Changing Pictures of Childhood: A Comparative History of Child Welfare in Westborough

Note: This exhibit is currently on display at the Westborough Public Library.


Established in Westborough in 1848, the State Reform School for Boys (later known as the Lyman School for Boys) was the first publicly financed reform school in the country. The Lyman School closed in 1971, but its historical legacy continues to draw attention to issues of child welfare today. 

Before the State Reform School for Boys was founded, however, a different approach to child welfare was practiced in Westborough. Pauper apprenticeship was a common way for towns to address childhood poverty and troubled children in colonial New England. This form of child welfare lasted through the 1820’s, when fast-growing urban centers, changing demographics, and new ideas about childhood in the middle of the nineteenth century led to the adoption of more institutional approaches towards addressing the needs of troubled youths.

Different ideas about children’s needs shape these two child welfare practices, so the items in this exhibit give us the chance to consider how the notion of childhood itself has changed over time. The indentured servant contracts spell out the terms and conditions under which poor children who could no longer be supported by their families would live and work under their new masters. Photographs of boys at the Lyman School taken roughly one hundred years later present snapshots of what the school thought was important about educating and molding boys into becoming productive members of society. The exhibit concludes with a movie chronicling daily life at the Lyman School that was filmed in 1946 as part of its one hundred year anniversary celebration.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Go to the next page in the exhibit: Pauper Apprenticeship – Childhood in Early America.

Works Consulted for the Exhibit

Items in this exhibit are from the following collections held at the Westborough Public Library: Historical Records of the Town of Westborough: Administrative Documents, 1724-1929, The Robert Cleaves Collection of Lyman School Records, and Records of the Lyman School for Boys [State Reform School]

Fass, Paula S. The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2016.

Herndon, Ruth Wallis. “Children of Misfortune: Growing up Poor in Early New England.” Presented to the Boston Area Early American History Seminar, Massachusetts Historical Society, December 6, 2011.

Herndon, Ruth Wallis and John E. Murray. Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2009.

Leaf, James Gillespie. A History of the Internal Organization of the State Reform School for Boys at Westborough, Massachusetts (1846-1974). Doctoral Thesis, Graduate School of Education of Harvard University, 1988.

Mintz, Steven. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap P of Harvard U,  2004.

Mintz, Steven and Susan Kellogg. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: The Free P, 1988.

Murray, John E. and Ruth Wallis Herndon. “Markets for Children in Early America: A Political Economy of Pauper Apprenticeship.” The Journal of Economic History, 62:2 (June 2002), 356-382.

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Go to the next page in the exhibit: Pauper Apprenticeship – Childhood in Early America.

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