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 or read our historical narrative 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 (and her first placement), Jane Hurlbut Foster.
Word spread to other couples who wished to adopt. Evanston Hospital knew of patients who wished to place their babies for adoption, so Walrath and friends covered the cost of care and eight beds at the hospital until they could find the infants an adoptive home.
As the demand grew for her services, Walrath sought a standalone place to continue her work. In 1923, Walrath secured the support of five business leaders who each donated $1,000, the down payment she needed to purchase a house at 2039 Ridge Avenue in Evanston. Helen Towne donated the remainder of the $15,500 mortgage. Two additional houses—2045 Ridge and 2049 Ridge—were donated to The Cradle a couple of years later.
The Cradle Society opened its doors on March 12, 1923. Volunteer staff included Florence as managing director, with Eleanor Gallagher and Katherine Slade as almost full-time help. A single registered nurse was on hand, Constance Bull, who would graduate from The Cradle’s first School of Infant Nursing. The first medical director was Louis Sauer, who developed the whooping cough vaccine.
Babies across the country were dying from gastroenteritis—including 27 babies in the Cradle Nursery in 1927. Walrath and Sauer jumped into action. They contacted Gladys Dick and George Dick, inventors of the scarlet fever vaccine. Together, the Dicks researched the epidemic and discovered that the infection impacting babies across the country came from powdered milk: Since the formula was not boilable, it was not sterile. Within a few weeks, companies began to change their powdered products to boilable products.
While boilable formula improved infant mortality rates at The Cradle, it did not eliminate all issues. Infants were also contracting airborne illnesses including tuberculosis, grippe, and bronchopneumonia. The Cradle pioneered infant health and safety efforts including early use of antibacterial ultraviolet-light technology to destroy airborne germs, use of HVAC systems to better ventilate the space, introduction of aseptic handwashing techniques, and other procedures now considered standard in nursery care. Doctors from all over the world visited The Cradle to see the innovations.
In the 1930s and 1940s, The Cradle placed at least a dozen infants in celebrity homes. Actors George Burns and Gracie Allen adopted two children at The Cradle in 1934 and 1935. Actor Bob Hope and his wife, singer Dolores Hope, adopted their four children at The Cradle between 1939 and 1946. On March 13, 1948, The Cradle’s 25th anniversary broadcast, which played nationally on CBS, featured Florence Walrath and Bob Hope, along with the first Cradle baby (Walrath’s niece) and others. Listen to the audio here.
The research exposed the inadequacies of The Cradle’s original facilities, which did not allow for easy introduction of the new techniques. Thus the house at 2049 Ridge Avenue was moved to make way for a modern stone building, which opened in 1939. By this time, The Cradle had placed 2,000 babies in loving homes.
Despite its early successes and contributions to pediatrics, The Cradle was not without its faults and controversies. In 1927, the Juvenile Court of Illinois argued that The Cradle should be looking deeper into the history of birth parents, in accordance with the move toward formal home studies. A Time magazine article from May 1935 quoted Walrath as saying she would not place babies for adoption unless they were healthy and “normal.”
In 1940, Walrath invited out-of-state agencies to conduct a review of The Cradle’s social work practices to put the criticism to rest. Ultimately this led to an adoption of social work standards. By 1946, The Cradle began complying with state requirements to conduct home studies for all hopeful adoptive families and began hiring counselors with social work degrees.
In 1949, The Cradle opened Chandler House, a nonsectarian boarding home for unmarried, pregnant 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.
Over the years, The Cradle trained infant nurses annually and graduated anywhere from 1-25 nurses through an onsite ceremony between 1923 and 1978 when the program closed. In 1958, The Cradle built and opened an annex to the building, which included a dormitory and classrooms for the nurses in training.
Walrath retired in October 1950; during her tenure she had placed 6,000 babies in safe, loving homes.
Walrath was succeeded by Hazel Ferguson, who had volunteered with The Cradle since the 1920s. Ferguson’s team began placing African American babies just a few years years after the first recorded transracial adoption, in 1948 in Minnesota.
The Cradle in the 1950s was known as much for high fashion as for its nursery and adoption services. The Cradle held an annual charity fashion show and luncheon, sponsored by Elizabeth Arden and showcasing her fall collection each year. In 1958, 1,200 women attended the show.
Elizabeth A. Meek became executive director in 1970. Lee Stein became executive director in 1975.
Cradle leaders began debating how the availability of birth control, the legalization of abortion and the reduced stigma of single parenting might impact the future of adoption. Despite record highs in the Nursery in the 1960s, adoptions began to decline sharply across the country at the turn of the decade.
Requests for information became more frequent in this era. In the 1970s, volunteers Ruth McGee and Sister Margaret Burke regularly responded to requests for information with some basic information about the birth family and assurances to birth families that the babies had been placed in good homes. The Cradle still discouraged adoptees from seeking out birth relatives at this point in its history.
Then in 1984, the Illinois Legislature passed a law establishing the Illinois Adoption Registry, where registrants can meet birth relatives through mutual consent without having to open records. The Cradle launched a Post Adoption Services department and instituted its own Mutual Consent Registry so that Cradle clients could be reunited through The Cradle, rather than through the state’s registry. Later in the decade, The Cradle began facilitating reunions through its registry for the first time.
The Cradle had placed as many as 300 babies per year in the 1960s; in 1990, the agency placed just 40 babies. The Cradle commissioned a study to examine what could be done to restore The Cradle’s position as a leader in adoption. As a result of the study’s findings, the Board of Directors voted on a resurgence effort and hired Julie Tye as The Cradle’s first-ever paid president and CEO in 1992.
In 1994, The Cradle launched an African American infant adoption program, with a focus on adoptive parent recruitment in the African American community. Chicago Bears Hall of Famer Gale Sayers (who had adopted a child at The Cradle) joined The Cradle Board of Directors in 1995. In 1999, The Cradle renamed its African American infant adoption program as The Ardythe and Gale Sayers Center for African American Adoption. It remains one of the only programs in the country that promotes adoption awareness specifically within the African American community.
Following extensive research and internal debate, The Cradle formalized open adoption as its adoption philosophy in 1998. The Cradle believes openness is vital for adopted children to form healthy identities and a healthy sense of self.
Volunteerism increased as The Cradle sought more people to become Cuddlers, assisting staff in the Nursery; by the end of the century more than 400 people volunteered as Cuddlers each year.
More than half of The Cradle’s 2000 placements in 2005 were international placements. By this time, The Cradle was working with 22 countries including Ethiopia, Haiti, Kazakhstan, Korea, Romania, and others. The Russia program was the largest of The Cradle’s intercountry programs, and for nearly a decade The Cradle even had an office in Moscow and staff in other regions of the country. International adoptions began to decline for United States agencies and families in 2005. With these uncertain outcomes for families and uncertainty over the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Russia, The Cradle eventually discontinued its Russia program. Russia banned all adoptions from Russia to the United States in 2012.
In April 2001, The Cradle Board of Directors unanimously agreed that LGBTQ+ couples and individuals should have equal opportunity to apply for adoption through The Cradle and a board resolution was enacted.
The Cradle launched its online learning platform, Adoption Learning Partners, in 2002. Early content was designed to raise awareness of adoption and adoption-related issues. By 2007, ALP hosted a variety of content particularly focused on intercountry adoption. Adoption agencies across the country began partnering with The Cradle, requiring their clients to complete ALP educational courses as part of the process toward becoming adoptive parents.
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.
In 2016, The Cradle launched Our Children: An Education and Empowerment Series, an initiative that aims to help parents of children of color and conspicuous families better understand and prepare for the realities and injustices their children may experience.
Since opening in 1923, The Cradle has facilitated over 16,000 domestic and international adoptions and has been at the forefront of African American infant adoption and placements with LGBTQ+-identifying families. We remain the only adoption agency in the country with an on-site nursery, a safe, neutral place for infants to stay while their parents take the time they need to decide if adoption will be the plan for this child. We are also one of the only adoption agencies in the country with a dedicated department for post-adoption support (providing background information, search tips and connection to birth relatives) as well as adoption-competent clinical therapy. The Cradle has provided search and reunion services to hundreds of individuals and families.
Today, we are readying the organization for its second century, with even greater impact for children and families. The past 100 years are but prologue.
The Cradle is 100 years old in 2023! You can get involved with our Centennial Celebration by sharing your story to be part of Faces of The Cradle, attending an event, learning more about our history or making a donation.