THE CHARLESTON ORPHAN HOUSE: Children's Lives in the First Public Orphanage in America. By John E. Murray. University of Chicago Press. 296 pages. $30.

To the vast numbers of tourists who visit Charleston each year, the city's antebellum past is best evoked by the handsome properties and public buildings of the lower peninsula. The city's wealthy white elite is recalled at every turn, in museums, churchyards and street names.

For those who want to look a little harder, the city's enslaved past is also visible, particularly at the City Market. But Charleston's was never simply divided between slaveholders and the enslaved/free black population. The third segment of the populace (which can be subdivided many more times) consisted of nonslaveholding whites, in the main, immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Britain and the north, though some were locally born.

Historians have rarely told their story simply because they left remarkably little imprint of their lives in the records. Often only moderately literate, they did not keep diaries, send letters or make speeches. No one wrote down what they had to say. Unlike enslaved people, who as property generated a whole set of records, the poorer white population were (and still are) largely anonymous and forgotten.

John Murray's study of the Charleston orphanage goes a long way to correct that gap in our knowledge of the antebellum city. Charleston was the only city in America to build, staff and maintain a large municipal orphanage in the antebellum era. Other cities relied on placing children with families, or on private charities, but Charleston took the bold step of assuming the care of indigent children as a civic responsibility.

The orphanage attracted a wealth of bureaucracy: Those wishing to admit a child had to write a letter setting out their circumstances; those running the orphanage kept minutes and financial records relating both to the institution and those in their care; and children leaving the orphanage as apprentices had to sign contracts of indenture. This unique trove of documents allows Murray to create a richly textured portrait of the lives of poor Charlestonians.

We might think that fractured families are a modern phenomenon, but they were very common in the antebellum era. Husbands abandoned their wives, perhaps to seek a fortune out west or at sea, leaving women with several children to care for and without any income. Sometimes women simply gave up on a drunken husbands. Other families were broken up by premature death, particularly during epidemics of yellow fever, smallpox and cholera.

In such instances, the city orphanage offered a way out. Children were most often placed in care by a parent who could no longer care for them, only a minority were "full orphans."

The care the orphans received was basic, but largely adequate. The children had shelter (though the roof might leak), food (if somewhat monotonous), clothing (a regulation uniform), access to medical treatment and regular education. There was nothing profligate about the standard of care, indeed managers prided themselves on their frugality, yet the mortality of orphans was no worse than children elsewhere in the city, and the education they received was probably better than that available to children outside the orphanage.

In a fascinating final chapter, "Transitions," Murray traces the future lives of a dozen of the orphans showing how many achieved a respectable standard of living, and that the orphanage managers continued to act on behalf of orphans well into their early adulthood.

The orphanage was a racial privilege afforded only to white children. Free black children were not admitted, and Murray shows how the orphanage came to be seen more and more as a visible symbol of white unity as the Civil War neared. In no other forum did poor and rich interact so regularly. Wealthy city fathers listened, and nearly always responded sympathetically, to the concerns, fears and hopes of poor white parents for their children. By doing so, they showcased one of the major privileges of race in antebellum Charleston: access to state aid when in need.

If you want a better understanding of the lives of ordinary Charlestonians before the Civil War, this book is a good place to start. It is full of the real stories of individuals whose start in life was hard but who often succeeded against those odds to lead rewarding lives.

Reviewer Tim Lockley is a professor of comparative American studies at the University of Warwick in the U.K.