The Cradle at 100



By Judy Carmack Bross




The Cradle in Evanston, Illinois, one of the first four infant adoption agencies in the United States and the only one still in its  original form, will celebrate its 100th year with The Cradle Centennial Gala on September 23 at the Geraghty in Chicago .  Not only will the evening feature dinner, live music from Lynne Jordan and the Shivers, a paddle raise and live auction, guests will learn more about how The Cradle has evolved since its founding by Florence Walrath in 1923 and its legacy of more than 16,000 domestic and international adoptions.  

Jorina Fontelera, The Cradle’s Vice President of Marketing, told us:

“Florence Dahl Walrath started her work by listening to the needs of her community, and that is key today.  As The Cradle has evolved over the last 100 years, we remained steadfast in our vision of creating a world where every child thrives in a safe and loving family. The needs of the child are at the center of our work. The Cradle is proud to have been at the forefront of open adoption, African American infant adoption and placements with LGBTQ+ identifying families.”

Proceeds from the Centennial Gala will be used to enhance support services and programming — from expectant parent options counseling to adoption-competent family therapy, education for adoptive parents and more.

The Cradle staff drew on historical documents and stories from Cradle families to put together a fascinating historical narrative and dedicated microsite of Cradle stories called Faces of The Cradle, which she shared with us. It includes an interview with Jean Sargeant, the seventh baby to be adopted from The Cradle, who shared her story, surrounded by some of her four children, 11 grandchildren and 17 great grandchildren about her life and her gratitude to the institution. “I was adopted on Christmas Day 1923 and I had two older brothers and a dog named Mix.  Mix took to me and licked my face right away, and I was officially the little sister. If my family hadn’t reached out to The Cradle, my life would have been entirely different.”

Adoptions of children of any age were not legally recognized in the state of Illinois until 1867. The Illinois Children’s Home & Aid Society formed in 1883 and was among the first child welfare agencies in the country. Social work became a profession at the turn of the last century, and soon after, the Children’s Home & Aid Society began professionalizing its work and incorporating new social work standards.

A decade or so later, the first infant adoption agencies began to appear. 
All four founders of the first adoption agencies, three of which were in New York City, were female volunteers who sought to protect children and help their friends build families.

The Cradle’s historical narrative noted that “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.”

When The Cradle opened, 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.

In its early days the Cradle operated from three donated homes along Ridge Avenue. Famed Chicago architect and designer of the 1893 World’s Fair Daniel Burnham adapted these houses for The Cradle’s use. By this time in his career he was looking for smaller projects and spent time ordering proper plumbing and carpentry materials for the new spaces.

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 hand-washing techniques, and other procedures now considered standard in nursery care. Doctors from all over the world visited The Cradle to see the innovations.

Mid-century media portrayed The Cradle as the main adoption agency of choice for glamorous stars, including Bob and Delores Hope, pianist Victor Borge, Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl Buck, comedian Jack Benny, actors Donna Reed, Miriam Hopkins, Joe E. Brown, Pat O’Brien, big band leader Glenn Miller and Michigan State football coach Harry Kipke. The Cradle website features an audio of its 25th anniversary broadcast on CBS featuring an interview with Bob Hope and Walrath.

The Cradle in the 1950s was known as much for high fashion as for its nursery and adoption services. Their annual charity fashion show and luncheon was sponsored by Elizabeth Arden who showcased her fall collection each year at the event. The 1958 fashion show had 1,200 women in attendance.

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. That same year, 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.

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.

The Cradle was an early supporter of LGBTQ+ adoption, having passed a board resolution in 2001 stating that LGBTQ+ couples and individuals should have equal opportunity to apply for adoption through The Cradle. Since 2001, The Cradle has helped build nearly 200 LGBTQ+ families through adoption. In June 2017, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling made adoption by LGBTQ+ individuals and couples legal in all 50 states.

“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 their 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,” Fontelera said.

For further information about The Cradle Centennial celebration visit: the