Waiting for Thanksgiving dinner at a Bronx orphanage

Thanksgiving in early 20th century New York City wasn’t just celebrated in private homes and expensive hotel restaurants. Institutions of all kinds across Gotham also honored the holiday with their own commemorative dinners.

Hospitals, facilities for the poor, sick, and aged, and even city prisons served up a special Thanksgiving meal—usually along with speeches by important guests and often religious sermons.

Orphanages also celebrated Thanksgiving. This photo (above) shows more than 100 young residents sitting at long, linen-draped tables inside the girls’ dining room at the Roman Catholic Orphan Society in the Bronx. The orphanage was built in 1902, relocated from an older building on Fifth Avenue in Midtown.

A boys’ dining room operated in a building next door. Together, both the girls’ and boys’ buildings could house up to 1,600 residents at a time, according to nycago.org.

These uniform-clad, unsmiling girls look like they’re on their best behavior. I wish we knew exactly what their Thanksgiving menu offered…and what their adult lives were like.

You won’t find this handsome orphanage (above, in 1914) in the Bronx anymore. By the 1920s, thanks to a sizable reduction in the number or orphan residents, both buildings were abandoned and sold. The Bronx VA Hospital took its place.

[Photos: New-York Historical Society]

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17 Responses to “Waiting for Thanksgiving dinner at a Bronx orphanage”

  1. Greg Says:

    Sometimes I look at old pictures like that and think, this is probably the only surviving picture of some of these people. I wonder if in some distant future we will feed whatever pictures we have left into some incomprehensible AI machine that will reconstruct the lives of everyone who ever lived.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m intrigued by this machine you’ve suggested—and as much as I’d like to know what happened to these girls, I mourn the loss of anonymity.

    • velovixen Says:

      Greg–I had a similar thought in looking at the pictures. Although, like ephemeralnewyork, I mourn the loss of anonymity, I would be interested in hearing what those girls thought of their experience. On one hand, they don’t (thankfully) look as doomed as the chimney sweepers (who were almost always orphans) in William Blake’s “London” or even the children in Dickens tales. On the other hand, they must know they’re not living a life like those of their peers.

  2. countrypaul Says:

    It may have been a “handsome building,” but I can only envision the sadness within looking at this photo. I just hope the residents went on to happier lives.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I agree with you about the sadness in these and similar institutional settings where children lived. But perhaps a caring staff helped parentless kids thrive and see possibilities. Also, at the time, the word “orphan” didn’t necessarily mean a child’s parents both had died. Many orphanages opened to “half orphans,” with a surviving parent who simply couldn’t afford to care for a child or multiple children.

      • Liz Says:

        My mother, born in 1933, spent most of her young childhood in an “orphanage” (first through 8th grades, along with 3 of her siblings) even though both of her parents were alive. My grandfather was an alcoholic and had tuberculosis. My grandmother had to spend all of her time taking care of him. My mother’s eldest sister was taken in by two spinster aunts and the other 4 were sent to the orphanage in Rockland County. My grandfather dies and it took my grandmother a few years to find work and an apartment so she could bring her children home. My mother told me that some children at the orphanage were actually orphans but many did have at least one parent.

  3. Toni Rorapaugh Says:

    The text at bottom left of the picture says these girls are awaiting a “candy Thanksgiving.” The paper cones they’re holding would be filled with candy, maybe? Let’s hope that wasn’t all they had to eat for dinner.

  4. Caroline (Dushey) Harary Says:

    As anyone ever heard or was in the Jewish Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn or Bronx, even Far Rockaway? The years would be from 1940 to 1946??

  5. kensurferhotmailcom Says:

    “These uniform-clad, unsmiling girls look like they’re on their best behavior. I wish we knew exactly what their Thanksgiving menu offered…and what their adult lives were like.” – These considerate thought provoking insights my ENY something / someone I look forward to every week. Sincere Thank You … Kennedy

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Kennedy—I wish these girls and so many others in vintage NYC photographs could tell us their stories.

  6. greg chown Says:

    Having just watched the Godfather again for the 30th+ time I found this great restored film of NY from the 40’s on youtube. Lots of vintage storefronts etc.

  7. Joan Garner Says:

    My father in law was a foundling, left in the hallway of a building in lower Manhattan in 1911. He was a day old. He spent a few years under the protective care of New York City, at first in a foster home as an infant. He was adopted when he was five by a childless couple in upstate New York and had a happy life in a nice town, graduating from high school and college. He served in WWll, got married and had three children, and a good career. We have the letters that were exchanged between the city adoption workers and his prospective parents. The adoption workers seemed very diligent and caring about the fate of little Jasper, who apparently was a sweet little boy with auburn hair. His adoption papers were signed by Homer Folks, who was a famous social welfare reformer in NYC. So, for people who wonder about the lives of the children in these pictures; well, sometimes they turn out just fine. Let’s hope there were many other stories like the one in my family.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      What a wonderful story—thank you so much for sharing. I’m curious if your father-in-law ever looked for his birth parents. Records were probably sealed forever in those days, so even he did, I suspect he may never have known their names.

  8. Joan Garner Says:

    There was no way of finding my father in law’s parents since he was left alone in the hallway. We don’t know who found him. The name given to him was Jasper Reade. Jasper is the birthstone of March, when he was found, and I am assuming he was found in a buliding on Reade Street. He was baptized within a few days by an Episcopal priest, and he was adopted into a Baptist family. We assumed he was of Irish or English background, but a few years ago my husband took a DNA test, and as a result of that we found that his father, Jasper (who died in 1996) was 100% Jewish. I have done lots of research and connected with people who share his DNA, but so far I haven’t been able to find any potential parents. I imagine his birth was a secret never spoken about.

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