A remarkably depressing, quite long, article on verdingkinder. From the 1850s to the 1970s the Republic’s social services took children aged from 8, or much lower, from the improvident poor and placed them in service on farms mainly to learn the value of work.
*David Gogniat heard a loud knock on the door. There were two policemen.
“I heard them shouting and realised something was wrong. I looked out and saw that my mother had pushed the policemen down the stairs,” he says.
“She then came back in and slammed the door. The next day three policemen came. One held my mother and the other took me with them.”
At the age of eight, he was in effect kidnapped and taken away to a farm. To this day he has no idea why.* BBC — Switzerland’s Shame
This was common in many countries, including the US. There was a huge concern with poor and homeless children in inner city neighborhoods in cities on the East Coast (NYC, Boston, Philly, etc.), and the westward expansion had created a huge demand for farm workers in places like Kansas and Nebraska. It doesn’t happen much, if at all, anymore due to increased regulation of child labor and the large-scale automation of farming that has greatly reduced the need for labor. American farms today don’t need a bunch of random unskilled and illiterate teens to milk cows and plow fields. They need educated workers who can accurately and safely operate machinery and accomplish medium and long-term goals.
My great-grandfather, after his father died young, was “put up for auction”, as he put it, back in the old country. He and his siblings were “sold” to the highest bidder as farm workers/servants. This despite their mother and other relatives being very much alive.
They all made their way to America after a bit, their situation being a prime cause. Some taking off before their term of service was over. (The oldest leaving first and sending money back to pay for the trip.)
Yes, it sounds like they were doing it up until the 1970’s in Switzerland. It seems to have died out in places like the US by WW2-ish due to a combination of fewer unskilled farm jobs, increased child welfare laws, and an influx of cheap immigrant labor that many farmers probably felt more comfortable exploiting than poor white kids.
Perhaps this is too essentialist, but having read the struggles of the mother in that article to keep her children, I find myself wondering whether the introduction of women’s suffrage in Switzerland in the early 1970s contributed to the end of this practice.
Many countries did it. My paternal great grandfather was a British Home Child, and came from an orphanage on the England /Scotland border to near Mt Forest Ontario. I don’t know much about his past, according to my father he never spoke of it. On Ancestry.com, I was able to find records from the 1890s and onward. Early census records show him as “adopted boy” then “hired man” all on the same farm. Eventually, he married a girl from a nearby farm and moved up to Fort William, ON.
The province of Ontario has named Sept 28th as British Home Child Day. However, the federal government doesn’t plan to recognize or apologize for the treatment of British Home children. (Cites available on Wikipedia, I am too busy to go retrieve the actual news article)
I am shocked that it continued into the 1970s though. Anywhere.
Due to the lack of birth control back then their was a large number of children who often times were left homeless, orphaned, or abandoned so society had to do something. They called them “orphan trains” in the US. Like all programs their was good and bad.
In Concordia Kansas they have a museum dedicated to them called National Orphan Train Complex. LINK
Go to thisLINK to read personal stories of persons who were part of it.
Yes, the fact that this happened in many countries is indisputable and also understandable based on the conditions that were present. What’s odd here is that it was happening in Switzerland as recently as the 1970’s. Orphan trains and similar programs in the industrialized first world were largely a 19th century phenomenon and died out (were orphaned?) sometime in the early or possibly mid 20th century. Certainly it didn’t last much beyond WW2 to any significant degree.
Furthermore, the kids could be taken even against their parents’ will, particularly if the state considered the kid in question to be immoral, lecherous, or even just lazy; the last could be justified in the case of a teen merely on the strength of their not yet having settled on a career.
This German radio broadcast from last year provides a pretty good overview.
There are links to transcripts, and I believe the episode is still available for listening.
I’ve translated it below, but be forewarned that my translations tend to be somewhat awkward; it’s a skill I haven’t mastered yet.