Last updated: March 19, 2019
One of America’s oldest girls training schools, the Lancaster Industrial School for Girls was established in 1854 as one of the most progressive correctional institutions for women of its day. Throughout the 19th century, state governments struggled with how to best deal with youthful law-breakers and vagrants. Some states began to provide correctional facilities, often known as “Industrial Schools,” while other states continued to incarcerate “delinquents.” For example, in 1854, the same year that Massachusetts appropriated $20,000 for the Lancaster Industrial School for Girls to “correct” improper behavior, the Wisconsin judicial system sentenced a 9 year-old boy to a maximum security state prison.
Institutions like the Lancaster Industrial School led the way in social reform, copying a cottage system created in France that emphasized a wholesome, family-like atmosphere and the opportunity to rise above the “low life” slums from which Victorians assumed delinquent children came from. Providing individual rooms for each girl rather than in crowded dormitories, the architecture of the Lancaster Industrial School was as progressive as its goals. The girls were housed in eight, three-floor cottages. A parlor, sewing and dining room, kitchen, laundry, and schoolroom were on the first floor. The housemother, a teacher, and the girls lived on the second floor, with each room providing the relative luxuriousness of a single bed, chair, bureau, and corner closet. Special teachers lived in apartments on the third floor.
As schools like the Lancaster Industrial School proved that reform efforts worked far better than prison time, other states began to establish schools for troubled adolescents (Wisconsin had one by 1859). By the late 19th century, “Industrial Schools” with an emphasis on reform had become commonplace, a method that many states continue to implement today.