THE ADOPTION of the cottage plan by the New York Juvenile Asylum had been one maneuver in an ongoing struggle between adults and children for the control of the institution. By organizing the inmates into cottage-sized groupings, the managers of the asylum sought to diminish the influence that the children had over one another and to increase the influence of the asylum's adult staff. But the cottage system also represented an institutional response to external criticism. It was the orphanage's answer to the charge that the lockstep order of the asylum stifled the development of individual character, or that the concentration of children in institutions exposed the innocent to contamination by the vicious. As a bar against moral contamination, the cottage plan allowed for the segregation of children according to conduct and habits. As an antidote to the stultifying effects of "machinelife," cottage plan orphanages relaxed the formal mechanisms of institutional discipline in favor of the informal authority of cottage parents.
But the efforts of orphanages to become homelike, instead of lifting them above criticism, only opened them to new lines of complaint. By trying to imitate families, they implicitly acknowledged that their childrearing capabilities were inferior to those of the family household. The cottage plan was the homage that the orphanage paid to the home, and the same deference was evident in a variety of more superficial measures by which orphan asylums tried to claim affinity with families.