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John E. Murray on Mary Grainger and the Charleston Orphan House

SHCY member John E. Murray, J. R. Hyde III Professor of Political Economy, shares this biographical sketch of Mary Grainger, one of the rich stories from the Orphan House records that informed his latest book, The Charleston Orphan House.

The Charleston Orphan House was the first public orphanage in America, founded by ordinance of the city council in October 1790. Several thousand children passed through its doors and the organization continues as a child welfare agency to the present. Throughout childhood, a variety of documents by and about particular children accumulated—some written by parents or guardians, some by masters, and some by Orphan House officials—and are now safely held in the Charleston County Public Library.

These records yield hundreds of biographical sketches of rather ordinary children. As a potential source of historical evidence about young members of the working class, roughly between the Revolution and the Civil War, I believe this collection is unsurpassed. It is possible that other child welfare archives hold similar riches, at least for the Early Republic period. As an example from the Orphan House records, I describe a bit of the young life of one girl, Mary Grainger, whose story does not appear in my recent book, The Charleston Orphan House (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Mary Grainger was born around 1813 in Charleston, to Ann Grainger and her unnamed husband. According to Ann and their neighbors, Mr. Grainger was “a cripple” who could not support his family, and their two younger children were suffering. When Mary was five years old, she and her brother came to the Orphan House, where she learned to write her name and no doubt other elements of basic literacy. Toward the end of 1825 Ann Grainger arranged with Robert and Margaret Harrison to take Mary as an apprentice to their trade of making silk and other artificial flowers. This was an unusual trade, “which,” Mr. Harrison proudly observed, “no other in this country can teach but myself.” All parties agreed and a week later Mary left to live in the Harrison’s home.

The Orphan House paid close attention to complaints from apprentices and their family members. So five months later when a furious Ann charged that the Harrisons submitted Mary to

“drudgery work…like a slave,”

an Orphan House official quickly investigated. However, Mary’s situation was not as her mother described it. Upon speaking to Mary herself, he found that she was well treated, fed and clothed sufficiently, and indeed the girl had “no desire to leave.” The investigator concluded that the apprenticeship was proceeding just fine, and that the interference of Mrs. Grainger and her elder daughter, “persons of light character,” was in fact a ruse to get Mary away from the Harrisons. Perhaps they had learned through the grapevine that Mary had developed into a steady worker and even-tempered young woman, and Ann wanted her back under her roof. In any case, the Orphan House dismissed the complaint, and Mary continued in her apprenticeship with the Harrisons. She disappeared from the historical record thereafter.

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