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Mapping Childhoods: The Home for Destitute Children and the “Desirable Child”

Mapping Childhoods: The Home for Destitute Children and the “Desirable Child” of Early 20th-Century Vermont
March 7, 2018 at 6:00 pm
Special Collections Reading Room, Bailey/Howe Library
University of Vermont

UVM Geography Professor Meghan Cope opens our new series, "Stories from the Stacks." For several years, Cope and her students have been working with the records of Burlington's Home for Destitute Children. Her analysis provides insights into two understudied dimensions of the historical geography of childhood: first, the movement of children in and out of the Home as an unrecognized source of youth migration; second, the ways that institutions of care played roles in both reflecting and shaping the construction of the ‘ideal’ child and childhood in particular times and places.

The admission and discharge records for the Home for Destitute Children reveal childhoods interrupted by family crisis, poverty, illness, and neglect. But they also tell us about who the ‘ideal’ (or ‘desirable’) children were, as well as notions of the ideal childhood of a given time and place, including the ideal family and ideal home and neighborhood.

Using the Home matron’s logbooks and associated records, as well as manuscript census entries and historical maps, Cope traces the provenance and paths of children who entered and left the Home in the early part of the twentieth century. Why did an Italian immigrant father bring six of his 12 children to board at the Home for a year in 1910? What happened to the 12 year-old boy who was adopted on 3-month “trial” but was returned to the Home because “he could not perform the work expected” as a farm laborer? While answers to such specific questions are not always available, Cope's research reveals cumulative patterns that provide important insights into the social construction of childhood and its lived reality. 

Meghan Cope is a Professor in the Geography Department at UVM. Her work focuses on critical urban theory, historical geography, and geographies of children and youth. Her work employs mixed methods (qualitative and quantitative) and engages with new tools of digital scholarship and data visualization.

The event is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Special Collections at or (802) 656-2138.