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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States: Institutional Records  by Amy Johnson Crow, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


It is important to realize that words today did not necessarily have the same meaning in the time of our ancestors. When working with institutional records, researchers sometimes come across terms that in today’s society are derogatory or prejudicial. All records, including those of institutions, need to be read and evaluated in the context in which they were created.

Today, we do not send students to the ‘Institution for the Deaf and Dumb’. We do not find orphans in the ‘Home for Friendless Colored Children’. We do not treat children in the ‘Asylum for Feeble-Minded Youth’. Yet these are typical names of institutions into the early 20th century.

The following are some common terms in institutional records. The definitions are general; specific uses of each word may carry a different meaning or connotation depending on the specific context in which it was used:

  • Almshouse—a house for the care of the poor or indigent.
  • Asylum—a place for the care of the physically or mentally challenged. Sometimes used as a term for any institution, including schools.
  • Bastard—a child born to an unwed mother.
  • Confinement—pertaining to the time around childbirth (often seen as a cause of admittance in county homes); also the modern meaning of being held apart from society.
  • County home—a government institution for the care of the poor and infirm. Often served as a de facto orphanage.
  • Deaf and dumb (or deaf-mute)—unable to hear or speak.
  • Feeble-minded—describing one who is considered to have mental deficiencies. Today, these conditions would be categorized as various forms of mental retardation or as learning disabilities.
  • Friendless children—orphans.
  • Grass widow—a divorced woman or a wife separated from or abandoned by her husband; sometimes refers to an unmarried mother. (Sometimes seen as a cause of admittance in county homes.)
  • Idiotic—describing one ‘whose mental facilities was arrested in infancy or childhood before coming to maturity.’
  • Imbecilic - technically, one having a mental age of between three and seven years; often used interchangeably with ‘idiotic’ and ‘feeble-minded’.
  • Inmate - one who is institutionalized; can refer to one in any type of institution, including asylums, orphanages, state schools, or prisons.
  • Insane - a broad term describing one who has any number of disorders resulting in dementia, senility, etc. Epileptics and stroke patients were often categorized as insane.
  • Lunatic - often used interchangeably with idiotic, imbecilic or insane.
  • Orphan - a minor not under the care of his or her parents or guardian.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: Institutional Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.