Since opening in 1923, The Cradle has facilitated over 16,000 domestic and international adoptions and has been at the forefront of open adoption, African American infant adoption and placements with LGBTQ+ identifying families. Follow this timeline to learn more.
Florence Dahl Walrath began her work in adoption through a personal encounter when her sister experienced a miscarriage. Knowing her sister’s desire to be a mother, Florence networked with doctors throughout the community to let them know that she knew a family that wanted to adopt. One day a physician called: One of his patients wanted to place her baby girl for adoption. This baby became Florence’s niece.
Word spread to other couples who wished to adopt. Florence and her husband personally covered the costs of housing babies at Evanston Hospital until Florence could find them a family.
Florence secured the support of five local business leaders who each donated $1,000, the down payment needed to purchase a house at the corner of Ridge and Simpson, 2039 Ridge Avenue in Evanston—the first stand-alone home of The Cradle. (Over the next few years, two adjacent properties were acquired through donations.)
The Cradle opened its doors on February 26, 1923, with a single registered nurse on hand, who graduated from The Cradle’s first infant nurse school graduation that year.
In 1927, thousands of babies died across America due to gastroenteritis, including 27 at The Cradle. During this time, it was The Cradle’s doctors who discovered that the infection came from powdered milk. Since the formula was not boilable, it was not sterile. Within a few weeks, the company that made the formula created a boilable product.
In the years following the 1927 epidemic, The Cradle pioneered additional infant health and safety efforts including early use of antibacterial ultraviolet-light technology to destroy airborne germs, implementing aseptic handwashing techniques, developing color-coded gowns for babies and nurses to enhance security, and creating the nation’s first on-site storehouse at an adoption agency for adoptive parents to purchase necessary furniture and supplies. Our early safe nursery techniques are documented in a book, Aseptic Nursery Technique as Used at The Cradle, 1941.
In the early years, adoptive families from all over the country applied to The Cradle to adopt children. Florence believed if celebrities would adopt, it could help raise awareness of adoption and reduce stigma. Hollywood couple George Burns and Gracie Allen adopted daughter Sandra in 1934 and son Ronnie in 1935.
A groundbreaking took place on June 11, 1938, for the stone building that still serves as our headquarters today. The new facility was dedicated on March 12, 1939. With the new building, The Cradle was able to care for 60 babies across three on-site nurseries. Today, our Nursery is the only on-site nursery at an adoption agency in the United States. Learn more about our Nursery.
Hollywood couple Dolores and Bob Hope adopted their second Cradle baby in 1940 (their first came home in 1939) and two more children in 1946.
As of January 1949, 5,646 babies had been cared for in the Nursery and 4,829 had been placed with families.
Later that year, The Cradle opened Chandler House, a nonsectarian boarding home for expectant unmarried women. Located at 6100 N. Sheridan Road in Chicago, the home offered a supportive, communal living arrangement for 22 women and staff. Chandler House remained open until 1970. Women who needed a place to stay during their pregnancy could reside at Chandler House for a small fee, as was a common practice in adoption in the 50s and 60s.
Florence Walrath retired as managing director in October; Hazel Ferguson became her successor and would work in that role until 1970.
The first annual Elizabeth Arden Fashion Show Benefit for The Cradle also took place. Arden sponsored the fashion show for 17 years, until her death in 1966. It continued as a fundraiser until 1993.
In Spring 1957, construction began on an annex to house a dormitory and classrooms for Cradle nurses and the infant nurse training program. Each year a new class of nurses learned The Cradle’s technique for infant care and graduated from The Cradle’s School of Infant Nursing at the end of the year, until the training program closed in 1978.
The Nursery experienced the highest number of admissions in its history in 1969: 304 babies – a record that stands today.
The Cradle closed Chandler House.
By The Cradle’s 50th year, around 11,400 babies had been cared for in the Nursery and 10,500 had been placed for adoption.
Amid a decline in placements and the rise in assisted reproductive technology, The Cradle evaluated its practices, initiated a capital campaign and hired a new president, Julie Tye. Julie would remain the president until 2016.
In 1994, The Cradle began to facilitate international adoptions and move toward a philosophy of openness in its domestic practice.
Recognizing the need to give expectant women of color a greater choice of adoptive families, The Cradle launched its African American Infant Adoption Program with a focus on adoptive parent recruitment in the African American community.
The entire Cradle facility was renovated in 1999, with a new Nursery.
Also that year, The Cradle renamed its African American infant adoption program in honor of Cradle adoptive dad and Chicago Hall of Famer Member Gale Sayers, and his wife, Ardythe Sayers. The Ardythe and Gale Sayers Center for African American Adoption is one of the only programs in the country that promotes adoption awareness specifically within the African American community and has placed more than 1,000 African American babies in forever families since its inception. The Sayers Center also provides cultural understanding and connectivity to transracial families who have adopted African American and Biracial children, in addition to transracial families who have adopted Black children internationally. Learn more about The Sayers Center.
The Cradle launched its online learning platform, Adoption Learning Partners, in 2002.
From 2002 to 2009, The Cradle Russia program placed Russian-born children with Cradle families in the United States. In 2012, the Russian government banned the adoption of Russian children by Americans; however, The Cradle continues to work with other countries for intercountry adoption.
On May 21, 2010, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill into law providing adopted adults greater access to their birth certificates—without having to get a court order. The Cradle advocated strongly for passage of the law and staff assisted with the writing of the legislation.
The Cradle founded its Our Children initiative, which aims to help families better understand and prepare for the realities and injustices their children may experience.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, The Cradle amended its practices and service delivery to continue to meet client needs. Adoptive parent educational events and post adoption support groups moved online, we shifted Our Children roundtable events online and we increased cleaning and restricted visitation to our Nursery.
In our 100th year, the Cradle staff and Board of Directors are readying the organization for its second century, with even greater impact or children and families. We look forward to celebrating with you!
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