New Haven in 1878 seemed to be bursting at the seams. Every day, newcomers from Europe streamed into the city, bringing the population from 20,000 in 1850 to 100,000 in 1900.
Many immigrants found jobs in New Haven’s homes, shops and factories, especially in garment factories like Strouse-Adler. Founded in 1878 as the Mothers’ Aid Society of New Haven by a local group of wealthy women who recognized that women who worked all day were often forced to leave their children “locked in their rooms exposed to all casualties from fire or falls and with no food except a cold lunch. It is such neglected waifs,” the President of the Mothers’ Aid Society wrote in 1885, “for whom the Nursery cares.”
The school was renamed Leila Day Nursery in 1885 in memory of Leila Ingersoll Gauss, a board member’s relative who died at ten years of age. The Nursery’s first long-term home was on Greene Street in the Wooster Square neighborhood, near where many of New Haven’s Italian and Irish immigrants lived and amidst the factories where they worked.
Leila Day is the second oldest continuously operating nursery school in America. Beginning in Boston in the 1840’s, similar groups were founding a network of day nurseries (as an alternative to orphanages) to provide day care for children of working mothers. This care, provided to babies and young children included providing meals, cribs for napping, and activities including outdoor play and excursions.
Leila Day’s mission was stated in the Mothers’ Aid Society’s first annual report, issued in 1883 as follows: …. to help the poor hard working women of New Haven, by relieving them of the care of their children during the day and to improve those children physically and morally, so that as they grow up they may become intelligent, honest and well-to-do members of the community, instead of inmates of the poor house or penitentiary. Experience shows that it is with the little children we must commence….
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