Thursday, March 14, 2019

19th Century American Baby Farms by Shirleen Davies

You’ve probably read about orphanages, the orphan train, and the plight of homeless children in the 19th century. For babies, there was another, often more onerous arrangement—baby farms.

Many baby farms took good care of the children and were like a residential version of family daycare. However, thousands of unwanted infants died in baby farms that failed to meet even the most minimal standards.

Not much different than today, there were many women who felt they had no choice but to send their infants to these less than satisfactory farms.

·       Prostitutes
·       The Destitute
·       Deserted Wives who had to work
·       and, Unmarried Middle-And-Upper-Class Girls
Depiction of babies at Waters Baby Farm 1870s
Some women turned their infant over to a baby farm soon after the birth. Other women gave birth to their children at baby farms. Either way, they had to pay the owners to take care of the children. In that era, if a girl had an illegitimate child and anyone found out, it carried profound consequences. Baby farms relied on the large sums of money these girls’ families paid to house these unwanted babies as far away from the mother as possible. 

Baby farming was a profitable way for a woman with a house to make a living. She could take in babies for $3 to $7 per week, per baby. Women working in factories and department stores only earned $6 a week. 

One baby farm owner sold an infant for $100. Their business slogan was, “It’s cheaper and easier to buy a baby for $100 than to have one of your own.”

Still, some women went into baby farming because they genuinely liked children. However, some ended up collecting babies like many people collect cats or dogs. At some of these baby farms, there was only one woman to look after eight to ten babies. It just wasn't possible for them to provide adequate care to that many infants.

Bad Conditions
In Dicken's Oliver Twist, Oliver spends part of his childhood on a baby farm. Here, is an excerpt, "contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food."

And in this next excerpt, Dickens writes of what it was like for the children who were farmed out.

“It did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident; in any one of which cases, the miserable little being was usually summoned into another world, and there gathered to the fathers it had never known in this.”
Chicago Baby Farm, Library of Congress

The conditions at baby farms in 19th century America were pretty much the same. Here is a report taken by Miss Lathrop of the U.S. Children’s Bureau regarding an investigation of the Sunshine Nursery in Kensington Maryland. It documents what a woman, Miss Emery, found when she visited Sunshine Nursery which was run by a lady named Miss Washington. 

There Miss Emery saw one little child tied in bed. Then, she saw a filthy rug on a bed and picked it up. She was shocked to find a baby beneath it. 

The housekeeper said, "We have to cover the baby with the rug because he won't sleep in the light."

Miss Emery saw a child whose nose and mouth were covered with a mass of flies. Furthermore, she noticed that the children had no toys to play with. And, the only bathroom facilities the children had was an uncovered slop jar on the porch.

Miss Emery was at this Baby Farm from one to five o’clock, and in that whole time, the staff only changed one pillow. 

Miss Emery was interested in one of the children, a 15-month-old baby girl, named Catherine. She asked the housekeeper, “Can you get some water for the little girl?”

The housekeeper replied, “We do not give water because it poisons the children.”

When Miss Emery picked up Catherine she saw that her legs were numb as well as chaffed and bruised as though she’d been whipped. Miss Emery told the housekeeper, “Catherine needs a bath.”

The housekeeper said, “No, she doesn’t.” 

Miss Emery said, “Can you bring some water, so I can bathe the child?”  

The housekeeper refused, saying, “All the water has to be heated in a kettle.”

When Catherine was given a cup of milk, Miss Emery noticed it was cold (just off the ice). She asked the Housekeeper, “Can you heat this for her?”
Malnurished baby taken from a baby farm.

The housekeeper put the tin cup on the stove then gave it to Catherine. It burned the child’s lips.

The conditions at some baby farms were even worse than those just described. There was a case in Minnesota of a young single mom, with no one to count on, who paid a baby farm $2.50 a week—a lot of money in 1906—to care for the infant.

She visited her son as often as she could until she got sick and had to stay away. When she grew well enough to go back and see her baby, he was in a severe state of starvation. She immediately took him to the hospital. The doctors and nurses were fairly confident that the baby could be saved.

An investigation was initiated, and the conditions of the baby farm were found to be horrendous: the bedding was soiled, the infants were neglected, and the owner had been feeding the babies sour milk.

Where did the baby's go once born? 
Many of the babies who were sold were taken out of state. The people who bought the children wouldn’t have been approved by certified child placement agencies because they purchased the babies for immoral or fraudulent reasons.

In Philadelphia, some young women would buy an infant, so they could trick a man they’d slept with into marriage by saying it was their baby and he was the father. This scam was uncovered when one of the babies used for it died.
Maragaret Waters disposing of a deceased baby c1870

In 1911, a couple wanted to marry, but the man’s parents were against it. So, he and his girlfriend bought a baby at a baby farm for $5. to pretend it was their own, so his parents would let them get married. 

The baby got sick and the young woman didn’t know how to take care of the infant. She found the baby dead in the morning and dumped the body in an alley. The dead baby was discovered half-dressed and soaked by the rain.

Check out my latest book, Bay’s Desire, book 9 in the MacLarens of Boundary Mountain Historical Western Romance series. Available now!

Please take a moment to sign up for my Newsletter and Follow Me on:


  1. Shirleen, I had no idea these baby farms existed in the 19th century. What horrid places. I feel so sorry for the babies. I'll bet when one died the matron failed to tell the mother so money still came in. Great post and BAY'S DESIRE looks like a must buy.

  2. I never heard of baby farms. How awful! I knew orphanages lacked funds and things weren't usually very good. When I was growing up there was a home/boarding school for children. It was private and church run. Most of the children there were the sons and daughter's of missionaries. It's where my toys and clothing went as I outgrew them. My memories of that place were horrible as my mom would often make cookies or other treats to take to the home. Mom told me that place was excellent compared to most orphanages. (Shudder)


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.