby. In a report in 1910, the Children’s Aid Society estimated that 87 percent of children placed by the Orphan Train program had done well. While there was occasional abuse, most people agreed that over all, the children were generally better off than on the streets of big cities without proper food, clothing and shelter.

By 1920, the CAS and approximately 1500 other agencies and institutions had placed approximately 150,000 children in the largest migration or resettlement of children in American history. The CAS' Orphan Train movement ended in 1929, 75 years after it had begun as a social experiment.

To this day, Brace is honored and revered for his compassionate work with the street children of New York City. He helped 400,000 children with the orphan train

Brace served as an executive secretary of Children's Aid Society for 37 years, overseeing the program. He died in 1890 from Bright's disease. After his death, the Brace Memorial Farm was created for street children to learn farm skills, manners, and personal social skills to help prepare them for life on their own. His memoirs were published in 1872 under the title "The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years’ Work Among Them" (ISBN 1402181493).

Personal life

On August 21, 1854 he married Letitia Neill in Belfast, Ireland, who proved to be a great support to her husband’s social reform efforts. Letitia's father, Robert Neill, was an avid abolitionist and he opened his home to some of the world's most famous anti-slavery orators, including Frederick Douglass.


Kirby Page wrote in Jesus or Christianity, A Study in Contrasts (1929) quoting from Brace's Gesta Christ:

There was an appalling amount of misery and injustice throughout the regions where the expansion of Christianity was most rapid. ...The stage of that era was often highly indecent. "The exhibition of licentious shows and immoral plays, says C. L. Brace, "had a profound influence. The extremes to which they were carried cannot ever be explained in modern writings. In fact, few classical scholars who have not waded through the disgusting mire of a large part of Roman literature can have even an idea of the depth of obscenity and immorality which it reached."


Gerald Warner Brace (1901–1978) American writer, educator, sailor and boat builder.

C. Loring Brace IV (born 1930), American biological anthropologist and doctor.

In popular culture

The song by Utah Phillips called "Orphan Train" has been performed by numerous modern bluegrass singers.

The book Gratefully Yours describes a nine-year-old girl's feelings about her new family who adopt her from the orphan train.

There is a ballet entitled Orphan Train presented by Covenant Ballet Theatre of Brooklyn, which tells the story of Brace and shows stories of orphans on the train. It is choreographed by Marla Hirokawa. Authors Al and Joanna Lacy have written an Orphan Trains Trilogy, depicting the lives of fictional orphans. The ballad "Rider On An Orphan Train", written by David Massengill, describes the inevitable tragedy of the separation of siblings in spite of the efforts to keep brothers and sisters together.

The book Train to Somewhere by Eve Bunting describes a fictional account of a girl's journey on the Orphan Train.


America Past and Present Online-Charles Loring Brace, The Life of The Street Rats. 1872.

End Child Abuse- Champion of Children: Charles Loring Brace.

Graham, Janet & Gray, Edward (1995). The Orphan Trains". PBS DVD/Video., a one-hour documentary film based on exclusive access to the CAS archives using original research: Brace's diaries, letters from children, agents and interviews with "riders."

Jackson, Dave & Jackson, Netta (2001). Charles Loring Brace, The Founder of The Orphan Trains. O'Connor, Stephen (2001). Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed.

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Charles Loring Brace's Timeline

Age 29
Age 64