Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption

Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption

Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption

Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption


Strangers and Kin is the history of adoption, a quintessentially American institution in its buoyant optimism, generous spirit, and confidence in social engineering. An adoptive mother herself, Barbara Melosh tells the story of how married couples without children sought to care for and nurture other people's children as their own. It says much about the American experience of family across the twentieth century and our shifting notions of kinship and assimilation. Above all, it speaks of real people striving to make families out of strangers.

In the early twentieth century, childless adults confronted orphanages reluctant to entrust their wards to the kindness of strangers. By the 1930s, however, the recently formed profession of social work claimed a new expertise--the science and art of child placement--and adoption became codified in law. It flourished in the United States, reflecting our ethnic diversity, pluralist ideals, and pragmatic approach to family. Then, in the 1960s, as the sexual revolution reshaped marriage, motherhood, and women's work, adoption became a less attractive option and the number of adoptive families precipitously declined. Taking this history into the early twenty-first century, Melosh offers unflinching insight to the contemporary debates that swirl around adoption: the challenges to adoption secrecy; the ethics and geopolitics of international adoption; and the conflicts over transracial adoption.

This gripping history is told through poignant stories of individuals, garnered from case records long inaccessible to others, and captures the profound losses and joys that make adoption a lifelong process.


This book would not have been possible without the generosity and trust of those who maintain the records of the Children’s Bureau of Delaware (CBD). My heartfelt thanks to Iris Synder and Lisa Reticker, who first alerted me to these records and encouraged me to think I might be able to gain access to them. The CBD no longer exists as an organization, but the several social agencies that succeeded it have been faithful stewards of its records and of the adoptive families whose stories are told in them. Al Synder believed in the importance of the history of adoption and trusted me to use the records to tell that story. Lydia Durbin supplied me with useful background information and assisted my work at the agency in many ways large and small. Typical of both her thoughtfulness and sense of humor, she supplied me with a table and chair in the corridor outside the record room, and dignified my labors with a printed sign over it: “Center for the Study of the History of Adoption.”

I also wish to acknowledge the prodigious memory and faithful stewardship of Susan Burns. When I first began to use the records, I was pleased, and also puzzled, to encounter newspaper clippings in many of them that supplied information about adoptive families years after their contact with the CBD ended. The mystery was solved one day when I met Susan in the record room, filing clippings in the records of clients she still remembered. Later, I benefited from her detailed comments and criticisms as she read a full draft of the manuscript.

I have used those records under the terms of a confidentiality agree-

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