Published by EH.NET (June 2005)


E. Wayne Carp, editor, Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. iv + 257 pp. $24.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-472-03054-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Murray, Department of Economics, University of Toledo

This volume of essays has been newly reissued in paperback. Its perspective is broad, encompassing quantitative studies, textual analysis of historical publications, and close readings of literature (fiction and memoirs) old and new.

Readers of this particular book review list might wonder why an economic historian should be interested in the subject of adoption. The economist will recognize it as a peculiar kind of exchange since the good in question is a child. From a strictly Beckerian perspective the shadow price of an adopted child to the adoptive parents is about the same as that of a regular child, plus the cost of various adoption processes and minus costs of childbirth. Less closely studied have been the birth parents, the mother in particular. From time immemorial parents, and mothers in particular, have found themselves unable to raise their children due to widowhood, poverty, illegitimacy, and other reasons, and so others raised those children. As long as children offered the prospect of future productivity that exceeded the cost of raising them, adults took them into their homes in anticipation of reaping the fruit of that future labor. In the more recent past, children have lost much of their labor market value, and conversely, mothers who find themselves in distress have, relative to that more distant past, more resources available to them and their child. Hence the exchange of parental rights and responsibilities, generally at zero price, goes from birth mothers who are materially better off now than in the past, to adoptive parents who agree to take on a net liability for at least a couple of decades. It has not always been so.

This volume does not analyze in economic terms how adoption developed into its current state. The chapters offer case studies of how it proceeded and how it was perceived at different points in the past. Several essays will reward the curious economic historian. One characteristic to be admired is the scholarly industriousness some authors needed to gain access to primary sources. Customary secrecy around the adoption process has made access to archival sources very hard to come by. The editor, E. Wayne Carp (professor of history at Pacific Lutheran University), has studied the records of the Children’s Home Society of Washington dating back to 1895, which yielded his important book, Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998). His chapter here on CHSW data, co-authored with Anna Leon-Guerrero, carries the winsome title “When in Doubt, Count.” They proceed to draw out several fascinating trends in adoption over the last century, with World War II as a very clear breakpoint. Before the war, birth mothers were in their mid-to-late twenties, often married or widowed, typically high school dropouts, and their children had passed their fourth birthday. After the war, it was younger and single women who approached the CHSW when their children were infants.

Two other fine chapters deserve mention. Susan Porter, in “A Good Home: Indenture and Adoption in Nineteenth-Century Orphanages,” considers in some detail girls who lived in the Boston Female Asylum (founded 1800) and other orphanages. Although Massachusetts law did not formally establish adoption rights and obligations until 1851, girls entered adoption-like arrangements as early as the 1820s. This was referred to as “adoption” and was distinct from binding them to labor for a master under indenture. Both Porter in this chapter, and Carp and Leon-Guerrero in their chapter, find that adoptive parents preferred girls, for reasons that are not completely clear.

Paula Pfeffer studies ethnic adoption practices in her chapter on Catholics and Jews in Chicago from 1833 to 1933. The parallels between the two groups really are striking. The initial national group (Irish among the Catholics and Germans among the Jews) prospered and was then ready for the next wave of poorer immigrants (Germans and Italians among the Catholics, and East Europeans for both). Pfeffer carefully considers other conflicts between professional social workers and volunteers, scale economies associated with large institutions versus more personalized service, and the ongoing emphasis on caring for distressed mothers and their children within the confessional community.

Other essays that discuss more literary evidence are also worth reading, if further afield for some readers of this review. Laura Singley (“Building a Nation, Building a Family”) presents the ur-text of American orphan literature, a 1711 sermon by Cotton Mather titled “Orphanotrophium, or Orphans Well Provided-for.” Julie Berebitsky (“Rescue a Child and Save the Nation”) assesses the Child-Rescue Campaign conducted by the women’s magazine, The Delineator, early in the twentieth century. The magazine presented pictures and stories of adoptable children, urging readers to take the waifs into their houses — not unlike those maudlin “Wednesday’s Child” segments on local evening news shows. Success, however, led to more conventional Progressive political activism, which was of less interest to its readership.

In sum, the collection presented here will not be of intense interest to economic historians from start to finish. But it contains some finely crafted historical essays that will enlighten those curious to know how the most peculiar market of adoption was practiced and perceived earlier in our history.

John E. Murray is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Toledo. His essay co-authored with Ruth Wallis Herndon, “Markets for Children in Early America,” (Journal of Economic History, June 2002) won the Program in Early American Economy and Society prize for best paper in early American social and economic history that year.