Escape from shame or vacation from family? The market for private infant homes and children's boarding houses 1915-1975

This project is about the commercial child care in Sweden that existed in parallel to the development of the welfare state during the 20th century. More specifically, it deals with private maternity and infant care as well as private children's hotels (Sw. barnpensionat) run by entrepreneurs operating alongside the state and philanthropy.

Private providers and commercial profit are features of today’s Swedish welfare society, but the market was already an arena for the production, distribution and consumption of such services by the early twentieth century. The historical significance of profit within welfare is not well known in Sweden, whose welfare state’s universalistic principles have had strong symbolic significance. Children, in particular, have been perceived as a collective responsibility, and a uniform childhood for all children has been understood as an important outcome of the welfare state. In effect, children growing up in private-sector care, including those provided for profit, have been rendered invisible.

The private market made it possible for parents to pay to free themselves from their children for a shorter or longer time, in some cases forever. Giving birth out of wedlock was associated for centuries with shame, economic burden, and secrecy. Unmarried pregnant women could escape stigma by travelling away from home and purchasing a confinement elsewhere. They could hide there when the pregnancy started to show, give birth, have their children adopted or sent to foster care, and then return home. Children’s hotels, on the other hand, constituted a flexible childcare service where parents could place their children for longer periods when they themselves went on holiday, worked or needed to rest. The project dwells on the cost of not being able to afford a child, and about those who had the resources to buy their children what was marketed as a happy and healthy childhood, and the means to buy themselves time.

While many of the philanthropic child welfare institutions were subsequently integrated into public welfare, commercial and privately run maternity homes and children’s hotels vanished when the modern welfare state expanded. As such, they represent a category of for-profit institutions that did not achieve the transition from the private to the public sector, which makes a study of them an investigation into the anomalies of the developing welfare state.


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