The solutions for parentless (and unparented) children have varied tremendously over history and they vary, in part, based on the particular technological, economic, and cultural realities of the time.  For more than 75 years, one answer was the orphan train.  

In the 1850s,

…thousands of children roamed the streets of New York in search of money, food and shelter–prey to disease and crime. Many sold matches, rags, or newspapers to survive.  For protection against street violence, they banded together and formed gangs. Police, faced with a growing problem, were known to arrest vagrant children–some as young as five–locking them up with adult criminals (PBS).

At the same time, farmers in the country were having as many kids as they could because kids were great farm labor.  They could use as many hands as they could get. 

So, in 1853, a minister named Charles Loring Brace started the orphan train.  Brace believed that farmers would welcome homeless children, take them into their homes, and treat them as their own.  So he rounded up the kids, got parental permission when he needed it, and took the city kids to the country.  Between 1854 and 1929, the trains took over 100,000 children to adoptive parents in 47 states and Canada.

On the orphan train (image here):


Children lined up to board the train (1920) (image here):



The orphan train in Michigan:


Orphan train children (images here):



Howard with his adoptive parents, the Darnells (1910) (image here):


Orphan train children with their chaperones in Bowling Green (1910) (image here):


An ad and a news story from the Tecumseh Cheiftan (1893) and Nehama County Herald (1915) respectively (found here):tecumseh