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Almshouses and other institutions to house and work the poor were established in the late 1600s and continued for the next two centuries in the colonies and early United States. As in other characteristics of early American poor relief, the American institutionalization of the poor mirrored English beginnings in the 1500s and 1600s.
The English system of poor relief, which began under Elizabeth I, originated the basic concepts that local government should care for its destitute, who must themselves contribute to the cost of relief whenever possible by work. English authorities often failed to distinguish between the deserving, innocent poor and the habitual beggar; both were categorized, economically and morally, as burdens and malefactors. It therefore seemed reasonable to create institutions that would exclusively house, work, and correct the poor. A statute in 1581 established such “houses of correction” in England. In 1597 an Elizabethan Act went further, creating the local parish office of Overseer of the Poor, part of whose job was to supervise the building of institutions to house and work the poor. Elizabeth’s successor, James I, in 1610 reasserted the Crown’s commitment to the Elizabethan statutes, demanding that more parishes build houses of correction. These institutions, which were also known as workhouses and “bridewells,” after the notorious London hospital and prison, worked the able poor in the manufacture of cloth goods.
Seventeenth-century American communities established poor relief on the same English assumptions of community responsibility to aid the deserving poor and to work the undeserving poor. Initially American towns used private relief, paying members of the community to care for the aged, disabled, and orphaned; the town remunerated caregivers with in-kind grants, tax forgiveness, and, more rarely, cash payments. The able-bodied, deserving poor, such as widows with children and military veterans and their families, received direct grants as well.
The records of the town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, during the 1600s and 1700s illustrate the varied experiences of community care for the poor. In March 1670 Portsmouth resident, the “Widdow Sheaves,” who cared for her two children and had “nothing to relieve them,” was granted thirty-seven shillings by the town. In 1688 the “Selectmen” of the town, “being informed of the povertie of Jos. Atkeson see it meete to remit his rate of foure shillings.” Over the course of several years in the 1690s, the Portsmouth selectmen paid various residents as much as £12 a year to shelter, feed, and nurse the aged, long-time resident “Father Lewes.” Because towns usually accepted bids and bound the sick and disabled to the lowest bidder, the system sometimes resulted in abuse. A solution appeared, it seemed, in the more humane system of the almshouse.
A change in the institutionalization of the poor in colonial America first came about in 1685 with the creation of the Dominion of New England under King James II. Edmund Andros, governor under the Dominion, instructed the colonies of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut to erect institutions “for the Imploying of poor and Indigent People” as well as to elect overseers of the poor, who were charged with erecting and managing institutions to house and work the poor. Overseers were town leaders, usually with sufficient wealth to contribute their own funds, by way of a loan, if town finances were insufficient; not surprisingly, only the most committed townsmen agreed to serve as overseers of the poor. Governor Andros instructed overseers to take charge of raising funds through taxation, to care for the poor, and to erect almshouses. The first almshouses were built in such towns as Boston and Portsmouth in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Boston’s almshouse, erected in 1685, was at first a private concern but became public after the election of overseers of the poor in 1691. The Portsmouth almshouse, erected in 1705, provided food, drink, water for washing, lodging, and firewood. In the mid-eighteenth century, it cost the town £8 per person, part of the cost of which was to be satisfied by the work of paupers producing cloth goods. Although Portsmouth only had one almshouse, by 1706 Boston had eight, corresponding to eight wards for poor relief established in 1715. Philadelphia and New York did not erect almshouses until 1732 and 1736, respectively. Almshouses often combined the innocent poor with ne’er-do-wells, to the detriment of the former. Some colonial towns had three or four overseers, but Boston had twelve in 1735.
As colonial towns matured into the eighteenth century, so too did the numbers of poor. Larger urban populations allowed for more anonymity among town inhabitants, hence the increasing presence of sturdy beggars. The solution, again following the English model, was the creation of institutions that were designed not so much to care for, but to work the poor—to pay their keep and alleviate the town of the burden of poor relief. Boston constructed a workhouse in 1739 in which ten men, thirty-eight women, and seven children worked. Laws passed in the colonies to erect workhouses were similar to that of New Hampshire, which declared in 1718 that such institutions should “be used and employed, for the Keeping, Correcting, and Setting to Work of rogues, Vagabonds, and common Beggars, and other Lewd, idle and Disorderly Persons.” When the town of Portsmouth passed a law in 1752 “Relative to the Establishment of a Workhouse . . . to accommodate and work the poor both for the poor’s benefit and the towns,” the town proclaimed its intention to keep the poor “under proper care and regulation” so that “in a Little time instead of being a Charge, become Serviceable.” After the town raised money for the workhouse by sponsoring a lottery, the overseers of the poor set to work “to purchase Necessaries for the Support of the poor & Purchasing Stock at the Whole Sale and Cheapest Rate to Employ any Poor Person Either in the Work House or Elsewhere in the Town.” The cost of maintaining and working the poor continued to increase, however, during the 1760s. The town of Portsmouth declared “Whereby Numbers of poor Idle Persons that are now a burden to the public may be properly Employed and Become Examples of Industry and Good Morals as they are now Shameful Examples of Idleness & Vice.” At the same time, the town empowered the overseers to “supply the Work house with Stock to Imploy the poor in the said house or any Others that Shall be put there by the overseers.” The overseers often found themselves “abused and Affronted” by the poor, “which is a very great Injury to those whose Office & Services gives them a right to be Treated with the greatest Respect.” The townspeople finally grew so exasperated that they determined to erect a house of correction to keep, work, and punish the most idle and undeserving of the poor. The house of correction was built on the grounds of the workhouse, which, by the 1770s, contained a separate room for the insane, a school to educate children, and facilities for medical care. The poor were worked six days a week but enjoyed rest and religious services on the Sabbath. Over the years, the environs of the Portsmouth workhouse declined, however, leading town officials and concerned citizens in the nineteenth century to erect a new almshouse to provide for the indigent. The new institution was dedicated in 1835, featuring a sermon by the local Episcopal priest, Charles Burroughs, in the almshouse chapel. This institution existed for a half century, caring for the poor, disabled, orphaned, and insane, until a county structure was built in the 1880s.
Institutionalization of the sick poor was of varied quality. Eighteenth-century Philadelphia sponsored an institution for the poor that echoed the English Bridewell, the hospital that imprisoned and worked the sick poor. The Pennsylvania Hospital for the Sick Poor, which began in 1751, brought a more charitable, caring approach to the institutionalization of the poor. The hospital was founded by Dr. Thomas Bond and Benjamin Franklin, who wrote Some Account of the Pennsylvania Hospital in 1754. The hospital, inspired by Quaker values, received all who were sick—the rich and poor, lunatics and sane, Americans and Indians, even Tories during the Revolutionary War. The institution expanded from humble quarters as the eighteenth century progressed; the grounds included an area for the sick poor to work, exercise, and play.
Supplementing public institutions for the poor were varied private concerns, individuals, associations, or organizations providing charity. Such institutions were a worthy alternative to the almshouse. Calamities, such as fire and epidemics, found the charitable hands of the rich coming to the aid of the poor. Such charity was always selective, of course, and usually focused on widows and orphans. The Female Benevolent Society in Lynn, Massachusetts, and the Cambridge Female Humane Society were both founded in 1814. The Portsmouth Female Asylum, founded in the early 1800s, is an example: its purpose, like others of its ilk, was “to rescue [children] from the accumulated misery of poverty and vice” and to educate young women in reading, sewing, religion, and personal health. The asylum cared for orphans, as well as for children whose parents could provide insufficient care and who bound their children to the asylum until age eighteen. Wealthy matrons of Portsmouth subscribed to provide money to found the society and maintain its support; a committee visited the asylum weekly to check on the quality of care. The live-in “Governess” in charge ensured their religious education—not only by punctual attendance at Sunday church services, but daily Scripture readings as well, “to inculcate the principles of religion.” The daily schedule was as follows, according to The Rules, Regulations, &c. of the Portsmouth Female Asylum, with the Act of Incorporation, published in 1815:
The Children Shall rise at six o’clock in the morning, say their prayers, wash themselves in cold water, and comb their heads; breakfast at eight, play until nine, attend school from this hour until twelve, dine at one, attend school from two o’clock to five, play until six, and retire for the night at eight o’clock.
Nineteenth-century Americans changed their understanding of the poor from the colonial view of a destitute group of unfortunate or immoral people, deservedly separated from the rest of society, to merely a segment of society having insufficient wealth and resources: to maintain an adequate standard of living according to the larger society. Such a change in social philosophy took time, culminating only during the Progressive Movement. Before progressivism, the poorhouse, which evolved from the almshouse and workhouse of the eighteenth century, dominated the institutionalization of poor adults and children. Social reformers of the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, believed that poverty in an industrialized, scientific society could no longer be blamed on God’s will or on individual depravity, but rather on the society at large. To cure society of the sickness of poverty required the action of the community as a whole, working to improve conditions in the economy, workplace, neighborhoods, schools, and cities. The poor, at least in theory, should be integrated into the larger society rather than segregated in institutions ultimately designed to keep them in their place.
- Bridenbaugh, Carl, Cities in Revolt (New York: Oxford, 1955);
- Bridenbaugh, Carl, Cities in the Wilderness (New York: Oxford, 1938);
- Burn, Richard, The History of the Poor Laws: With Observations (London: Woodfall and Strahan, 1764);
- Eden, Frederic, The State of the Poor, 3 vols. (London: Davis, 1797);
- Katz, Michael B., Poverty and Policy in American History (New York: Academic Press, 1983);
- Portsmouth New Hampshire Town Records, typescript, Portsmouth Public Library.
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