SJCS Stories

A View of St. John’s Children’s Home

Pat Gieger and her sister spent five years in the St. John’s Children’s Home in the 1920’s after their parents divorced. In 1966, she wrote some of her memories from that time. Below are excerpts related to her time at the home. For more information about Pat and to read the full story, visit the family history blog.

Historic photo of a group of children posing with a push reel mower

Children during a summer at the country home

It was the summer, 1925 and the day to which I had looked forward to two years had arrived. This was to be the first day of my five-year residence at St. John’s Orphanage in Washington, D.C. Why would I look forward to going to an orphanage? My sister, Elizabeth, has been there for two years; I had to wait until I was five. I wanted to be with my sister. Most people, including my own children, feel sorry for me when learning I spent five years in an orphanage.  The truth is, I was far more fortunate than those children left alone all day, many of whom never ate as well as I, nor slept in a nice clean bed, nor had their every physical and spiritual need met.

Since it was summer, the children were living at the “country home” on Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia. When school started they would return to the “city home” at 1922 F Street, NW, Washington, D.C. My entrance to St. John’s may not have been grand, but it was certainly memorable. Immediately upon arriving at the orphanage I asked for Elizabeth and was directed around the corner of the main building. I set off at a run, fell on the gravel path, tore up my knee and was escorted to the infirmary. All this, even before I was officially registered. I still have two pale purple scars to remind me of my first day at St. John’s.

Historic photo of the summer home of St. John's Orphanage, located in Arlington

Country Home in Arlington, VA

The children at St. John’s, few of whom were full orphans, most having one remaining parent or being children of divorce, were divided into little girls, big girls, little boys, and big boys. I was never in the boy’s quarters – no co-ed housing here – but I assume the big boys were again divided as were the big girls, into “insects,” “juniors” and “seniors.” There were only two senior girls who shared a room adjacent to that of the governess, Mrs. Alford, the mother of one of the seniors. The “big girls” were really not very big since I started at age five as a “little girl” and advanced by the age of 10 to the “juniors.”

Each group of boys and girls had a governess. There were also four Sisters of St. Margaret: Sister Cora, who was very much in charge, Sister Emily, Sister Eleanor and Sister Eleanora. There was a cook, a yardman, and in the summer, a gardener who grew all the vegetables consumed by the residents. There was a full-time nurse in the infirmary plus a doctor and dentist who visited on a regular schedule. There was a hospital within walking distance of the city home which was a great convenience. I once walked there accompanied by a governess, holding a towel to my split chin, the result of an accident while showing off my acrobatic prowess. Another scar to add to my memories of St. John’s.

In the 1920’s there was little organized child care, no pre-school or Head Start. Foster homes were in their infancy and still a subject of controversy. When my parents divorced, Mother had no choice but to place us in St. John’s, the best decision she ever made regarding our care. If parents could afford to pay for their children’s care, they paid what they could. If they could not, they were not required to do so. Each child was treated the same whether or not they were paid for. If parents could not afford Easter baskets, for instance, the home, which is what we always called St. John’s, provided them. Everyone received Christmas presents, many of them donated by caring people or organizations who also donated turkeys at Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Whether or not our parents could afford to pay for our keep, we also had to “work” for it. Even the youngest children were required to make their beds each morning and the older we were, the larger our tasks. Two or three children were assigned the task of cleaning the bathroom (there was a separate bathroom for each group of children) for a week. The following week they would move on to another job: doing the laundry, cleaning the playroom, helping in the kitchen and dining rooms (the boys and girls have separate dining rooms), mopping and dusting the dorms, etc. None of the work we were asked to do was beyond our abilities and while we complained as all children do when asked to perform chores, it was good training for the future.

We attended public school, walking to school in groups with a governess.  I attended Grant School for kindergarten through 5th grade.  Every now and then on the way home from school, we would stop at Quigley’s drugstore.  This was the typical drug store of the ‘20s, complete with now- called ice cream tables and chairs with bent wire backs.  Beside one of these tables was a large wire basket filled with unwrapped cakes of soap of every shape and color.  More than anything in this world I wanted a cake of that soap to call my own.  At the home, we shared the soap which was either white or tan, what was then called common soap.  Now that I can have any cake of soap I wish, what do I use?  White Ivory 99-94/100% pure.

Historic photo of the orphanage's city residence

City Home on F Street near downtown Washington

Once a year Thurston, the magician, came to the home and put on a show.  Every Easter Monday we went en masse to roll our eggs on the White House lawn.  One day each summer Wonder Bread, Fussels Ice Cream, and other local companies took over Glen Echo Amusement Park in nearby Maryland and brought the children from all the city’s orphanages to the park for the day.  All rides were free and refreshments were plentiful.  I remember the Fussels ice cream which came in pre-wrapped squares of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate or vanilla, chocolate and orange ice combinations.  There were hot dogs served, of course, on Wonder Bread rolls and plenty of other goodies.

During the school year when we lived in the city home, we went every Saturday to the Circle Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., where we were admitted free of charge.  Allan B. Scott of Commerce, Georgia, who lived at St. John’s from 1915 through 1923, shares this memory.  “The Circle movie theater allowed us to come on Saturday’s free.  We only had to say ‘St. John’s’ to be admitted.  They never seemed to notice that kids from the neighborhood also joined the St. John’s line.” In order to attend the movies, we had to “get our marks.”  This meant that during the week we had behaved ourselves and had received no bad marks against our record.

My sister and I were actually second-generation orphanage residents.  My father and my two uncles lived at the German Orphan Asylum in Southeast Washington when they were boys.  If life at St. John’s was any indicator, children living in orphanages, at least in Washington, D.C. were treated very well, not only by those responsible for their care but by the general public as well.