Virginia Thrall Smith (1836 – 1903)
Born in 1836 to Hiram and Melissa Crawford Thrall, Virginia Thrall Smith was educated at the Suffield Institute, the Hartford Female Seminary and Mount Holyoke Seminary. At the age of 21, Virginia married William B. Smith, a tailor and clothier, on New Year’s Eve in 1857. They lived in Hartford and had six children, three of whom died in infancy.
In 1876, Smith was appointed missionary by the City Missionary Society. The organization was designed to aid the city’s poor through comfort, guidance and resources. Smith established a loan system whereby people could obtain small loans to meet their most pressing needs regardless of their financial status. As missionary, Smith also organized the Women’s Sewing Class and Reading Society, the Singing School for Girls, and the Boys Club.
In 1879, Smith began to focus on assisting children. Two years later, in 1881, Smith started the first free kindergarten in the state. Although extremely successful, the City Missionary Society was not large enough to continue to undertake the kindergarten system. As a result, the Free Kindergarten Association was formed to oversee this new schooling option. In 1885, the Association advocated for a law authorizing the establishment of kindergartens in the public schools throughout the state, which passed unanimously.
In 1882, Smith was elected to the Connecticut State Board of Charities and was responsible for visiting the state’s almshouses and poor farms. The conditions in which these children lived were deplorable, and Smith lobbied the legislature to forbid the commitment of destitute children to such places. The legislature passed an act requiring each county to establish appropriate temporary residences for dependent and neglected children. However, the act did not extend to children with permanent mental or physical disabilities.
Also during this time, Smith was actively aiding unwed mothers by finding them homes and care during their pregnancy and then placing their children in appropriate foster care situations until the child could be adopted. By 1892, Smith was being criticized for encouraging immoral behavior and managing “baby farms.” Ultimately, the attacks resulted in Smith resigning from the City Missionary Society, and she formed the Connecticut Children’s Aid Society.
In 1895, Smith purchased a home in Wethersfield to care for ill and abandon children but, not unlike today, people in the community were upset about the addition of this home in their community. In 1896, two attempts to establish similar homes in Plainville were voted down, and in 1897, opponents of a similar home in Hartford argued that it was too close to the trolley line, and people riding the trolley would find the appearance of the children to be too painful. In 1898, Smith identified a location in Newington that was approved by the town to meet the needs of dependent, sick and incurable children. The property consisted of 56 acres and was a working farm. The staff and residents utilized the farms resources by growing all their own food, including vegetables, meats, eggs and milk. By 1901, 41 children were living on the property and a second building was needed to accommodate the children. Having achieved several accomplishments, Virginia Thrall Smith died in 1903 at the age of 67.
In October 1986, Smith’s property, which had become Newington Children’s Hospital, agreed to consolidate its pediatric services with Hartford Hospital. The result was the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, which opened on April 2, 1996 and is the only independent hospital in Connecticut exclusively serving children. Today, Virginia Thrall Smith is recognized as being one of the pioneers for the improvement of child welfare. Also of note, Smith’s son, Winchell Smith, became a notable playwright.
Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. Virginia Thrall Smith. Accessed at http://www.cwhf.org/browse_hall/hall/people/smiths-virginia-thrall.php on August 30, 2010.
Donahue, Barbara. “They Called It ‘The Home for Incurables’.” Connecticut’s Heritage Gateway. Accessed at http://www.ctheritage.org/encyclopedia/HRJ/HomeforIncurables.htm on August 30, 2010. Originally published in the Hog River Journal, Feb/Mar/Apr 2004.
Wintonbury Historical Society. Old Farm School History. Accessed at http://www.bloomfieldcthistory.org/Our_Properties/Old_Farm_School/OFS_History/ofs_history.html on August 31, 2010. www.hogriver.org.
Photo Credit: Virginia Thrall Smith, Public Domain