U.S. Children’s Bureau, Research on the Dangers of Illegitimacy, 1917

Source: Photograph by Lewis Hine,  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs  Division, LC-DIG-nclc-04314

This 1915 photograph by Lewis Hine depicts a mother and her three children employed in flower-making. This woman received a mother's pension from New York. Between 1910 and 1935, most states acted to support dependent children by making grants to their impoverished mothers, but almost all of these programs were limited to widows and deserted wives. Unmarried mothers were denied aid because illegitimacy marked them as undeserving.

Research during the early twentieth century about children’s health and welfare often noted that the separation of mothers and infants was one of the gravest dangers faced by illegitimate children. This led to a number of state laws prohibiting infant placements for specified periods early in life and encouraging , or even mandating, breast-feeding. Combined with prevailing beliefs in family preservation, efforts to keep unmarried mothers and their babies together contributed to the anti-adoption ethos of the Progressive era.


The Study Included:
Analysis of records of illegitimate children under the care of Boston agencies and institutions during one year.

Analysis of records of illegitimate children under the care of certain State agencies and institutions during one year.

Data in regard to illegitimate infants born in Boston in one year.

Analysis of bastardy cases and cases of non-support of illegitimate children before the Boston courts in one year.

The information was obtained entirely from public records and records of agencies and institutions. . . .

Illegitimate Infants Born in Boston in 1914:
One out of every 23 children born in Boston during 1914 was illegitimate, the percentage of illegitimate births being 4.35.

Comparing the illegitimate births and deaths in 1914 with the legitimate, the proportion of illegitimate infants who died before they reached the age of one year was more than three times that of legitimate.

Out of every 1,000 illegitimate children born, 314 died during their first year; out of every 1,000 legitimate children, 103 died.

Among the illegitimate infants, the death rate for the principal gastric and intestinal diseases was nearly six times as great as among the legitimate infants. Comparing age at death, the greatest proportionate excess of illegitimate over legitimate deaths occurred between the ages of 1 and 6 months.

All but 90 of the 847 illegitimate infants born during the year were known to have received some hospital or agency care before they became a year old. Over half of all the babies were known to have been assumed by agencies for prolonged care during their first year.

Of the 403 infants known to have lived 6 months, only 30 per cent were with their mothers all of the time. Twenty-five per cent had been with their mothers less than one-fifth of the time.

41 per cent of the mothers were under 21 years of age; one-eighth of the entire number were under 18 years of age.

9 per cent of the mothers had been diagnosed as feeble-minded, psychopathic or sub-normal, or insane; in addition a considerable number were reported as feeble-minded, but had not been examined for mentality.

18 per cent of the mothers were known to have had previous illicit sex experiences, although only 8 per cent had had previous illegitimate children.


Source: Confidential, “Outstanding Facts Brought Out in the Children’s Bureau Study of ‘Illegitimacy as Problem of Child Welfare’ —a study of original records in Boston, Mass., December 1, 1917, U.S. Children’s Bureau Papers, Box 60, Folder 7350.2, National Archives II.

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3699
E-mail: adoption@uoregon.edu
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© Ellen Herman