First Specialized Adoption Agencies

Source: Courtesy of The Cradle

Florence Walrath, founder of The Cradle, with Hazel Ferguson, one of the agency's early Presidents

Source: Courtesy of The Cradle

The Cradle, in Evanston, Illinois


The first specialized adoption agencies in the United States were founded between 1910 and 1930 by women best described as philanthropic amateurs who had grown up with the model of the nineteenth-century “friendly visitor,” the predecessor of the professional social worker. Louise Waterman Wise founded the Free Synagogue Child Adoption Committee (later renamed Louise Wise Services in her memory by her daughter Justine Wise Polier). Clara Spence founded the Spence Alumni Society. Alice Chapin founded the Alice Chapin Nursery, and Florence Walrath founded the Cradle. Most were married to wealthy and prominent men. (Steven Wise, for example, was a leading rabbi, zionist, and progressive reformer involved in founding the NAACP and the American Jewish Congress. Henry Dwight Chapin was a well-known New York pediatrician, founder of the Speedwell Society, and vocal champion of home life and placing-out for dependent children.)

These elite women were frequently motivated to locate babies for well-off friends and acquaintances. The agencies they founded expressed great optimism about adoption, and this clashed sharply with the views of professionals, who believed in family preservation, and proponents of eugenics, who stressed the terrible risks of adopting poor people’s children. The specialized adoption agencies differed in other ways from most child welfare agencies at the time. They did not consider unmarried mothers and their babies to be complete family units and did not see the point in strenuous efforts to keep them together. In this sense, these pioneering adoption agencies, founded by amateurs, anticipated by many decades the pro-adoption ethos of the post-World War II years. During these years, adoption became “the best solution” for illegitimate children, unmarried mothers, and infertile couples.


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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
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