On February 21, 2014, an article appeared in the New York Times reporting that the city intended to remove over 400 children from 2 homeless shelters. The article goes on to highlight how these 400 are part of “a swelling population of 22,000 homeless children.” Such numbers have not been reported in New York since the Great Depression. Nearly two decades before the Great Depression, on January 1, 1911, Joseph Anthony Horne was born and then orphaned in that city. He could easily have become homeless.
Even then it was quite clear that there was a widening divide in the city, and across the nation, between haves and have-nots. The late 1800s into the early 1900s was the Gilded Age for the country, with a rapidly expanding economy resulting in some growing extremely wealthy (e.g. Carnegie, Mellon, Morgan, Vanderbilt, etc) while others sank into poverty. Especially affected during this era were children like Joseph, i.e. those who were orphaned or abandoned. Even for children remaining with their families, so many families had so few resources that children had to work alongside parents for survival.
Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, New York was a major port of entry for people of many backgrounds and skills seeking a new life for themselves and their children. Some within the U.S. were eager to welcome these immigrants to work in growing cities and homestead “empty” lands out west. When Joseph was born, the population of the U.S. was estimated at nearly 94 million. In 1818, less than 100 years before his birth, the population had been only 9 million. That staggering increase in population in such a short time was primarily due to immigration from England, Ireland and Germany (including territories then considered part of the German Empire like Poland).
For those immigrants who arrived with few funds, they took whatever jobs they could find. New York photographer and journalist Jacob Riis chronicled the life led by some of these people in the late 1800s in his book How the Other Half Lives. So, even as on one side of the city people were enjoying the wealth and prosperity of “the age of innocence,” on the other side of the city, people were experiencing a very different life. It is also around this time, in 1883, American poet Emma Lazarus wrote The New Colossus, a poem that would be engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, including those famous lines: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …”
During this time, there were few labor laws in place to prevent mistreatment and abuses of all sorts. In fact, in 1911, one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history took place in New York City at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. A fire led to the deaths of 146 men and women who were killed by the fire, smoke inhalation or by jumping to their deaths. The owners had locked the doors and any exits, a common practice in those times. It was one of those tragic events that would help to usher in new workplace safety standards. And eventually through the efforts of photographers like Lewis Hine child labor laws would be created as well.
As an investigative reporter for the National Child Labor Committe, Lewis Hine documented the working and living conditions of children across the U.S. between 1908 and 1924. Many images can be found on the Library of Congress website. Leading up to World War I (1914-1918), as manual labor work increased, there was no more cheap and readily available labor than that of a child.
Reformers, like those who started the National Child Labor Committee, and many other people were aware that the practice of putting children to work had to end, not only for their immediate safety but to facilitate giving them an opportunity for schooling and increasing any chances they had at breaking out of a cycle of poverty. One such reformer was philanthropist Charles Loring Brace. In 1853, he formed the Children’s Aid Society in New York City. At the time, abandoned and homeless children lived on the streets or were placed in institutions where they could stay until a certain age (e.g. 14) before being expected to leave. Brace and others felt that it would be better to collect these children, and even to accept children from poor families who could not take care of them, and to send those children to live with families outside of the city, in farming communities. These “foster families” could even adopt the children. As for how these children, including an orphaned baby Joseph, would travel to one of these families? By train.
With the support of wealthy families like the Astors and other philanthropists, from 1854 to 1929, the Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital, would send nearly 250,000 children of all ages by “orphan trains” to cities and towns across the country, primarily to the American Midwest. The children ranged in age from babies like Joseph to teenagers. Notices would be sent out to communities before the children departed. Agents would be sent along with the children as chaperones. Stories have been collected over the years. It is clear that sometimes children were fostered as “helping hands,” but it is also clear that children were taken in to be cared for and loved as part of a family. Such is likely the case with Joseph.
Joseph and a baby girl named Pearl were taken in by farmer Anton J. Wisnieski and his wife, Anna. The German-speaking couple of German and Polish ancestry would raise the two children in Webster Township, Dodge County, Nebraska. So instead of growing up on the streets of New York City, young Joseph grew up on the Great Plains where he fished for buffalo carp in the Platte River and had many other adventures into the 1920s. And then something happened. He felt a calling to travel back east and even cross the Atlantic into worlds very different from the farmlands of Nebraska. In his travels, he would deepen his knowledge of “dead languages,” literature, music and religion and somehow pick up his first camera … just in time to return to the States and join the ranks of one of the most legendary groups of documentary photographers in U.S. history.
More about those adventures and that walk through history in March.
A Few Recommended Links …