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Marta Gutman
The City College of the City University of New York

Condition and Consciousness: Childhood in a California Orphanage

This paper analyzes children’s experiences in a congregate orphanage, established in 1873 by the Ladies’ Relief Society in Oakland California. Supported by state subsidies and private donations, the Children’s Home housed dependent children until the 1930s. I draw on photographs, architectural drawings, and other resources including an oral history of two women who resided (as children) in the orphanage during the late 1920s and early 1930s. For all intents and purposes, the girls lived in a nineteenth-century institution.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the term, “congregate orphanage” came to imply a large-scale, soulless institution, where rigid routines “trimmed and turned” children “into automatons,” in the words of one reformer. I challenge the environmental determinism of the reform argument calling on concepts used by James C. Scott in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. The public record--the public transcript, in Scott’s terms--contains documents, especially photographs that show the high value placed on order and hierarchy in children’s charities. However, the images don’t give a full picture of children’s experiences in institutions. As Scott insists, “condition” is not by necessity “consciousness”; all sorts of people including children in institutions develop “hidden transcripts” to come to terms with power and authority.

I call on the insights of Scott and other historians to show how the Cooley sisters used space and material culture to challenge the disciplinary and socializing objectives of their caretakers. The public record may suggest charities succeeded in using space to imprint order on children in orphanages, but I question the presumption of success. My research is not intended to defend institutionalization, although living in a congregate orphanage did not turn a child like Mollie Cooley into an “automaton.” Rather my goals is to see how space counted for children and children counted on space in institutions.

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