In 1886, it took a group of two dozen young women, age 18, 19 or 20, to introduce New Bedford to the concept of day care for the small children of factory workers, many of them moms.
In those days, explains Gig Lang, corresponding secretary of the New Bedford Day Nursery Fund Inc., small children were more typically left alone at home with an older child, or even left alone.
Marguerite “Gig” Lang, wife of former Mayor Scott Lang, said day care had been established for years in France and England, but for Americans it was something new.
And a little suspicious.
When 23 unmarried women and one married one formed the New Bedford Day Nursery in 1886, it had been obvious for years that families couldn’t keep going the way they were, that pre-school children needed someone to watch over them during the day.
According to a history of the group written by Ruth Nicolaci and Francine Weeks, those forward-looking young women worked tirelessly to gather what they would need: chairs, toys, tables, staff and space in a house near enough to the factories to be convenient.
It nearly failed. Parents were not convinced at first that day care could be trusted, and failed to enroll their children. It took years of persistence to bring in the children at the rate of 10 cents per day to be sheltered, fed and otherwise looked after in safety.
But the Day Nursery eventually succeeded where others failed. It took root and grew, moving several times to larger quarters to accommodate more children.
Over the years it struggled with the budget, with strikes shutting down the mills, with diphtheria epidemics that kept everyone at home.
Society changed, too. The roster of the Board of Managers over the years tells that tale. Until the turn of the 20th century, it was almost always young, unmarried women who looked after children and served as management. We called them all “miss” and recorded their first and last names.
Then, abruptly, the first names disappeared into history as married women who went by their husband’s names occupied almost all the seats on the board. Finally, in the post-World War II years the board made note of the first names of all of its members, and that’s the way it is today.
The New Bedford Day Nursery is a memory now, a fond one for those who went there as a child. It’s home for 75 years at 1060 Cove St. was closed and sold in 1997. It had become impossible to go on. “The neighborhood had become so bad with drug addicts and watchdogs outside the play areas, attack dogs. That was scary,” Nicolaci said.
There was also competition from the state, which had started expanding its day care programs in the schools. That and the fact that the factories that employed all those young mothers are largely gone, means that the Day Nursery’s fate was sealed.
When it closed, it was the second longest-running day care center in America, said Lang.
Today the group is known as the New Bedford Day Nursery Fund Inc., a registered nonprofit that distributes grant money from its endowment of more than $800,000. Any organization that somehow serves the needs of children, especially in the South End, may apply for some of the $45,000 that the Day Nursery gives away each year.
Lang, who manages the application process, says new groups are welcome, but it is some of the more established ones that are the most gratifying: Sea Lab; the symphony; Dennison Memorial in the South End, which used its grant for a new floor in the basketball gym. The list of awards is long and includes churches, libraries, museums, schools.
That’s quite a list, considering in its first year only a single application came in for the grant money.
Applicants can get to know more about the fund by asking for an application from Lang at GigLang@yahoo.com. Completed applications are due by May 31, and the fund’s fall quarterly meeting will make the funding decisions. Good luck.
Steve Urbon’s column appears in The Standard-Times and SouthCoastToday.com. He can be reached at 508-979-4448 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the Standard Times on April 28th, 2014 – see original article