Edina Gál

Losing one parent before coming-of-age was a common occurrence in the past and orphans usually remained in the care of the surviving parent, grandparents or close relatives. Only a very small percent was institutionalised in orphanages or boarding schools with places reserved for orphans, while others received aids from charitable associations. By 1910 there were 110 orphanages in Hungary, housing in total 4514 children. 51% of the orphanages were sustained by the churches, while 17% by women’s associations.[1] Jelentés és statisztikai évkönyv a m. kir. kormány 1910. évi működéséről és az ország közállapotairól (Budapest: Athenaeum, 1911), 402. In Transylvania there were 25 orphanages.[2]A fiatalkorúak támogatására hivatott jótékonycélú intézmények Magyarországon. Eds.: Béla Kun, János Marschalkó and Rottenbiller Fülöp (Budapest, 1911).
Alongside the church charitable organizations were founded and sustained by the elites. Offering aid for the poor and the orphans was an unwritten social duty of the wealthier classes. In many cases this meant attending the many charitable balls organised by the associations. These donations also added to one’s prestige, and of course, the donors were mentioned by name in the annual reports. The public was very compassionate about orphans, and because of their young age when they are easily educated, they were seen as the hard-working and virtuous citizens of the future generation. Modesty was the main principle in their upbringing and orphanages only the most talented were offered the possibility of social mobility as expressed in the second yearbook of the Mária Valéria Orphanage for Girls in Cluj/Kolozsvár: “the pupils receive an education appropriate for their simple, humble condition […] so later they would become good housemaids, housewives and working women[3]A kolozsvári árvaház évkönyve 1874. évről (Kolozsvár, 1875), 4.
The Mária Valéria Orphanage for Girls in Cluj was founded in 1872 by an association lead by Mrs. Ignác Bornemissa Klára Katona, separated from the local charitable women’s association. It functioned until 1948. Until 1918 the institution generally housed 40 girls. They admitted girls between ages 6−10 who remained in the institution until 14−16. The pupils came not only from the city of Cluj, but from various towns and villages of Transylvania, and in 1879 for example they offered to accommodate two girls from the flood-stricken Szeged. Girls were accepted regardless of nationality and religion. Most were Hungarian, but there were a few Romanian and Saxon girls too each year.
All girls wore a uniform to avoid discrimination and their own dresses were sold and the money placed into the orphan’s savings. At admittance they received two blue dresses, a wool coat, three skirts, four shirts, two pairs of boots and a pair of shoes, completed with other accessories, including bedsheets and straw mattress. Needlework and household activities took up a significant part of their daily schedule, and their works were sold with profit at charitable events as a modest contribution to the annual budget. Their broideries were exposed and awarded at the National Women’s Industry Exhibition in Budapest, 1881.
Some children came from precarious backgrounds. The ones with bruises, or skin diseases were first sent to the hospital before entering the orphanage. Still, closed institutions housing many children facilitated the spreading of diseases. The 1878 diphtheria epidemic in Cluj effected the Mária Valéria Orphanage too, where three-quarters of the pupils were infected and eight had died. This event urged the association to extend the building, initially designed for fewer children.
Others, like the Beder sisters presumably came from a poor family leaving at five (or more) orphans behind. One of the two sisters admitted in the orphanage died during the diphtheria epidemic. The older sister, Biri, after four years in the orphanage, according to the board-meeting records became a problem-child and they had decided to discharge her, because they were afraid that she would commit suicide like three of her sisters. (Such an event would ruin the reputation of the orphanage.) According to the board she was incurably idiotic and delirious and her surviving brother was asked to take her home. His brother finally took her and the news “was received with joy” by the board members.
One of the biggest concern for orphanage boards in general was to assure the necessary skills to earn a decent living after exiting the orphanage. Preparing the protegees to sustain themselves was crucial, so they wouldn’t live in misery seeking the aids of charitable associations, or even worse, resort to theft, begging and other immoral ways of money-making. According to the yearbooks some were “blindfolded by the splendour of the outside world” as grownups. This affirmation however was more likely to highlight the many successes of the orphanage contrasted by the few who failed. Charity thus was not only about altruism. Criminality was perceived to be closely linked to deep poverty. Offering accommodation and education for orphans coming from such environments was also perceived as saving someone from becoming a burden and a threat to society. In the festive speeches recorded in the yearbooks the board members vividly (and exaggeratedly) describe the noble mission of the orphanage to raise useful citizens by “taking the neglected orphans from the miserable, sometimes sinful environment […] and taking them through a so-called purgatory, which cleans her body from the disgusting illnesses, the sins of their birth and her soul from the seeds of inherited sins.[4]A kolozsvári „Mária Valéria” árvaház évkönyve 1885. évről (Kolozsvár, 1886), 3.
Professional training was easier for boys, because they could be placed as apprentices and learn a craft. Girls however had very few options at the time and most of them were placed as housemaids. Household service at the time was the most common and sometimes the only option for young girls to earn a dowry and some experience, regardless whether they were orphans or not, and usually it was only a temporary phase. Others returned to their families: as teenagers they weren’t a burden anymore but could contribute to the household work or earn money. The Mária Valéria Orphanage still supervised its pupils placed in household service until they turned 18. Parts of their wages were retained by the orphanage and were handed over to the girls as savings at coming-of-age. Some however rebelled against their faith, and two girls ran away from their master’s household after placed in service. The girls were punished with 48 hours of solitary confinement and after that the orphanage ceased any supervision on them. This event wasn’t mentioned in the yearbooks.
With the development of industry girls’ work options increased. In the 1930s some girls from the Mária Valéria orphanage were placed to the Dermata shoe factory. Before 1918 only a few protegees had the possibility to learn a craft (e. g. ceramic painter) and get a job other than a housemaid. Needlework and cutting were one of the main activities of the girls in the orphanage and a few were placed as apprentices to tailors. The most talented orphans were offered the possibility of further studies and became teachers or received special training as kindergarten teachers (two of them attending the courses in Budapest). These cases however were exceptional and most remained with the elementary studies from the orphanage school. Mrs. Ignác Bornemisza was outraged when the board intended to shorten the curriculum of the orphanage school. The initiative nevertheless shows that some of the board members, despite being educated women, considered that the orphan girls from modest backgrounds destined to become maids and housewives don’t need too much theoretical knowledge. Their possibilities, livelihoods as adults were presumably very similar to other girls coming from poor and numerous families where parents couldn’t offer much more than moral support and children were forced to work from a very early age.

The Archives of the Reformed Diocese of Transylvania, Fond D 3: The documents of the Mária Valéria Orphanage for Girls, Cluj. (Erdélyi Református Egyházkerület Központi Gyűjtőlevéltára, D 3 – A kolozsvári Mária Valéria Árvalánynevelő Intézet iratai)
A kolozsvári [„Mária Valéria”] árvaház évkönyve [1872/73–1917] évről. I–XLIV. 1874–1918, Kolozsvár.
A fiatalkorúak támogatására hivatott jótékonycélú intézmények Magyarországon. Eds.: Béla Kun, János Marschalkó and Rottenbiller Fülöp (Budapest, 1911).
Jelentés és statisztikai évkönyv a m. kir. kormány 1910. évi működéséről és az ország közállapotairól (Budapest: Athenaeum, 1911).

The Girls of the Mária Valéria Orphanage in Cluj


1 Jelentés és statisztikai évkönyv a m. kir. kormány 1910. évi működéséről és az ország közállapotairól (Budapest: Athenaeum, 1911), 402.
2 A fiatalkorúak támogatására hivatott jótékonycélú intézmények Magyarországon. Eds.: Béla Kun, János Marschalkó and Rottenbiller Fülöp (Budapest, 1911).
3 A kolozsvári árvaház évkönyve 1874. évről (Kolozsvár, 1875), 4.
4 A kolozsvári „Mária Valéria” árvaház évkönyve 1885. évről (Kolozsvár, 1886), 3.