The History of Child Care Programs

by Ripa Ajmera

Child care programs, often called "day care," began in the United States in the 19th century. The first American child care center was in Boston. Child care programs were sponsored by the government during the Great Depression and World War II. Kaiser Corporation was the first company to privately sponsor child care centers. Private sponsorship of child care programs is common today.

Early History

Child care programs originated with the 19th century welfare and reform movements. The day care centers of modern times evolved directly from the "day nurseries" that began in the 1840s in Boston. These early nurseries took care of children of widows and working wives. Most of the families involved with day nurseries were part of an economically underprivileged group of merchant seamen.

Government Sponsorship

During the Great Depression, day care was sponsored by the U.S. federal government. The reason for federal involvement was to help unemployed adults find jobs. During World War II, the federal government sponsored 400,000 preschool children to attend day care so their mothers could work to produce war materials. After the war, the government removed its support of day care programs and advised women to return home.

Kaiser Child Care Centers

In addition to government sponsorship of child care during World War II, a unique child care program began in 1943 in Portland, Oregon. Henry Kaiser created child care centers at the entrances of both of his shipyards. His centers were the world's largest day cares during that time. Kaiser built the centers with the intention of decreasing the absenteeism rate among working mothers employed at his shipyards. The centers provided hot meals for mothers to take home and had nurses on-site. The cost of child care was shared by the Kaiser Corporation and the parents.

Private Sponsorship

Kaiser's day cares closed after the war. His centers served as inspiration for other businesses to offer on-site child care centers. For example, Stride-Rite Corporation began its child care center in 1971. Stride-Rite now sponsors an "intergenerational center," which serves both children and the elderly.

Modern Child Care Programs

Corporations continue to help provide child care programs and services. For example, Levi Strauss subsidizes child care centers for low income families and offers grants to improve the quality of community child care programs. The American Business Collaboration partners with AT&T to support programs that improve both local and state child care centers. Groups like the Children's Defense Fund, the Association for Childhood Education International and the National Association for the Education of Young Children also support programs to improve child care.


  • American Psychologist; The Early Childhood enterprise: Care and education of the young; Scarr & Weinberg; 1986
  • The Wall Street Journal; Companies help solve day-care problems; Shellenbarger, S.; July 22, 1994
  • Beginnings and Beyond; Gordon, A., & Browne, K.W.; 1996

About the Author

Ripa Ajmera has been writing for six years. She has written for, General Nutrition Center (GNC), TCW Finance, Alliance for a New Humanity, Washington Square News and more. She was a Catherine B. Reynolds Scholar from 2006-2008 and graduated from New York University Stern School of Business with an Honors degree in Marketing.