Human beings are an ever-evolving species. Once, we carried spears and created fantastic works of art on the walls of French caves. Today, we carry smartphones and trip over things because we don’t ever look where we’re going. Yes, the human species gets better and better all the time.
Since the Industrial Revolution, things have changed at such a blindingly fast pace that we sometimes forget just how weird the world used to be. (Because it’s not at all weird anymore, right?) Things that were once commonplace seem strange or even bizarre today, although it’s probably also true that humans who lived 100 years ago would think the things we do are pretty strange and bizarre. Sadly, we don’t have any way to actually show an early 20th-century person a YouTube video of someone eating a Tide Pod. But we can at least enjoy our own bemusement at the strange and bizarre habits of our recent ancestors, mostly because it’s okay to make fun of people who have been dead for decades.
It was a hard knock life
What would literature be without the lowly orphan, consigned to a sad life of scrubbing floors with toothbrushes and sharing a bedroom with 25 similarly unfortunate children, only to be occasionally saved by kindly millionaires and giants who are bad at pronouncing things? Orphanages are ubiquitous in children’s stories, but they aren’t really a thing anymore, at least not in the Little Orphan Annie sense of the word.
The first American orphanage was established in 1729, after a massacre took out most of the adults in a Mississippi settlement. Before that, kids who lost their parents went to live with relatives, were apprenticed to tradesmen, or ended up begging on city streets. According to Virginia Commonwealth University, the American practice of stuffing kids into orphanages (even though many of them weren’t even orphans, but the children of poor, single mothers) didn’t really start to come into question until the 1920s, when most states implemented “mother’s pensions.” That gave poor mothers the financial ability to care for their own children rather than placing them in institutionalized care. Orphanages started to phase out in the early 20th century, although they do still exist in another form — today they’re called “group homes.” You won’t find kids dressed in rags with shaved heads scrubbing the floors with toothbrushes in any of these modern facilities, though, and probably not too many kindly millionaires, either.