Records of the Asylum for Orphan Girls (Part IV)

In this penultimate post in our series on the Orphan’s Asylum records I thought I would share more about two aspects of daily life for the girls of the Asylum. I was especially pleased in reading through the records to see all sorts of interesting tie-ins with Penn’s strong collections in culinary history. See, for example, this typical weekly menu for the girls at the Asylum from March 1760:

For transcription click here

No records survive attesting to the quality of the meals but the Asylum certainly had trouble retaining cooks, dismissing several including a Ms.  Jane Cooper for “having refused to assist at the Wash.” The meals all seem typical of the period and heavy on porridges, puddings, and gruels, including Hasty Pudding, now famous as the name of the Harvard performing group but then just a flour and egg pudding. The menus in the Asylum records would make a fascinating historical (or culinary!) project and a great complement to other eighteenth-century cookery guides in our culinary collections.

Beyond meals and  learning to read and write (as detailed in the previous post), the residents of the Asylum spent their days in the chapel for religious instruction, doing daily chores including washing and cleaning, and working on a series of textile-related skills. instruction in other domestic arts. Exactly what this instruction entailed fluctuated over the first years of the Asylum. The trustees first latched on to the idea that it would be “useful” and “advantageous” for the girls to learn how to spin flax, “especially as they are to be sent into the World complete Housewives.” To that end, the charity bought wheels and employed a Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin to teach spinning at a salary of £40/year (double the wages of any other Asylum employee). Unfortunately, within a few weeks the Goodwins were discharged “having repeatedly misbehaved themselves.” In a later experiment, the trustees turned towards having the girls knit cauls [1] for wigs. Finally, the trustees abandoned this plan and the logic of making the girls into housewives and turned towards a new mission, creating a set of capable domestic servants:

That the Children be no longer employed in knitting of Cawls[sic] for Wigs; but that their future Employment be knitting of Stockings, Caps, Gloves & Garters, and such other Business as may serve to make them household Servants.
This shift marked a key turning point in the history of the Asylum, instead of cultivating skilled housewives, the charity was to become a school for creating the next generation of domestic workers for its own wealthy patrons. It is in this context that the trustees decided on a kind of exit exam for the girls of the Asylum:

That none of the Children be put out till they have acquired the following Qualifications vizt.
1. To produce to the committee a Pair of Stockings, & a Pair of Garters of their own Knitting.
2. A Shirt cut out, made, wash’d & iron’d by their own Hands.
3. To read a Chapter in the Bible.
4. To write a legible Hand, & cast up a sum in Addition.
5. To be reported by the Matron to have cut out made all their own linen; & to be capable according to their own Strength to clean Rooms & make Beds in a proper Manner & to understand plain Cookery & properly Clean Kitchen & other household Furniture.

Stay tuned for a post later this week from curator of manuscripts Nancy Shawcross on the process of acquiring the Asylum records.


[1] Cauls were the netted substrata which supported wigs. For an illustration of their construction from Colonial Willamsburg see here.

5 March 1760 Menu:

Rice Milk
Roasted Beef & Garden Stuff
Bread & Butter
Water Gruel
Rice or Hasty Pudding
Potatoes, or Bread & Cheese
Milk Pottage
Boiled Mutton
Bread & Cheese
Rice Milk
Suet or Fruit Puddings
Broth with Barley
Water Gruel
Boiled Beef & Garden Stuff
Boiled Wheat
Milk Pottage
Suet, Rice, or Hasty Pudding
Broth with Barley
Water Gruel
Roasted Mutton & Garden Stuff

2 responses to “Records of the Asylum for Orphan Girls (Part IV)”

  1. Fascinating collection — it reminds me of Dickens’s efforts with the Urania Cottage and the Ragged School Union a century later. Scholars continue to wrestle with the implications for his thinking on class and sexual politics. I’d be interested to hear from a nutritionist or food historian what the long-term implications of this diet would be for development and how representative it was.

  2. I would also wonder if this diet differed from that offered to boys in similar orphanages or if there were other differences in skills learned, competency tests etc. This is a really fascinating collection, would love to come in and see it some time!

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