Library offers exhibit on history of child welfare in Westborough

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By Cindy Zomar, Education Coordinator

A boy looks wistfully out the bedroom window at the State Reform School for Boys.
A boy looks wistfully out the bedroom window at the State Reform School for Boys.
(Photos/Courtesy Westborough Public Library)

WESTBOROUGH –  A current exhibit at the Westborough Public Library is focusing on illuminating the differences in the culture and practice of child welfare throughout history.

Titled “Changing Pictures of Childhood: A Comparative History of Child Welfare in Westborough,” the exhibit particularly showcases a donation of photos from the Lyman School for Boys. 

Local History Librarian Anthony Vaver knew that the collection deserved to be exhibited, and he remembered another collection of servitude contracts he had cataloged. 

 A boy works on the farm at the Lyman School for Boys.
A boy works on the farm at the Lyman School for Boys.
(Photos/Courtesy Westborough Public Library)

Those contracts alone didn’t provide enough visual impact. But, in a discussion with Library Director Maureen Amyot, the idea to combine the collections to compare and contrast the child welfare system through history came to life. 

“I was going to do a small exhibit at the Westborough Center, but Maureen pointed to the big wall in the main library and told me to take it, too,” Vaver recalled. 

Vaver thought about the model for an ideal childhood as we perceive it now. He then wanted to show how concepts change over time. 

“History shows us how we look at things differently in different times, and this exhibit was a means to explore the history of childhood and child welfare,” he continued.

 

Child welfare evolved over centuries 

Boys gather around a teacher at the Lyman School for Boys.
Boys gather around a teacher at the Lyman School for Boys.
(Photos/Courtesy Westborough Public Library)

In the late 1700s and into the 19th century, children who were orphaned or taken from their homes because of poverty, abuse, or neglect became a ward of the town. As such, they were made into “pauper apprentices.” 

They were thought of as tiny adults rather than as children. 

Contracts were signed with expectations for education and work for both the contract owners and the children. Girls were usually under contract until they turned twenty-one, while boys were generally on their own at eighteen. 

The education required from their “masters” focused on teaching children various trades. This was to the family’s benefit as the more labor the child could do, the more successful the family could become, whether it was through farming, sewing, weaving, or other trades. 

The culture, however, began to shift to a more protective mode for children near the middle of the 19th century. 

Boys on a basketball team at the Lyman School for Boys.
(Photos/Courtesy Westborough Public Library)

Rather than being thought of as another hired hand, children were beginning to be seen as individuals with potential. Childhood was a time to prepare them for adulthood. Those children unfortunate enough to be homeless, for whatever reason, were institutionalized.  

In 1848, Westborough became home to the first publicly financed reform school for boys in the country.  

The State Reform School for Boys was situated near Lake Chauncey until 1884, when the “Westborough Insane Hospital” took that site and the school moved to Powder Hill. There, it was renamed “the Lyman School for Boys,” remaining open until 1971.

At the school, the boys were still required to work on the school farm and do other chores. But academic classes were now a part of each day’s schedule. 

Unfortunately, overcrowding was inevitable, and boys were grouped with no deference to their circumstances or whether they were dangerous or not. 

 

Exhibit to remain open through September 

Farming chores were required at the Lyman School for Boys.
(Photos/Courtesy Westborough Public Library)

The new library exhibit shares many photos from these periods in time and concludes with a narrated film made for the Lyman School’s fiftieth anniversary. 

Amyot has seen people going through the exhibit and pausing to read cards accompanying the photos. 

“They are taking their time and contemplating it and that’s what you want to see,” she said. 

“If you enter from the library, read the labels for the photos and contracts, but to go deeper, use the QR codes provided, which take you immediately to the online version,” urged Vaver. “There are also handouts available. I have included some open-ended questions to help patrons think more like historians, asking about what the photographer is trying to say with each photo.”

As boys were housed at the Lyman School for Boys, the Community Advocate learned that girls were housed at the Lancaster Industrial School for Girls, which opened in 1856 as the first reform school for girls in the country. 

The library exhibit on the history of child welfare will continue through the end of September. It is free to the public during regular library hours. An online version can be seen at https://www.westboroughcenter.org/westborough-history-connections/child-welfare/.

 

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