In early modern times orphans have been children who could not expect sufficient support from their family because of lack of at least one parent, in most cases the father. This article will clarify of whom we are talking if we talk about orphans and what have been the conditions of living in a society which was organised by a high variety of status for these children. Why could they be called "children at risk"? What options have been developed to raise these children and how was the variety of institutions founded in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries organised? The author draws from a number of studies on the history of poverty and provisions for orphans throughout Europe concluding with some considerations of the relevance of the "Waisenhausstreit", a prominent German controversy brought about by enlightened educators and medical doctors during the second half of the eighteenth century when the option of raising orphans in centralised institutions became a controversial issue. Micro-historical investigation into orphanages in various European countries between 1550 and 1750 offers strong evidence that oou view of orphans and orphanages are shaped by nineteenthcentury notions of poverty and indigent children.