Tiny Tim and Other Charity Cases


THE YEAR 1853 marked two important achievements in the life of young Charles Loring Brace. The first achievement was practical: Brace helped establish the Children’s Aid Society, a New York charitable institution that would become, within his lifetime and due chiefly to his unceasing efforts, the most important charitable organization in the city and probably the entire United States. Brace’s other achievement was literary: the publication of a book. That book, Home-Life in Germany, would soon be forgotten, overshadowed both by Brace’s subsequent literary work and, more important, by his labors with the Children’s Aid Society itself. But it is of interest here, if only because of the light it casts on Brace’s subsequent charitable work with children, and also on his enduring interest in Christmas.

Home-Life in Germany was a travelogue of sorts, the account of an extended visit Brace had made to that country two years earlier, at the age of 25. During his visit Brace was struck by several important contrasts between Germany and his native United States. For example, Germans tended to be far less individualistic and self-reliant than Americans were. On the other hand, family life—the main subject of Brace’s book—was far more important in Germany than it was in America.

The contrast between the home life of the two cultures came to a head at Christmas. Brace devoted an entire chapter of Home-Life in Germany to an account of the Christmas celebration in that country. Here, too, the graciousness of German culture contrasted with the emptiness Brace found in the United States:

As I recall our hollow home-life in many parts of America—the selfishness and coldness in families—the little hold HOME has on any one, and the tendency of children to get rid of it as early as possible, I am conscious how much after all we have to learn from these easy Germans.

Brace acknowledged that there was a certain “compensation” for this failing: In the United States “a boy is an independent, self-reliant man …, when he is [still] in leading-strings in Germany.” But for the most part, that compensation was inadequate, because self-reliance alone was no asset at all—unless it was softened by unselfish geniality. Otherwise, it would only intensify the hollowness of American home life. And that was just what was happening in the United States, where the acquisitive spirit was destroying family values:

Materialism—the passion for money-making and excitement, is eating up the heart of our people. We are not a happy people; our families are not happy. Men look haggard and anxious and weary. We want something more genial and social and unselfish amongst us …

What was needed was an antidote to raw materialism, and such an antidote was provided by the domestic Christmas. “Any family-festivals of this kind,” Brace wrote—“anything which will make home pleasanter, which will bind children together, and make them conscious of a distinct family-life, is most strongly needed.” For Brace (as for so many Americans), Christmas was now above all a domestic idyll, an opportunity to produce and foster family values as an antidote to materialism and selfishness. Once again, Germany offered an object lesson for Americans:

There is something about this German Festival, which one would seldom see in our home enjoyments. People do not seem to be enjoying themselves, because it is a “duty to be cheerful.” … They are cheerful, because they cannot help it, and because they all love one another. The expression of trustfulness through the children of these families … was very beautiful to see. They were all so happy, because they had been making one another happy.

Christmas in Germany was an occasion of unforced, spontaneous mutuality. Brace connected this domestic Christmas with authentic religious piety: “Good people are to recognize that there is a religion in Christmas feasts, as well as in prayer-meetings; that a father who has made his home gloomy, has done quite as great a wrong to his children, perhaps, as he who made it irreligious. We want these German habits—these birth-day and Christmas festivals—this genial family life …”1 It is difficult to imagine a better definition of what modern historians have taken to calling the “religion of domesticity.”

There was more. Brace reported that in Germany such close-knit, nurturing families were to be found much further down the social ladder than they were in America—indeed, down nearly to the bottom of the working class. Like so many Americans of this period, Brace saw Germany as the one place in the world where true family values had permeated almost the entire society. And the consequences were even apparent in public—for example, the German working class was far more polite and deferential than its American (or English) counterpart. Brace cited a vivid example. He had once “asked an English groom for directions in the streets of London, and was told in answer, “How the h—11 should I know?’” An American laborer, he added, would be almost as rude. But in Germany things were different: “A German stands—says to you with a half bow, ‘Be good enough to take the second street,’ etc., and touches his hat as he goes.” (Brace added that such a response might “perhaps” be “a little too much” for a Yankee to take, but he added that it was still “a very pleasant thing.”) Brace attributed that difference to a single point: the lessons in the natural “expression of any feeling” that almost all German children learned from their families; the kind of feelings that were “laughed at in childhood” by the parents of their American counterparts. (Brace added that in the United States such feelings were “pruned” away.)2 In other words, Brace attributed working-class rudeness in the United States to a home life that was “cold, unsocial, disagreeable.”

In a way, this was what most impressed Brace about the German Christmas itself: how far down the social ladder it reached. That was just how he introduced his chapter on the German Christmas. The Berlin lodging house at which Brace had been staying over the holidays was owned by a man who was “hopelessly in debt;” nonetheless, Brace watched this man “bringing home an armful of presents.” Then there was the local shoemaker, whose family lived in the basement of Brace’s lodging house; the family was so poor that the children often seemed to go hungry. But, sure enough, Brace spotted “through the low window, a green Christmas tree, and the children are tying on the bits of candle.” Brace summed up his point by asserting that in all of Berlin, “There are not a dozen families so poor, as not to have their [Christmas] tree.”3

Brace did not need to add the obvious: Men who celebrated Christmas like the Berlin shoemaker who lived in the basement were the kind of men who would never talk back to their betters, who would never say, “How the h-11 should I know?” They were, on the contrary, precisely the kind of men who were likely to answer a stranger’s question with a polite half bow and a deferential touch of the hat. And they would raise their children to do the same.


There is a very famous fictional family of the mid-nineteenth century—and a British family, at that—which resembles that of Brace’s real-life shoemaker. It is the Cratchit family, the central household in Charles Dickens’s classic 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. Too poor to provide adequate medical care for their children (the youngest of whom, Tiny Tim, is for that reason a cripple), the Cratchits are intensely genial, close-knit, and nurturing—everything that Bob Cratchits employer, Ebenezer Scrooge, is not. For Dickens, as for Brace, the social warmth of the Cratchit family achieves its apotheosis at Christmas. Despite their poverty, the Cratchits have a merry time of it. And their merriment is a celebration of domesticity itself. What Brace wrote of German families at Christmas makes for an apt summary of the scene Dickens paints. The Cratchits’joy has nothing to do with a “duty to be cheerful.” Rather, “they are cheerful, because they cannot help it, and because they all love one another.” They are “happy, because they had been making one another happy.”

There is another characteristic of what Brace considered to be “German” culture that applies to the Cratchits. They are polite and well-mannered to their superiors, even in the face of incessant provocation (in their case, provocation by Ebenezer Scrooge). It is impossible to imagine Bob Cratchit snarling to Scrooge, “How the h-11 should I know?” Even in private, at the family’s Christmas dinner, Bob Cratchit refuses to say a mean word about his employer.

To be sure, the Cratchits are fictional creations. But as social types, even though they are surely exaggerated, they are not altogether unreal. To begin with, they are not really members of the British working class. Every bit as much as Braces shoemaker, they are integrated into the larger society. (The shoemaker was an independent artisan, and he lived in a respectable neighborhood, in the same boardinghouse as Brace himself.) The actual working classes of mid-nineteenth-century Britain (and America) were composed chiefly of industrial laborers—men and women who worked in textile mills or coal mines. But Ebenezer Scrooge was apparently not an industrial capitalist, but rather a merchant. (We learn almost nothing about the nature of Scrooge’s line of work, except that he owns a warehouse.) Nor was Bob Cratchit an industrial laborer; he was a clerk. He worked not on an assembly line but in an office, an office of his own (however ill heated it may have been in the winter). Indeed, as far as we can tell, Cratchit was Scrooge’s only employee, and a trusted one at that. In modern parlance, he was (albeit barely) a white-collar worker, more like a bank teller than a coal miner or a mill operative. However badly Cratchit was treated by Scrooge, he was not apt to be laid off in hard times, as many industrial workers would have been. And however badly Scrooge treated Cratchit, the two men maintained a close working relationship (Cratchit’s office was located right next to Scrooge’s). Again, this stands in sharp contrast to the conditions of most industrial workers, whose employers would not even have been able to identify them, by either name or face.

Cratchit is literate, too (indeed, that is one of the requirements of his job), and so is at least one of his sons. One reason for the literacy may be that Cratchit’s wife and their children all stay at home; unlike their counterparts in most working-class families of the time, they do not labor for wages to help support the family. Cratchit exhibits none of the behavior that respectable people of the time associated with working-class culture: He does not drink to excess, he does not spend all his wages on payday; he is not (we must assume) sexually promiscuous. In modern parlance, he is the head of a stable, child-centered family. All this is not to deny that Bob Cratchit is an exploited worker, but only to observe that he is hardly a realistic symbol of the industrial proletariat. It would be more accurate to identify him (in nineteenth-century terms) as a man who is struggling to become part of the respectable—and respectful—petite bourgeoisie.

A Christmas Carol is often read today (and it was often read in the nineteenth century) as if it painted a vivid picture of alienated class relations in the period of the Industrial Revolution, and as if it evoked ways of bridging the vast gulf that had emerged between the top and bottom strata of society—through the kind of fellow feeling that Ebenezer Scrooge comes to experience after his conversion. But that is not the case. The vast and depressing face of the Industrial Revolution scarcely appears in this book. The poor themselves never make any demands of Scrooge, and for that matter he never encounters them. (We never see him approached by a beggar, for example.) In fact, the only contact Scrooge has with the poor is in his vision—a dream, as it turns out, that unfolds in the safety of his own bed. And even in that dream, none of the poor ever curse or threaten him. The most horrible vision Scrooge has—a vision evoked by the Ghost of Christmas Future—is the indifference expressed by his business acquaintances when they learn of his death.4

In other books Dickens addressed other kinds of social relationships: the gap between bourgeois and proletarian in Hard Times, for example, or the inadequacy of institutionalized charity in Oliver Twist. What A Christmas Carol deals with, in a practical way, is something less vast but in its own way equally troubling. In A Christmas Carol Dickens addressed not the great social divisions among classes estranged from one another by wealth, distance, and occupation but the daily, intimate class differences among people who were much closer to one another on the social scale.

For if Bob Cratchit is not a member if the industrial working class, neither is Ebenezer Scrooge an upper-class industrial capitalist. This is true in a purely economic sense, since Scrooge seems to be a merchant and not an industrialist. And it is also true in a behavioral sense. In terms of his own lowly origins (he began as an apprentice to Old Fezziwig) and also his adult behavior, Scrooge, too, is essentially a member of the petite bourgeoisie, a self-made man who has spent his life striving hard (and at the cost of all human relationships, whether public or private) to attain a sense of security. He is a man who has not managed to grasp the point that such mighty striving is no longer required of him. No matter how wealthy he may be, Scrooge is not really a rich man; it might be more accurate to describe him as a poor man who has a lot of money.

That is, until the end of the book. Whatever else Scrooge’s conversion represents, it also marks his realization that he has “made it,” after all—that he can finally afford to ease up on himself and others. Considered sociologically, Scrooge’s conversion may mark his entry into the easy culture of the upper-middle-class world, a world for which he has previously been eligible only in an economic sense, but which his temperament has heretofore barred him from joining. In the more contemporaneous language of Charles Loring Brace, Scrooge is finally ready to transform the emotionally hollow culture of sheer greed into a more fulfilling culture in which everyday activities and relationships are softened by family values. From both perspectives, one of the signs of Scrooge’s social rise is that he finally accepts his obligation to treat his clerk, Cratchit, in a more humane fashion.

That obligation, however, has its limits, even at Christmas. For when, at the very end of the book, Scrooge signifies to the Cratchits that he has changed, he does so by giving them a Christmas turkey, the largest bird he can find. But he has the turkey sent to the Cratchits; he does not deliver it in person—despite what several of the movie versions of A Christmas Carol may suggest. Presents, yes, but not “presence.” Scrooge is the “founder of the feast,” but he does not participate in the Cratchits’ actual Christmas dinner. Instead, he chooses to take dinner with his own family—at the house of his nephew, Fred. The message was clear: It was enough to provide such known employees with a gift. (And while this is surely not the point of the book, it is of course evident that even the gift amounts to good business practice. For henceforth Scrooge will surely be able to count on Bob Cratchit’s heightened loyalty and diligence: Cratchit will become an even better employee.)

In other words, A Christmas Carol addressed the relationship of the well-to-do not with the faceless poor but with the poor who were personally known and whose predicament might provoke pangs of conscience. It offered a perspective on how to deal with people who neither belonged to one’s own family or social circle nor were members of the anonymous proletariat. This was a real problem in a society where Christmas rituals were becoming domesticated and class differences themselves were being reshaped. Scrooge was not a country squire; Cratchit was not his tenant or apprentice. Maybe, had either been the case, each would have known just what to do at Christmas (and, of course, there would have been no story). But the creation, in England and America, of vast armies of middle-class people and wage earners produced a new type of society in which the old rituals of inversion and misrule no longer made much sense.

Indeed, the relationship between the youthful Scrooge and his master, Old Fezziwig, had been a paternalist one, a relationship of patron and client. Scrooge was Fezziwig’s apprentice, not his employee. Indeed, Fezziwig held an old-time Christmas, too, attended by an array of his dependents. But as Dickens himself well knew, that was in an earlier age, in a precapitalist culture. Cratchit could never have been Scrooge’s apprentice. The economic system had changed, and with it the social relationships between patron and client. (In a still later age, employers might re-create Old Fezziwig’s Christmas in the form of an office party—but the employees’ families would not participate in that.) The fact that Scrooge did not share a meal with the Cratchits makes the point: The rituals were changing. What Dickens showed his readers was how to navigate the ritual waters of the Christmas season so as to avoid the dual shoals of the guilt that might stem from not giving at all across class lines and the messiness (not to say futility) that would result from giving to every beggar who walked the streets or knocked on one’s door.

Still, and for all that, there is something elusive about A Christmas Carol. Its message has proven malleable, subject to different readings. During the century and a half since its publication in 1843, progressive liberals have claimed this book as a plea to ameliorate the evils of industrial capitalism. And free-enterprise conservatives have been equally able to claim it for their own. Thus the New York Times in 1893, in the depths of a very severe depression, used A Christmas Carol to make the point that private charitable resources were sufficient to relieve pressing want, and the commitment of the city’s most wealthy citizens to do so was strong: “[A]t no time in the history of the city has private helpfulness come more eagerly cr more prodigally to the reinforcement of good public deeds.” Philanthropically minded employers had “plunged into the fray with all the noble ardor of all the benevolent philanthropists ever fabled by Charles Dickens,” performing “prodigies of kindness” reminiscent of a “recreated and rejuvenated Scrooge.” For the Times, the message was clear: “Who … shall dare to say hereafter that corporations have no souls …?”5

That editorial was based on a plausible reading of A Christmas Carol. But it was equally plausible to read the book as an attack on capitalism. The elusiveness of A Christmas Carol may in part be what has allowed it to become an enduring literary classic—or, actually, more than a classic, for this book has entered a legendary realm beyond the category of literature itself. The name Scrooge has entered the language as a generic descriptive, and his story has become part of the common lore of the English-speaking world.


A Christmas Carol does deal, briefly, with larger questions of wealth and poverty, first at the very beginning of the book and once again at the very end. Scrooge is approached at the start by a pair of men who visit his office to solicit a cash donation to help the destitute. These men represent an unnamed charitable agency, and their own social status is clear: They are “gentlemen” (meaning that they are of a class above that to which Scrooge himself belongs). Scrooge, of course, turns these gentlemen down, in the famous exchange in which he retorts that there are prisons and workhouses to house the destitute, and that he is paying taxes to support these. Then, at the end of the book, after his conversion, Scrooge sees these same two gentlemen on the street, and he approaches them and proceeds to offer the contribution he had earlier refused. (We never learn how large a contribution, since Scrooge whispers the sum in their ear. All we know is that the charitable gentlemen are delighted.)

In that sense, Scrooge’s conversion also has to do with his new ability to make a distinction between the different kinds of Christmas obligations he owes to different kinds of people. To members of his family he owes face-to-face participation, and (as we have seen) to the known poor with whom he deals regularly, he must send a present. But his debt to the unknown poor, the faceless suffering poor of industrial society, can be paid at a greater distance, by offering a donation to a private charitable agency; and the agency itself will provide the poor with “meat and drink, and means of warmth.” Scrooge’s conversion entails his ability to create a new categorical distinction. If the reborn Scrooge were approached by a beggar on the street, or at his door, he could now respond with a clear conscience by saying, in effect, I gave at the office.

By the 1840s, Christmas giving was beginning to be polarized into just those two different activities. Gifts for one’s own family and friends now took the form of “presents,” while gifts that were given to the needy took the form of “charity.” There were important differences between the two. The gifts given to family and friends consisted of luxury items, ordinarily purchased by the givers and presented directly to their recipients, either face-to-face or accompanied by a personal note. The gifts given to the faceless poor consisted mostly of necessities, which were ordinarily purchased and distributed not by the givers but by a charitable organization, which mediated between the other parties and eliminated the need for any direct contact between donor and recipient.

It had not always been that way. Before the era of the domestic and commercial Christmas in the nineteenth century, as we have seen, “presents” and “charity” were one and the same, and they were given to the same people—directly and face-to-face. Indeed, on a small scale such rituals persisted well into the nineteenth century (and beyond). For example, in 1837 the Lenox, Massachusetts, branch of the Sedgwick family held just such an event. It was centered, interestingly enough, around a Christmas tree—the first such tree that any member of the Sedgwick family had ever erected. Joining the children around this tree, in the parlor of Charles Sedgwicks house, was a group of the family’s local dependents who had been “collected” (the word used by Susan Ridley Sedgwick, Charles’ sister-in-law, who described the scene in a private letter to her husband). Among the dependents, Susan Sedgwick reported, were “several of Charles’ poor pensioners, several blacks, and among others the deaf & dumb lad, whom you may remember to have applied for, to get him in at Hartford [i.e., a School for the Deaf and Dumb].” The lad “looked perfectly delighted,” Susan Sedgwick noted, and she went on to report with pride that a little black girl named Josey (a crippled child, apparently) joined in dancing around the Christmas tree, “turning round &c round, now assisted by one, & now by another of the children—all fear of amalgamation [i.e., race mixing] entirely forgotten.” “It was really quite affecting to witness [Susan Sedgwick insisted] so much happiness, so diffused, and yet created from such simple materials….”6

But that kind of ritual was becoming increasingly difficult to carry off. Lenox, Massachusetts, represented a vestigial pocket of rural paternalism—a self-conscious pocket, at that—and the Sedgwicks were both willing and able to play the role of gracious squires to their poor “pensioners.” In the urban areas of the nation, especially, such gestures were much more difficult to bring off. The urban poor were now living in separate neighborhoods, and (except for domestics and menials) they had little occasion for personal contact with the well-to-do. And when such contacts did take place, especially at Christmas, they were likely to take an awkward or even hostile form, mixed perhaps with a bit of mockery, and the whole exchange lubricated with alcohol.

Still, the distinction between presents and charity was new, and it should not be surprising that it required a good deal of reinforcement. During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the press, the economic elite, and even those who were most deeply concerned with helping the poor, all pressed the notion that organized charities provided the most appropriate means of assisting the poor.

Horace Greeley, for example, reminded his New York Tribune readers in 1843 that “enough was expended on this festival uselessly … which would, if rightfully appropriated, have set in operation the means of ultimately banishing Pauperism and its attendant miseries from the land.”7Rightfully appropriated was the operative phrase here: Money should be offered to the poor through organized charities rather than through what was now being universally attacked with a dismissive phrase: “indiscriminate giving.” Greeley was especially critical of what had become the dominant form of face-to-face charity—begging on the streets. One Tribune Christmas editorial opened with the blunt heading “DO NOT GIVE TO STREET BEGGARS,” and went on to dismiss that practice in no uncertain terms: “Whenever you see one of these City pests approaching, button up both pockets….”8 Another editorial (this one from a depression year) explained that “the evil of street-begging” would inevitably increase as a result of the hardness of the times. “Impostors will abound more than ever,” for example. But buttoning up one’s pockets was psychologically difficult: “he who rejects a petition for the needs of a night’s lodging or a meal may have his own warm rest disturbed by the reasonable apprehension that fearful exposure and distress have resulted from his prudence.”9

On this occasion the Tribune handed out meal tickets instead of cash to beggars. But making contributions to organized charity offered a more effective solution. It would obviate the need for face-to-face encounters along with the danger of fraud, and it would be far more efficient. The Tribune pleaded with its readers to send their donations to one of the charity organizations, because “that way of helping the poor” might not be perfect, but “it is more effectual and humane than any other yet adopted.”10 Or, as the same paper put it in still another Christmas editorial: “Let us give not merely as cases of destitution may present themselves, but through the regularly organized channels for the dispensation of social charity wherewith our own and most other cities are blessed….”11

If the middle-class press criticized “indiscriminate giving,” it also generally attacked another alternative to private charities: governmental support for the poor through programs of public assistance or public works. Many workingmen themselves called for just such programs, especially during years of severe depression—the kind of devastating depression that regularly shook the new capitalist economy. When the times were hard, many employers simply laid their workers off—and there was no unemployment insurance to see them through. In one depression year, 1854, a large group of unemployed New York workers held a meeting on Christmas Day, forming themselves as the “Mechanics’ and Working-men’s Aid Association.” The assembled workers passed a resolution that demanded that tenants “shall not be turned out of their homes by avaricious landlords” and called for what amounted to a rent strike by appointing a “vigilant committee” to oversee the response. The city had made a special $10,000 appropriation for the poor, and the workers demanded that some of those funds be given directly to the association itself. One speaker denounced the municipal soup kitchens as “haughty and contemptuous” (and added that they served watery soup). Another speaker called for public-works programs instead of soup kitchens. A third demanded that the city itself subsidize up to 50 percent of rent payments for the unemployed.12

The newly established New York Times responded to the situation by acknowledging that “these were hard times” and expressing special sympathy for the fact that “men are poor this winter who were never poor before.” (This was as much as to say that such men were more worthy of sympathy than those who had always been poor.) In passing, the Times even proposed paternalist gestures on the part of those employers who could afford it: “retaining their workmen, though they are not profitable.” But the editorial reserved the bulk of its space to stress the superiority of giving through such established institutions as the churches and the newly formed Children’s Aid Society. This was presented in the name of simple efficiency. Money contributed to such organizations “will ‘find’ where the misery is.” Such institutions have well-established “channels” and employ “effectual and discriminating” techniques; they have at their disposal well-tooled “machinery” to make sure that each individual dollar “reaches tomorrow the very family that is famishing to-day for lack of it.” Implicitly, the paper argued that any contribution not mediated by those organizations was nothing but a form of indiscriminate giving. “If a man has money, and does not know how he can make the most of it, let him step into the offices of any of those excellent institutions, in whose hands, if you place a dollar, you do what, individually, you could not make five dollars do.”13

A decade later, the same newspaper actually argued that this kind of charity was little more than a continuation of the long-standing tradition of Christmas generosity on the part of the British gentry and nobility. In the previous century, the argument went, “[n]o hungry faces were allowed to be seen around the barons hall, or the monk’s open doors, or the citizens gate.” That tradition was being maintained into the present with hardly a hitch: “Modern times have continued this pleasant custom of benefaction. Yesterday, we doubt not, the faces of thousands of the poor were made happy with the good fare provided by the generosity of the charitable…. The bounty of others … heaped the tables of the outcast with good things.” But in fact it was only to the work of charitable institutions that the paper was referring—to “the missions, the industrial schools, the lodging-houses for homeless boys and girls, [and] the almshouses and asylums and refuges.” And the editorial concluded by giving its readers the now-standard advice: Those good-hearted individuals “who fear to do as much injury as good by their indiscriminate charities, should seek out the great public almoners, our benevolent societies, who have reduced charity almost to a science, and probably seldom err on the side of too much generosity.”14

As matters grew worse during the following decades, and workers responded by attempting to unionize, the press became even more insistent that private benevolence was far superior to either indiscriminate giving or public assistance. At Christmas in 1893 several local unions were out on strike. But the New York Times responded with a warning that it acknowledged might seem “strange” to its readers: “Strange as it may sound, there is danger of overdoing the charitable relief business, or at least of misdoing it, if it is not put under concentrated, intelligent, and judicious direction.”

But there is need of great discretion in organizing and directing agencies for the relief of the poor in times like these. More than ever is it important that this work should be done intelligently and judiciously. Lavish and indiscriminate giving to applicants, however vouched for, will result in waste…. Worst of all, it will encourage and embolden beggary and attract worthless vagrants from all quarters.

The editorial decried the use of public moneys to ease the situation, insisting that “organized arrangements for distributing this superfluity among the needy through private benevolence are much better than efforts to use public authority and public funds for the relief of the poor or the unemployed.”15 What the editorial did not mention, though it would have been clear to any reader who also followed the labor columns of the same paper, was that not one of the established charitable organizations was willing to provide assistance to workers who were out on strike.16


As late as the early 1850s, the major charitable institutions in cities like New York were of two sorts: either municipal agencies (such as the almshouse and the workhouse for adults, and the city nursery for children) or arms of the city’s churches, which established “missions” to the urban poor (there were seventy-six of these missions operating in 1865). These institutions did not disappear, but during the 1850s they were supplemented by a new set of private philanthropic organizations dedicated exclusively to serving impoverished groups. At the same time, several church missions became quasi-autonomous operations. One of the first and most famous of these was the Five Points Mission, founded in 1852 by the Ladies’ Home Missionary Society, a Methodist group, and located in one of the city’s most blighted and dangerous areas (the Five Points was the site of a notorious gang war in 1857). Together with a similar agency, the Five Points House of Industry, founded in 1853, these missions offered charitable relief to neighborhood families and provided children with classes that taught them industrial or domestic skills.17

Increasingly, these organizations came to focus their energies on a single group within the neighborhood they served: impoverished children. And very soon, organizations began to emerge that were devoted exclusively to children. The most effective (and aggressive) of these agencies—and probably, within a decade or two, the single largest and best-known charitable organization in the United States—was the Children’s Aid Society, established in 1853 under the guiding influence of the young reformer Charles Loring Brace.

Brace came to the C.A.S. from the Five Points Mission, where he had worked in 1852, during the year that followed his visit to Germany. It was the end point of an eight-year period that Brace spent in seeking a clear vocation for himself. Born in 1826 in Litchfield, Connecticut, of old New England stock (his father later became principal of the Hartford Female Seminary, where Catharine and Harriet Beecher served as teachers), Brace graduated from Yale in 1846 and returned there a year later to study theology. Ambitious to make his way in a more cosmopolitan setting, he also studied at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. But he began to harbor sympathies for abolitionists and other reformers (including the European radicals who were leading the revolutionary movements of 1848). Late in 1849 Brace visited New York’s municipal facilities on Blackwells Island, where he preached to the poor in the almshouse and met with prisoners and ill prostitutes. It was like a conversion experience: “I never had my whole nature so stirred up within me,” he reported, “as at what met my eyes in those hospital wards.”18

Early the next year Brace embarked on the European visit that brought him to Berlin in November, ostensibly to continue his theological studies. (It was in Berlin, a month after his arrival, that he witnessed the German Christmas celebration he would later write about.) But his sympathy for the oppressed was very much alive, and while touring Hungary in the spring of 1851 he was actually imprisoned for a month on charges of aiding the Hungarian nationalist revolutionaries led by Lajos Kossuth. Brace returned to New York after being released (through the efforts of the U.S. minister) and wrote a book about his experiences. But now he had finally determined what he wished to do with his life: He would dedicate himself to working for the poor. In that way he would be able to combine his religious commitment and training with his progressive secular politics. In 1852 Brace began working for the recently founded Five Points Mission but left the next year in order to establish the Children’s Aid Society, the institution with which he remained associated for the remaining thirty-three years of his life. As the executive secretary of the C.A.S., Brace was an early representative of an emerging social type in American history (and also a new group in the history of Christmas patronage)—the salaried managerial class.

As a matter of pragmatic principle, the Children’s Aid Society devoted its work exclusively to young people. Brace had come to the firm conclusion that targeting adults was virtually useless—“like pouring water through a sieve,” as he once put it. All too often, adults wasted charitable relief on alcohol or worse. Moreover, whatever assistance they received (and on this point Brace’s ideas resemble that of many modern conservatives) only created a sense of dependency that further ensured their ongoing pauperization. Brace was persuaded that the only “hopeful field” was among “the young.” If one worked exclusively with children, he believed, “crime might possibly be checked in its very beginnings, and the seed of future good character and order and virtue be widely sown.”19

Brace carried this principle very far. He decided not only that adults could not be part of the solution to the problem of poverty but also that they constituted the immediate source of the problem. It was, ironically, the family life of New York’s poor population that was destroying the character of its children. Brace had long been deeply aware, as Home-Life in Germany revealed, of the power of family life to mold the character of children, for better or for worse. (Indeed, he was so sensitive to the family’s influence that, as we have seen, he even felt that middle-class American families were failing to offer the genial, nurturing environment necessary to develop healthy adults.) But the families of the poor were worse than inadequate—they were, as Brace put it, actual “poison” for their own children.

Brace argued that this was true of mothers as well as fathers. In making such an argument he was confronting the heart of the reigning domestic ideology—the belief that all mothers could be counted on, by their very natures, to nurture their children through thick and thin. Brace was prepared to attack this belief almost head-on. At Christmas, 1855, he published in several New York newspapers a plea for charity that consisted of several little “Scenes for Christmas.” One of these scenes pictured a proud and respectable young mother who had been reduced to poverty by a combination of hard times and her husband’s drinking. That was a familiar nineteenth-century scenario. But Brace went further. He argued that the young mother had lost her self-respect; she had even lost “the last thing a woman of her former [respectable] habits loses—the pride in neat appearance.” (And he added: “If she could but see it, it is just such dowdiness which sends the husband to the dram-shop instead of home.”) Brace concluded that it would be of little avail to offer assistance to this pathetic woman: “The husband will probably die a drunkard; [and] the young wife, who had left comfort and home for his poverty, will either kill herself or perish of a broken-heart.” But then there were the children: “There is the hope. Who will aid us in doing something for them?”

Brace used such accounts to make a radical argument: It was not enough to help the children—they actually had to be separated, permanently so, from their parents. In another of his 1855 “Christmas Scenes” (this one titled “The Cold Home”), Brace contrasted a pair of “tidy, sweet children” with their chilly mother and her “cheerless” house. He had tried to persuade the mother to let the girls attend an industrial school (offering to provide them with clothing if they would do so), and he promised “that the boy should find a home if he would come to our office.” Brace was adamant: “[T] hough for her pure young children too much could hardly be done, in such a woman [herself] there is hardly any confidence to be put.” And he confidently generalized from this woman’s case: “In nine cases out of ten, it is probable, some cursed vice has thus reduced her, and that, if her children be not separated from her, she will drag them down, too.”20

Charles Loring Brace. This woodcut was taken from a picture made late in Brace’s life. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library)

So Brace devised a new scheme. It involved persuading parents to send their children to the Children’s Aid Society (or persuading the children themselves to go there)—in order to ship them out of the city altogether, to new homes in the American West, in villages with stable families, ample opportunities for employment, and the kind of individualistic ethos that would offer the boys fertile soil to develop their competitive tendencies into socially productive channels. (“Manless land for landless men” was a slogan of the movement.) In its first four decades the “placing out” scheme—it would later be dubbed the “orphan train” program—managed to transport some 90,000 boys to new homes and lives in the West.21 And it helped bring international renown to Charles Loring Brace.

In opting for this strategy, Brace had come to embrace the qualities of competitiveness and self-reliance that he sensed in many of New York’s poor children, children who had been thrown on their own devices. He saw such behavior as a sign of potential ambition that, healthfully channeled, could transform bad habits into productive ones. Even in Home-Life in Germany, Brace had acknowledged that self-reliance was a virtue (in America “a boy is an independent, self-reliant man …, when he is [still] in leading-strings in Germany”). But in that book he had seen self-reliance only as a “compensation” (and a partial one, at that) for the absence of strong family ties between American children and their parents. Now, as secretary of the Children’s Aid Society, Brace paid more attention to encouraging self-reliance than to fostering family ties. Knowing that many of New York’s poor children could be enticed with relative ease to leave home, Brace put to practical use what he had previously lamented as the weakness of family ties among American youths. He reported in just those terms the mood among a group of boys leaving New York for the West in 1855: “All seemed as careless at leaving home forever, as if they were on … [an] excursion to Hoboken.” Life in the labor-starved, Protestant-dominated West, he argued, would be likely to transform a “rough, thieving New York vagrant” into an “honest, hardworking Western pioneer.”22 According to the historian Paul Boyer, Brace did not systematically track the later careers of the orphan-train riders: He “showed little interest in determining whether the boys he sent West actually became settled members of their communities; it was enough that they were ‘being absorbed into that active, busy population.’”23

But it would be a mistake to think that this complex man had turned into a simple apologist for the spirit of free enterprise. Despite his enduring admiration for the independent human spirit, Charles Loring Brace never lost the deep distrust of nineteenth-century capitalism that informed Home-Life in Germany. At the very height of the Gilded Age, in 1882, he published a work of theology that attempted to trace the changing role of Christianity in human history. In that book, Gesta Christi, Brace noted tentatively that the New Testament itself was permeated by a “certain tone” that was, “if not of’communism/at least in favor of greater distribution of wealth than would suit modern ideas.” Jesus and the apostles “almost denounce the rich,” he wrote, and “their sympathies are strongly with the working classes; they urge continually the diffusion of property, in whatever way would benefit the world.” At another point in the same book Brace insisted that there was “in many of the aspirations and aims of communism, a certain marked sympathy or harmony with the ideals of Christianity.” But he was also quick to add that “[n]othing, however, in Christ’s teachings tends towards any forcible interfering with rights of property, or encourages dependence on others.” As that final clause suggests, Jesus might be a socialist, but Brace would not relinquish the idea that he was also a man of self-reliance! Here as clearly as anywhere in his writings may be found a clue to the coherent philosophy that Brace never quite managed to articulate.24

BUT IT WAS not philosophy that earned Brace the respect of the philanthropic community, in any case. It was his practical organizational skills which did that, and his ability to deal effectively with poor children themselves. Those interpersonal skills came increasingly to the fore over the years. From the beginning, the Children’s Aid Society did not restrict itself to sending children West, and by the 1860s it was becoming clear that the supply of street children in New York far exceeded the demand for their labor on the farm.25 So the C.A.S. came increasingly to focus its efforts on the industrial schools and lodging houses it had established in the city. The first and most successful of these local establishments—the one that captured the attention of the public, and became Braces personal pride and joy—was a lodging house designated specifically for a single subset of poor children: the city’s newsboys.

We have encountered newsboys before, during the 1840s, shortly after they came into existence as a result of the development of an urban “penny press” (see Chapter 3). Often homeless, they eked out their subsistence by hawking afternoon newspapers and “extra” editions on the streets of the city. By the 1850s newsboys constituted a familiar and sometimes aggressive segment of the urban population, and they were notorious for their streetwise impertinence and for the racket they made at their beloved theater. Charles Loring Brace referred to them as “a fighting, gambling set.” Consisting largely of immigrant Irish Catholics, the newsboys seem to have spoken in an argot of their own, and they were usually known only by nicknames—“Pickle Nose,” “Fat Jack,” Mickety,” “Round Hearts,” “No-Nothing Mike,” “O’Neill the Great,” “Wandering Jew,” even (in one case) “Horace Greeley.”26

The Newsboys’ Lodging House that Brace set up in 1854 provided many of these boys with a stable household. By 1867 the Children’s Aid Society was operating five such lodging houses in poor districts of New York, one of which was located at the corner of West Twenty-fourth Street and Eighth Avenue, just at the edge of the former Chelsea estate owned by Clement Clarke Moore!27 The newsboys became a source of special pleasure for Charles Loring Brace. Working with them became for him a secular version of the ministry to which he had originally intended to devote himself. From time to time Brace even delivered brief sermons to his charges, nonsectarian sermons that avoided any effort to lure the always-suspicious “newsies” away from their Catholic heritage. (He delivered one of these sermons at Christmas, emphasizing Jesus’ humble birth and upbringing “among common laboring people” and the fact that his own chosen ministry was to “the great masses of mankind—the poor laboring people—just such as you are, boys.” And in another sermon Brace called Jesus “the working-man’s friend.”)28

Guided by what was probably a combination of private admiration and pragmatic tactics, Brace dealt with these newsboys without sentimentality, without pretending that they embodied purity or selflessness. He came to relish what he saw as the independence, competitiveness, and signs of ambition that characterized the culture of newsboys, even the aggressive edge they displayed, and he worked to encourage those attributes. Whatever else they were, newsboys were by definition not beggars—they worked for their own support. The most successful among them earned as much as $3 a day and sometimes even more.29 (The aspiring young author Horatio Alger spent several months in residence at the original Newsboys’ Lodging House, and he based several of his novels on that experience.)

Brace retained, at the same time, his earlier sense that the newsboys needed to grow up in an environment that was genial and cheerful, and he tried with considerable success to make every Newsboys’ Lodging House into just such an environment. Brace was skillful in dealing with newsboys on their own terms, and he made sure he hired a flexible and well-trained staff. Indeed Brace, along with many others, admired the newsboys’ independent spirit, their solidarity, and their internal code of honor. As one scholar has put it, “Newsboys inhabited a twilight realm somewhere between desperate poverty and democratic manhood.”30 Brace knew better than to patronize the newsies, and he even took pleasure in watching them ridicule any visiting speakers who did. The lodging houses were characterized, as Paul Boyer has put it, by “the prevailing high spirits, the street slang, and the boisterous shouts of tough little gamins totally unin-timidated by the surroundings of a benevolent institution.”31 Such geniality satisfied Brace’s own deep craving for the unforced social warmth he had first encountered in Germany at Christmastime.

SO IT MAY be no coincidence that the high point of the year at every Newsboys’ Lodging House was the annual Christmas dinner. Those dinners became a regular institution during the last four decades of the nineteenth century and were reported with relish in the press. (Between 1870 or so and the early 1900s, the annual dinners at the original Lodging House were regularly arranged and paid for by a wealthy New York businessman named William Fliess. Other prominent New Yorkers often agreed to host dinners at the other lodging houses. Theodore Roosevelt did so, for example, every year from 1870 to 1873, and on at least one of those occasions the future president presented a $25 cash prize to a newsboy who had submitted the best essay in a writing competition.)32

Year after year, New Yorkers read about the gusto and speed with which the newsboys consumed the food placed before them. As one report put it, “Dyspeptics who cannot enjoy the eating of a good Christmas dinner ought to make it a point to go to the Newsboys’ Lodging House … at 7 o’clock in the evening of Christmas Day and see the newsboys eat.” Such accounts sometimes recorded exactly how much the boys consumed—in one year, when 450 boys were fed, it amounted to “670 pounds of turkey, 200 pounds of ham, 3 barrels of potatoes, 3 barrels of turnips, 200 loaves of bread, and 350 pies.” The reporter calculated this with mock precision as coming to “one-twenty-fifth of their own weight.”33 (Only once, in 1888, have I found an acknowledgment that something more serious may also have been at stake for the boys: Their “stomachs [were] small with chronic hunger.”) The Christmas dinners were often described in military terms, as in 1888, when the story was headed “NEWSBOYS WILL BE FED. They Battle with a Dinner and Win a Great Victory.” Or in 1890: “THE NEWSBOYS’ ANNUAL TRIUMPH OVER TURKEY AND PIE.”

The press accounts took equal delight in reporting the newsboys’ raucous behavior on such occasions—their expertise in “cutting such capers … as only street arabs know.” But these high jinks seem never to have gotten out of hand, in part because of the skill with which the lodging-house staff arranged matters, including even the placement of the tables:

[C]are is taken to have every seat at every table accessible [to adults], so that in case any newsboy becomes intoxicated by the lavish display of viands, and forgets how he should behave while at a banquet, he may be reached before he has filled the eyes of more than two of his neighbors with pie. The wisdom of this provision has been shown time and time again.34

All in all, such scenes can be seen as the inventive fulfillment, in a very different set of circumstances, of the very Christmas fantasy that Charles Loring Brace had first described in Home-Life in Germany—a scene of genuine, spontaneous cheer in which people did not “seem to be enjoying themselves, because it is a ‘duty to be cheerful,’” but simply “because they cannot help it.”


The Children’s Aid Society was a great success by nineteenth-century standards. By the end of the century, sister organizations had been established in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco.35 And other charitable institutions, too, began to direct much of their attention to the children of the poor.

Pleas for giving charity to poor children reached their height during the Christmas season, and they seem to have made for an effective fund-raising technique.36 The effectiveness was no accident. Almost certainly it stemmed from a powerful convergence of older and newer holiday traditions: those older traditions in which Christmas was the major occasion in the year for offering gifts to the poor and those more recent traditions in which Christmas was the major occasion for giving gifts to children. Impoverished children embodied simultaneously the core of both rituals. Little wonder, then, that those children became the object of such attention in mid-nineteenth-century American cities.

What people may actually have expected of those children was problematic. Charles Loring Brace was among the few who seem to have been able to accept the rough-edged behavior of the “street arabs” with something that approached unadulterated admiration. Others persisted in trying to see them in a more romantic light.

As it happens, newsboys themselves were a source of fascination for middle-class Americans in the decades after 1850. There seemed to be something almost exotic about them. It was as if people were intrigued by their own uncertainty about whether newsboys were lost Victorian children waiting to be redeemed or just young hoodlums in the making. A fair number of books about newsboys appeared in the 1850s and 1860s. One of these, Ragged Dick (1867), was written by Horatio Alger, who based the novel on his own observations in the original Newsboys’ Lodging House.37 The title character of this book is spunky and ambitious, but he is also polite.

In none of these books, however, is the confusion as clear as it is in Elizabeth Oakes Smiths novel The Newsboy (1854). Published in the same year that Brace opened the first Newsboys’ Lodging House, this otherwise forgettable book offers an extraordinary example of authorial ambivalence. The hero of The Newsboy starts out as an uncouth homeless urchin who knows nothing about his parents. When he is asked who his mother is, he responds almost like little Topsy, the incorrigible slave girl in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that had been published only two years earlier. The newsboy replies, “Got none.” (“Well, your Dad, then?” “Got none.” “Whew! Who owns you?” “Nobody.”)38 And the young newsboy uses rough language, too. On one occasion he responds to the solicitous question of a stranger by yelling, “‘What in h-1 is that to you?’” (This response is virtually identical to that which Charles Loring Brace had received from the English laborer he had similarly accosted on the street.)

But in the course of the novel, without any training or support, this boy turns out to be a saintly child. He refuses to try alcohol or tobacco (“‘It’s agin my nater,’” he explains); he disdains to complain about his condition; and he befriends and supports—emotionally as well as financially—a variety of other outcasts, even becoming a surrogate parent to an adult woman. At one point the author is actually able to refer to her childish hero as “a miracle of goodness,” an instinctively perfect little boy.39 And at the end of the book he proves his worth by voluntarily sacrificing any prospect of marrying the wealthy girl he loves. If this newsboy begins the novel as a male version of Stowe’s Topsy, he ends it as a male version of another young character from Uncle Tom’s Cabin—little Eva. Such a child hardly resembled the kind of real-life newsboy that Charles Loring Brace had to deal with.

It was with sentimental fantasies such as that of Elizabeth Oakes Smith that charitable agencies had to contend, but also to exploit, during the second half of the nineteenth century. And on no occasion did those fantasies become more pervasive than at Christmas. The original model for such fantasies was another fictional character, Dickens’s Tiny Tim. This boy is a cripple, but spiritually he is a perfect model of humanity, a paragon of patient, cheerful selflessness. (He is even more forbearing than his father in the face of adversity, and with the added vulnerability of his lameness.) In fact, characters like Tiny Tim resemble nothing so much as the selfless German children we encountered in Chapter 5, the children idealized by Coleridge and Pestalozzi.

Two Images of Newsboys. The street urchin on the right appeared in the 1872 edition of Elizabath Oakes Smith’s novel The Newsboy. The appealing little boy on the left was the subject of an 1857 picture by the New York painter James Henry Cafferty, titled “Newsboy Selling New York Herald.” For all the contrast between them, the two pictures are essentially mirror images of each other. (Both illustrations: Courtesy, Harvard College Library)

It was fictional children like Tiny Tim—needy children who were forbearing and grateful, and sometimes disabled as well—who would become the ordinary objects of charity in scores of stories and sketches written in the middle of the nineteenth century. A Christmas Carol was only the first of a host of stories published over the next several decades (and beyond) that evoked the gap between rich and poor, and used young children to imagine ways of bridging this gap through acts of direct personal generosity at Christmas. One such sketch, a nonfiction account published in 1844 (the year after A Christmas Carol appeared), sets the scene. Traveling on the ferry between New York and Brooklyn, the writer has encountered a small girl, palpably impoverished, and is struck by something unusual in the girl’s demeanor, something that set her apart from “the whining, obtrusive beggars of this large city.” Sitting quietly amid the other, more prosperous patrons of the ferry, this child signified “poverty that complains not.” Her face conveyed “utter hopelessness,” but also a striking “resignation.” The writer was drawn to that, and other passengers were, too: “Children crushed to the earth with poverty and crime are common in large cities: they are painfully numerous. But it is seldom that such quiet, uncomplaining little sufferers are met there.”40

Here was the basis of the familiar, almost stereotypical genre in which poor children stand huddled in the cold outside the home of a rich family, gazing patiently through the window at the latter’s Christmas luxuries. As might be expected, these stories invariably deal with a Christmas encounter between someone rich and someone poor, an encounter in which the former is touched by both the plight and the patience of the latter (generally a child). The encounter is marked by a special Christmas gift that leaves both the giver and the recipient deeply touched. It is the old exchange of gifts for goodwill.

Again and again, it was the passivity, the uncomplaining resignation, of such fictional children in the face of pervasive, ambient opulence that rendered them fit objects of direct charity. It was because they asked for nothing that they proved themselves worthy of receiving something. In one such story a little girl clothed in a dress that is faded but “clean” is looking into the window of a toy shop on Christmas Eve. But when a prosperous woman standing next to her wonders out loud whether the girl “‘wanted something she couldn’t get,’” the girl responds in “an unexpectant manner,” saying only that the toys were “‘good to look at.’”The prosperous woman thereupon offers the poor little girl a gift of $5, and the girl proceeds to give the money to her mother. After the prosperous lady learns about the girl’s selfless gesture, her own daughter, too, decides to pass along some of her surplus Christmas presents. At the end, the reader is assured that the poor little girl will “never forget” these gifts in times of future hardship.41

There is a deeper pattern to some of these stories, and it is a revealing one. It has to do with resolving the vexatious public issues of class division—issues that were essentially unresolvable within any version of the prevailing ideological language—by transforming them, under cover of fiction, into issues that are resolvable: private issues of family, morality, and forgiveness. I have not found a single nineteenth-century Christmas story that deals forthrightly with the dynamics of American class relations.

In the commonest version of this pattern, the poor children turn out, at the end, to be related to their benefactors by blood itself. Take, for example, a story published in Godeys Lady’s Book in 1858, with the title “Christmas for Rich and Poor.” This story was accompanied by a two-page illustration showing precisely the now-familiar stereotypical scene: the rich family inside on the left side, the poor children outside on the right. Any reader of this story would have been led to assume that the story dealt with class divisions. And indeed, as it happens, the two children are poor, and their mother is ill as well. They had been out earlier that evening (the story is set on Christmas Eve), attempting to buy a small present for their mother in a local shop, and there they had been approached by a wealthy older man who overheard their plight (and witnessed their selfless demeanor) and immediately invited them to visit his house later in the evening so that he could provide them with food to take to their sick mother. That they do (once inside the house they observe toys “scattered in careless profusion”). But as they stand conversing with the rich man’s daughter, waiting for their promised basket of food, it transpires that they are actually the children of the rich man’s other daughter, his favorite and most indulged daughter, a woman who had shamed the family fifteen years earlier by eloping (on Christmas Eve, at that) with a man whom her father had refused to let her marry. The wayward daughter’s husband had soon proved unable to support her decently, and after his death she and her two children had fallen into abject poverty. All this while her wealthy father had refused to have anything to do with her. But now, on this Christmas Eve, he is eager to relent. The story ends with a scene of forgiveness and reconciliation.42

In other words, the division of social class that separated the “rich” from the “poor” of this story’s title was more apparent than real. Not only did these poor children behave like well-trained members of respectable society—that is actually what they were. The real problem that the wealthy man in the story had to deal with was not that of social class but of family dynamics. The cathartic gesture he makes at the end is one in which he forgives his daughter, after fifteen years of exile, and takes her back into the family. Of course, he feels relieved and cleansed by this act, but his catharsis, and that of the story’s readers, have little to do with the expectations raised by the story’s title and its accompanying illustrations.43

“Christmas for Rich and Poor.” This pair of pictures were printed on two opposing pages of Godeys Lady’s Book for December 1858. They provided the illustration for the story of the same title. (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)


At the same time that Christmas stories appeared about poor children who were patient and grateful, other stories were appearing that portrayed the jaded responses of more prosperous children. By the 1850s, fictional accounts about such jaded rich children were becoming commonplace. An 1854 children’s book written by Susan Warner, the author of the 1849 best-seller The Wide, Wide World, drove this point home. In this book, Carl Krinken: His Christmas Stocking, Warner indicated that the presents received by the children of the rich made them feel “discontent.” Such well-off children were hard to please, Warner wrote; they generally “fretted because they had what they did, or because they hadn’t what they didn’t have.” The Christmas stocking of a typical rich child was stuffed with “candy enough to make the child sick, and toys enough to make him unhappy because he didn’t know which to play with first….”Warner added sarcastically: “It was a woful [sic] thing if a top was painted the wrong color, or if the mane of a rocking-horse was too short, or if his bridle was black leather instead of red.”44 Several decades later, no less popular a writer than William Dean Howells would write a delightful story about a little girl who expresses a wish that Christmas could come every day—and who has her wish fulfilled in horrific fashion. After a few weeks, the girl and her friends become so sick of receiving “disgusting presents” that they begin to throw them out on the street unopened, and soon the police began to warn the children “to shovel their presents off the sidewalk, or they would arrest them.” Before long, the overworked garbage collectors of the city are refusing to pick up any more Christmas trash! Eventually, of course, the little girl learns her lesson.45

On a more modest scale there was the story that Harriet Beecher Stowe had written in 1850, “Christmas; or, The Good Fairy.” In that story (discussed in Chapter 4), Stowe indicated that Christmas shopping for one’s own family and friends had become difficult, since such prosperous folk were “sick, and sated, and tired with having everything in the world given [them]” at Christmas. But Stowe’s tale went on to propose a solution to this problem. Its plot hinged on just that point: It was easy enough, after all, to find people who had not been sated by Christmas presents, people who could be counted on to be intensely grateful for even the smallest trifle.

Those people, of course, were the poor. The language Harriet Beecher Stowe chose to describe them is quite suggestive. A poor person offered the prosperous shopper a “fresh, unsophisticated body to get presents for;” the poor as a class provided the rich with a supply of “unsophisticated subjects to practice on.” And that is just what this story is about. Its prosperous main character becomes a “good fairy” for a poor family who lives in the neighborhood—and, indeed, the poor family does respond with all the gratitude anyone could wish.

Unsophisticated subjects to practice on. This may sound like strange language. But others were making much the same point. Take Louisa May Alcott, for example. The four young heroines of Little Women, in the opening chapters of that novel, do the very thing that Stowe proposed: They go off on Christmas morning (after receiving their own presents of the New Testament) and bring gifts to a poor family in the neighborhood. There is evidence that many Americans shared this concern. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, there was something of a movement to form Christmas clubs for prosperous children, clubs that were designed to foster selfless behavior during the Christmas season by encouraging their members to hold Christmas parties for their less-privileged peers, and to give away some of their own old Christmas presents. The Children’s Christmas Club of Portland, Maine, organized in 1882, pressed its members “to save [old] toys, books, and games, instead of carelessly destroying them,” and to present these castoffs at a Christmas dinner held for the children of the local poor. A similar club was later formed in Washington, D.C., with the daughter of the U.S. postmaster general serving as its president, assisted by the daughter of the U.S. president himself, Chester Arthur.46

Such material suggests that some members of the American bourgeoisie were facing a real Christmas dilemma. Their own children had become jaded with presents. On the other hand, the actual poor—who were unlikely to be surfeited with gifts—were a sea of anonymous proletarian faces, and in any event they were as likely to respond to acts of token generosity with embarrassment or hostility as with the requisite display of hearty gratitude. Giving to the children of the needy would solve the dilemma neatly.

Typically, the children selected to participate in such events (as in the case of the Portland Children’s Christmas Club) came from a pool that had been carefully screened by charitable organizations. These needy children made ideal recipients of face-to-face charity. They could be counted on to be both well behaved and truly grateful. They would respond neither with the jaded indifference of more privileged children nor with the guarded resentment their own parents might display. And they would show their gratitude, with touching smiles and exclamations. Face-to-face charity—the exchange of gifts for goodwill—could be made to work in mid-nineteenth-century America, after all. But the economic divide could be bridged only by going across generational lines. In shorthand language, class had to be mediated through age.

In any case, from mid-century on—and with what appears to have been increasing frequency into the 1890s—some well-to-do Americans devoted part of their Christmas days to visiting the children of the poor. These visits were ordinarily encouraged and arranged by the charitable agencies themselves. The first instance I have found of what would become the standard ritual took place in 1844, when Margaret Fuller chose to spend part of Christmas Day with the children in New York’s Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb—and to report on her visit in the New York Tribune (this episode is recounted in Chapter 5). After 1850, New York’s charitable agencies for children institutionalized this kind of event. They began to hold formal open houses that more prosperous residents of the city were invited to visit on Christmas Day, open houses that received lots of publicity (they also served as effective fund-raisers).

A favorite place to visit was the children’s nursery on Randalls Island, the municipal establishment in the East River (it also contained the city hospital, insane asylum, and almshouse). On Christmas Day, 1851, the New York Tribune reported that “quite a large party of ladies and gentlemen” attended “a capital entertainment” given to the children at the municipal nursery and hospital. The following year, too, the Tribune reported that the children on Randalls Island were visited by “several dignitaries, including several merchants of the City,” who brought “a supply of juvenile presents suitable to the season.” On this occasion the children “marched in procession to meet them at the dock.” And of course they “most gratefully accepted and heartily enjoyed” the dinner that followed.47

And so on in subsequent years (the Randalls Island open houses continued into the twentieth century). Of course, Randalls Island was physically cut off from the rest of the city. But charitable institutions located within the city, even in its less savory areas, also invited visitors on Christmas Day.48 The most heavily publicized of these was in the Mission House located in the Five Points section, the most notorious slum area in the city (in the entire nation, for that matter). But the terms in which the Tribune reported the first such occasion, in 1853, are revealing. The report, headed “CHRISTMAS AT THE FIVE POINTS,” indicated that the Mission House (located on the site of a former brewery) was “open all day” and received many visitors. In fact,

[t]he streets were thronged in that neighborhood with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, and some of the richest carriages of the City; the effect of which was to make the topers [i.e., drunkards], male and female, shrink back into their dens, while the children saw and felt the effects of such visits to the House of Industry, which was crowded to excess all the afternoon, while several hundred Christmas presents were bestowed upon the scholars of that school….49

This was an intriguing description. It assured its readers that the Five Points area was transformed on this occasion, its menace momentarily defused. The more unpleasant denizens of the neighborhood simply withdrew from sight when the respectable outsiders came to visit, and only the presence of children was felt.50

What impelled people to make such visits? Pangs of conscience certainly played a part, but there is surely more. (To ease one’s conscience, it would have been enough to have made a substantial contribution, and stayed at home.) The visitors—and, just as important, the many others who merely read about them in the newspapers—seem to have needed to experience, in person or by report, the “gratefully accepted and heartily enjoyed” gifts, the “happy faces and joyful voices.” Such a need may have addressed an unspoken fear that was shared by many Americans in just these decades—a fear that the urban social order was coming apart, that industrial capitalism was leading to social collapse. From that angle, visits to poor children offered a kind of symbolic reassurance that the social order still held together, after all. It was not only a merry Christmas that the happy faces demonstrated; it was the viability of industrial capitalism itself.

But I suspect that such a “political” motivation is not the whole answer. The grateful exclamations and smiles of the poor children may have fulfilled another need as well—a need to experience spontaneous affectionate gratitude in itself; to participate in social interactions that evoked a powerful emotional response that was difficult to achieve within middle-class family life. Charles Loring Brace had written about the absence of truly warm social relations among American families, the forced and “hollow” nature of domesticity. During the latter part of the century, other commentators made similar points. The very importance that domestic life had taken on in nineteenth-century American society had led many people to harbor a set of powerful expectations that real families found it difficult to fulfill. The middle-class family was becoming a victim of its own Utopian fantasies.51 Here, too, Christmas became a volatile flash point.

To glimpse something of what may have been at stake, let me cite a rare personal account of one of these Christmas visits. In 1875 the press reports about the annual Christmas pilgrimage to Randalls Island noted the presence among that year’s visitors of a celebrity, Louisa May Alcott. (Alcott was now living in New York, eight years after the publication of Little Women had propelled her into literary stardom.) Alcott and her party visited first the municipal orphanage, then the children’s hospital, and finally the home for retarded children. Alcott herself carried a large box of dolls and a bundle of candy. At every stop, one newspaper reported, “Miss Alcott… mingled with the little ones, giving to each a doll and some candy, accompanying each gift with some kind greeting.” Alcott was deeply moved by the experience, and she wrote a lengthy private letter to her family describing it. Her letter is filled with graphic descriptions of the children’s gratitude, intense and helpless—the sudden “cry of delight,” the outstretched “groping hands,” the sighs of “oh! oh!,” the “cheer of rapture,” the “silent bliss.” (One little girl was “so overcome” by the present Alcott gave her that “she had an epileptic fit on the spot.”) It was the first Christmas Alcott had spent “without [family] dinner or presents,” but she liked it “better than parties”: “I feel as if I’d had a splendid feast,” she concluded, “seeing the poor babies wallow in turkey soup, and that every gift I put into their hands had come back to me in the dumb delight of their un-childlike faces trying to smile.”52

It is easy to look back at this with distaste. From one angle, Alcott was exploiting the youthful recipients of her benevolence—using them as what I’m tempted to call “charity objects,” almost an economic equivalent to the sexual representation of women in pornography. Alcott appears to have deeply craved the overwhelming gratitude displayed by the objects of her charity. In contrast to the aggressive begging of wassailers in pre-nineteenth-century Christmas rituals, these Gilded Age dependents took the role of passive, responsive instruments on whose emotional vulnerability Alcott seems to have “played.”

But that isn’t entirely fair. People like Louisa May Alcott had good reason to feel stifled by the constraints of domesticity, even as they were unable to liberate themselves from its assumptions. By the final decades of the nineteenth century, women were bearing the brunt of the tension (and the labor) that the Christmas season ordinarily entailed in prosperous households. The Ladies’ Home Journal actually published an article in 1897 that acknowledged this as a cultural problem. Men in “thousands of homes” across America would be “truly thankful when this Christmas business is over,” the article began (it was written by a man). Why so? “[B]y seeing their wives, mothers, sisters, or daughters reach Christmas day utterly tired out, [and] with the prospect of a siege of illness as soon as Christmas is over.”53

These were women on whom the emotional work of Christmas had devolved, along with the bulk of the shopping and the cooking—women who felt themselves chiefly responsible for making sure that their husbands and their children (or, as in Alcott’s case, their fathers) were satisfied with the holiday experience. The task was daunting, and even partial failure (or anxiety about the prospect of failure) meant that guilt would be added to fatigue. Little wonder that Christmas was so often followed by “a siege of illness” for middle-class women.

Such women wished for a little relaxation, surely. But they also welcomed any opportunity to see their efforts rewarded with the kind of intense response their own families were often unable to provide. They were seeking intense sensation along with social justice. Not long afterward, some of these women would manage to link those dual urges together by turning to such activities as social work (in places like Jane Addams’s Hull House) or the radical Christian Social Gospel movement, which openly addressed the issue of bringing a capitalist social order into conformity with the teachings of Jesus (Charles Loring Brace can be considered a forerunner of this movement). Or, farther afield, these same women might have joined such emerging enterprises as the Colonial Revival and other forms of what the historian Jackson Lears has termed “anti-modernism.”54

In any event, the problem was not of their making. These women (and some men, too) were doing the best they knew how. The problem was not with their needs but with the dynamics of the society in which they lived. The problem was with a constricting domestic ideology that caused many people of means to harbor unsatisfied expectations of achieving personal fulfillment through family life alone. And the problem was also with an inequitable economic system that caused many of the same people—those, indeed, with the strongest ethical sense—to experience profound guilt, a guilt that, for good reason, could not be easily assuaged.


By the final decade of the nineteenth century, well-to-do New Yorkers had begun to arrange new and larger kinds of Christmas visitations to the poor, and these gala events reeked—strongly—of exploitation. During the 1890s some New Yorkers began to treat charity, almost literally, as a kind of spectator sport, performed on a large scale in arenalike spaces before a paying audience. On Christmas Day, 1890, a midday dinner was served to 1,800 poor boys (many of them newsboys) at Lyric Hall, a theater at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Forty-second Street. A newspaper account made clear what was taking place: “Every floor was crowded with lookerson, principally members of the Children’s Aid Society and other charitable people.” This meal was followed, that same evening, by the traditional dinners held at every Newsboys’ Lodging House in the city. It was as if the newsboys were being asked to put on performances at different holiday venues—as if there were something erotically charged about watching hungry children eat.55

The next year a newly formed organization, the Christmas Society, held a massive gift distribution at the newly constructed Madison Square Garden, an event attended by some 10,000 needy children, many of whom were accompanied by their mothers. Gifts were attached to a series of ropes that, in turn, were attached by pulleys to the roof of the Garden. The organizers of this event planned to attract the children of wealthy families as spectators, but few attended (one headline read: “THOUSANDS OF LITTLE ONES MADE HAPPY IN MADISON SQUARE GARDEN—CHILDREN OF THE RICH STAY AWAY”).56

Wealthy children were apparently not interested in watching hordes of their less-fortunate peers, but the parents of those wealthy children soon proved susceptible to the lure. It was, of all things, the Salvation Army that provided them with the opportunity. Beginning in 1898, this organization’s army of Christian soldiers organized immense public dinners for impoverished New Yorkers, held at Madison Square Garden. These dinners were great public spectacles, expertly organized. As the hungry and homeless were fed at tables on the arena floor, under the glare of electric lights, more prosperous New Yorkers paid to be admitted to the Garden’s boxes and galleries, where they observed the gorging. The event was reported as a front-page story in the New York Times, with a headline that announced, in block capitals, “THE RICH SAW THEM FEAST.”

The press reported in detail how “nearly 20,000 men, women, and children gathered from the highways and byways of the city in one great surging throng,” waiting patiently to be admitted to enter the arena. The crowd was kept waiting until after the spectators had been admitted—through a separate entrance:

To the Madison Avenue entrance came the spectators of the extraordinary scene …, men in high hats, women in costly wraps … the great concourse of the prosperous and happy…. They were to furnish the lighter shade to the pleasure, with their air of contentment, and prosperity, and perchance sympathy….

At the other entrance to the Garden [on Fourth Avenue] gathered the pilgrims from the illimitable abodes of poverty and wretchedness.

The several thousand wealthy observers entered first, so that they could look on as the “hungry multitude” was admitted. “In the boxes and gallery of the great building,” the story ran, “sat many thousands of well-fed and prosperous people, among them many women who had come in carriages and were gorgeously gowned and wore many diamonds, who looked on in happy sympathy …, who had come to see the spectacle of thousands being made happy.” There were four large sections of tables on the arena floor, and it was there that the poor, sitting in the upper gallery till their turn was called, were fed 2,200 at a time. This was a charity event on an industrial scale, a kind of Gilded Age version of Bracebridge Hall in which the entertainment itself was produced on an assembly line. Even so, the food ran out before everyone could be served.

Before the meal, both rich and poor joined together in singing the hymn “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” The hymn was sung in unison, “position and fortune forgotten for one brief moment.” It was a moving occasion, the Times reporter wrote: “The pathos of it all was in the expression contained in the smiles of thanks.” And the reporter concluded hopefully, suggesting that the very scale of the event foretold an imminent solution to the vexing problems of capitalism: “Neither any Continental city nor even London ever had to do anything approaching this in magnitude. It means the dawning of a new era, the bridging of the gulf between the rich and poor.”57

Only a single report, in the New York World, suggested that what had happened was more a matter of voyeurism than of class reconciliation:

Some seemed to look upon this feeding of the ravens as a spectacle, and whispered and pointed at poorly clad men and women who ate ravenously, or smiled when a piece of turkey was surreptitiously slipped into a capacious pocket.58

There was still another strange twist. The Salvation Army hit upon a novel fashion for raising funds to pay for these events: They hired unemployed men to play the part of street-corner Santa Claus, soliciting passersby for contributions as they did their Christmas shopping. (This technique is still employed by the Salvation Army.) Given the long history of the transformation of Christmas in the nineteenth century, there was irony as well as ingenuity in this tactic, for what it did was to re-create the structure, though not the substance, of a much older ritual in which the poor were informally sanctioned to approach the rich during the Christmas season and beg for gifts. Even the fact that the needy men who acted as street-corner Santas were begging in disguise was deeply rooted in the mumming tradition. (After all, Belsnickles had done much the same thing in Pennsylvania towns at least as late as the 1870s.) But of course what the Salvation Army Santas were doing was profoundly different from older forms of Christmas wassailing and mumming: Their public begging was sanctioned only because they were not soliciting for themselves. They did not get to keep the money but had to turn it over to the organization for which they worked. They were in fact the paid employees of a charitable organization. (It is not clear whether they were paid a flat rate or a percentage of what they raised.) Perhaps these Santas were also permitted to attend the Madison Square Garden dinners they themselves had helped to make possible. But even if they were, it would only be because they had been given a ticket of admission by their employers. In that sense, the entire Santa Claus ritual was nothing less than a microcosm of the workings of nineteenth-century capitalism itself.


There is a final twist to this story, a twist that reveals still another microcosm. In 1902 the Salvation Army’s charity dinner was moved from Madison Square Garden to another arena, the Grand Central Palace. Once again, 20,000 people were fed. But this time the event failed to go exactly as planned. The problem resulted from the fact that approximately 1,000 of the banqueters were young people, most of them newsboys, and they were seated separately in sections of their own at the two ends of the hall. These arrangements proved to be a mistake. (Charles Loring Brace would have known better, but he had been dead for a dozen years.) The youths took advantage of the opportunity to engage in activities other than eating:

They made so much noise that for a time it was thought they would break up the religious meeting that followed. They hurled pies and every other thing they could lay their hands on at one another, and even at those who waited on them.

The story in the Tribune reported what happened in deadpan language and considerable detail:

General Daniel E. Sickles and his daughter, Miss Mary Sickles, who were among the invited guests, attracted considerable attention. They spent most of the time entertaining the boys. Miss Sickles carried a Blenheim spaniel [a fancy breed] in her arms. She called it Bulwer [a fancy name]. When the boys set their eyes on Bulwer they began hurling mince pie and turkey at him. Miss Sickles was taken by surprise, and let Bulwer slip from her arms to the floor. Bulwer ran over to where General Sickles was seated. The boys set up a great shout and hurled knives, forks and spoons at him. Then they began cheering and shouting to General Sickles to make a speech. He laughed and said he was not able to do so.

Finally, order disintegrated completely:

There was an apparent shortage of mince pie for a time, and the youngsters thought that they were being overlooked. They began hurling bread and potatoes at those who waited on them, and said that they did not want turkey, but wanted more pie. Miss Sickles went into the kitchen and came out a minute later with her arms laden with pieces of pie. “Three cheers for Mama!” shouted the urchins, and they made a rush to take the pie from her. Miss Sickles pleaded with them to keep quiet and be patient, but they would have none of her advice. One boy, whom another called “Pinkie,” upset one of the plates on which were piled a number of pieces of pie, and there was a wild scramble to see who could get the most. Miss Sickles put the other plate of pie on the table and fled in dismay.59

The organizers learned their lesson. The next year a somewhat smaller group of young people were invited (again, most of them newsboys), and this time the organizers had taken a precaution: The boys “were arranged in a corner of the hall all by themselves, where they could give vent to their boyish caprices without disturbing the more sedate.” The tactic seems to have worked. The youths “occasionally let out a deafening war whoop just to break the monotony and let other folk know they were there”—but apparently that was all.60 Two years later, in 1905, 600 newsboys attended, and as many as 10 policemen were assigned to control them. Even so, a substantial number were ejected from the hall during the course of the meal.61

WITH SUCH TRADITIONS of misrule emerging in the very midst of this kind of “spectatorial” event, an event devised by (and in large measure for) the well-to-do who came to observe the fruits of their charity, we have come full circle. Newsboys, as we know, had long been prone to such behavior at Christmas. As poor and youthful males, they came from the single sociodemographic group that had been most closely associated with Christmas misrule from at least as early as the sixteenth century.

A newspaper report of one of the Christmas dinners, held in 1895 at a Newsboys’ Lodging House, made it clear that the newsboys’ rowdy behavior was not mere random chaos but the expression of an elaborate and venerable ritual. The reporter explained it in this way: “There are many queer and quaint customs among the newsboys which are strictly kept on Christmas, and which lend originality to their doings at their dinners.” For one thing, they would never deign to dress up on such occasions: “All the newsboys come in their everyday clothes. Any one who would have ventured to present himself in his best suit would have been regarded by the [other] lads as aspiring ‘ter shine in de upper crust.’” And they insisted on eating their Christmas dinners in a particular sequence, beginning with dessert:

They always begin to eat a dinner by disposing of the pies, the puddings and other dessert dishes first. Each lad gets away with several large-sized pies and seldom tastes of pudding if there are any pies in sight. Then comes the turkey and the cranberry sauce.62

The newsboys had a reason, then, to disrupt the 1902 Salvation Army dinner: The food was not being served in the proper sequence, and there were not enough pies. As the report of that chaotic event pointed out, “They began hurling bread and potatoes at those who waited on them, and said that they did not want turkey, but wanted more pie.” (The newsboys’ reversal of the standard dinner sequence was itself a kind of misrule—inverting the normal order of things. The pie-throwing itself was probably part of the ritual.)63

But there was probably a more important reason as well for the newsboys’ behavior. For if Christmas charity had become a spectator sport for the well-to-do, that meant it had become a form of what E. P. Thompson, referring to eighteenth-century England, has termed political “theater.” (In this case, it was theater in the most literal sense, complete with an arena equipped with a stage floor and galleries, as well as a separate entrance for the paying audience.) The well-to-do New York spectators expected the poor to “perform” for them, as it were, by eating their Christmas meal with manifest gusto and gratitude.

But from this perspective it is also fair to say that the spectators were putting on a performance of their own, by dressing up in their “gorgeous gowns” and flashiest jewelry. There was an earlier precedent for that, too. E. P. Thompson has also proposed that eighteenth-century gentry “theater” provoked a kind of responsive “counter-theater” on the part of the plebeians themselves, a dramatic assertion of their own identity, thrown mockingly back in the face of the gentry. And so with the newsboys in latter-day New York. The taunts and the pie-throwing, like the refusal to dress up, are understandable enough. These boys were hungry, after all, and the banquet they were being given was almost certainly the best food they would get all year. Yet it was surely demeaning to the newsboys that their own pleasure was also a spectacle to be observed by the rich. As early as 1876, a story about the annual dinner implicitly conveyed this point, even though the reporter ascribes the boys’ reaction to being watched to mere self-consciousness: “To appreciate the enjoyment of these boys properly one will have to see them when they sit down to hide away the ribs of beef,” the story began, only to continue with the acknowledgment that, unfortunately, “it will not do to be seen when seeing; for your newsboy, brave and sometimes impertinent as he sometimes is upon the street, is as sensitive, when he has his knees under the table as if he had been brought up in a hot-house, and was the most sensitive plant that grows.”64

Ostensibly, then, the newsboys’ display of misrule was a matter of mere juvenile high jinks. But surely it was also a form of counter-theater, aimed at those who were observing them. (As the 1903 New York Times reporter put it, they “let out a deafening war whoop just … to let other folk know they were there.”) This counter-theater served as a gesture that was meant to restore some of the dignity the newsboys had lost by being forced to make their own hunger a matter of public display. Among other things, it announced that they weren’t so thoroughly dependent on their mince pies, or their patrons, that they couldn’t afford to engage in a dramatic gesture of wasting the former by throwing them at the latter. In the process, the newsboys managed to make the most important point of all. They might be known as “Pinkie,” or “Pickle Nose,” or “No-Nothing Mike”—but whatever they were called, it would not be Tiny Tim.

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