“Poorhouse”, “Almshouse”, “Workhouse”, “Poor-Farm”, “City Home”. All of these words refer to the same thing: relief for the poor , or at least a small portion of it. “Indoor relief” has been the greatest means of relief for the poor for the last 500 years.
Contrary to modern beliefs about the poor and public relief, poverty has not always been regarded as such a disgrace. Aiding those in need was seen as an opportunity for the wealthy to exercise the virtue of charity.1 The destitute of the town were not chastised and ridiculed for their social and economic standing. Instead, they were given the aid they needed without harassment and embarrassment. It was not long, however, before the stereotypes and hard feelings towards the poor that we are guilty of today began to arise.
According to some social economists, three major occurrences are responsible for the decline of charity and unconditional giving to the needy. “The ravages of the bubonic plague that swept Europe in the fourteenth century, the enclosure of common farmland for sheep in England in the fifteenth century and the seizure of all church property by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century completely disrupted the system of the poor law.”2
One of the earliest laws for dealing with the poor was the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601. This became the basis of poor relief in England and served as the foundation of the poor-relief system that was developed in the American colonies and which still exists to this day. The Elizabethan Poor Law established three principles: local responsibility for the poor, the requirement that people provide support to their poor and the idea that towns were liable only for their own residents.3
During the early seventeenth century a popular method of aiding the poor was to contract them with private individuals, usually farmers, and auction off the poor. Those who were auctioned (often referred to as “paupers”) worked for their meals and their stay at the master’s house.
The establishment of poorhouses was another method of providing relief for the poor. Poorhouses had very clear goals; they were supposed to check the expense of pauperism through cheaper care and deter people from applying for outside relief. Poorhouses were also supposed to transform the behavior and character of their inmates.4
The first poorhouse in New England was built in Boston, Massachusetts in 1660. Similar to the philosophy of auctioning off paupers, those aided in poorhouses were also obligated to work for their stay at the house. However, poorhouses and pauperism were not exactly as successful as they were hoped to be. In 1766, Benjamin Franklin expressed his feelings about the situation of public aid, poorhouses in general, actually revealing many truths about the institutions in his opinion.
“There is no country in the world in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken and insolent. The day you passed that act (The Elizabethan Poor Law) you took away from before their eyes the greatest of all inducements to industry, frugality and sobriety by giving them a dependence of something else than a careful accumulation during youth and health support in age and sickness.”5
A Massachusetts legislator shared similar views with Franklin a few years later reporting, “poorhouses are [the poor’s] inns, at which they stop for refreshment. Here they find rest…and medical aid when they are sick… and as they choose not to labor, they leave…and pass from town to town demanding their portion of the states allowance for them as their right.”6
Not only were there complaints about the purpose and philosophy of the poorhouse and this form of poor relief, but also there were complaints about many poorhouses themselves. Poorhouses became a human dumping ground into which derelicts of every description were thrown. By the mid-nineteenth century, almost every poorhouse in the country had failed to come even close to meeting their original goals. They had degenerated very badly.7 According to an 1896 New York State Senate report on the state’s poorhouses, “they may be generally described as badly constructed, ill-arranged, ill-warmed and ill-ventilated. The rooms are crowded, the air is noxious and good health is an impossibility. Men and women mingle freely resulting in the offspring of illicit connections.”8 Extreme reports clearly depicted the way of life in more than half of America’s poorhouses at the time. A report from a Sandusky, Ohio poorhouse claimed that:
“Building very old and dilapidated; walls in terrible condition; no screens; swarms of flies everywhere; no comfortable chairs; rooms very dirty; inmates do the work; food very poor. The so-called hospital is a miserable place more like a prison. Am impeccable women’s; only bed is an old box filled with straw and a dirty quilt. A disgraceful place.”9
With the disgustingly unsanitary condition of the majority of poorhouses, a fear for the safety of children and adolescent inmates rose. Poorhouses were entirely unsuitable for the upbringings of children’s futures were certainly not promising if living in these institutions. “Degrading and viscous influences surrounded [children] in these poorhouses. They fall into habits of idleness, their moral and religious training is entirely neglected, self-respect is almost extinguished and residence in a poorhouse leaves upon them a stigma, which will cling, to them for years.10
As a result, individual poorhouses across the country began removing children from the poorhouses and into orphanages or foster homes. In New York in 1875, the State Legislature passed the Children’s Act. This act ordered all children aged between two and sixteen years be removed from poorhouses. Due to this large decrease in young inmates, poorhouses were becoming more and more like old-age homes.
The 1900 record of a poorhouse in Beverly Massachusetts prove this fact to be true. Located on 18 Cedar Street and referred to as the City Home (See Appendix, Figure 3), the Beverly poorhouse sat high on a hill near the present day Hurd Stadium (See Appendix, Figure 4). Now extinct, the original poorhouse was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt in 1870 (See Appendix, Figure 2).
According to the Population Schedule of the 1900 Census for Beverly Massachusetts, there were thirty-two inmates living in the town’s poorhouse, (not including the superintendent, Walter Farnham, who also lived there). Eleven of these thirty-two inmates, fourteen were male (43%) and eighteen were female (56%). The average age of the inmates was forty-four years, with no children inmates. This might be a result of the fact that none of the inmates were married. All thirty-two of the inmates were white and the majority were literate. Twenty-four (75%) of the inmate could read English, twenty-three (72%) could write English and thirty-one (97%) could speak the language. These statistics are surprising considering the fact that twelve of the inmates (38%) were foreign born. Seven inmates were born in Ireland (22%), three born in Scotland (9%), one born in Germany and one born in France (3% respectively). Native -born inmates totaled nineteen (59%). Seventeen inmates were born in Massachusetts (53%), one born in New York and one born in Maine (3% respectively).
Another surprising fact about Beverly’s poorhouse was its somewhat efficient management and fine condition. According to the Overseers of the Poor Report Form 1905, “the manner in which [Beverly’s poorhouse] is managed is worthy of much praise”.12 Those running the poorhouse claimed they “have tried to make a real home for the unfortunate. They are warmly housed, clothed, furnished with good food and required to observe proper sanitary regulations. The house and grounds are kept clean and in good order.”13 In 1905, a total of $5,811.05 was expended at the poorhouse (See Appendix, Chart 1). Fortunately, Beverly’s poorhouse had not yet sunk to the low level that a majority of the country’s other institutions.
Today’s public relief has greatly changed from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Outdoor aid (pauperism and the sporadic housing of the poor) had almost completely vanished, as have traditional poorhouses. Overnight shelters and “meal houses” are forms of relief similar to those 200 years ago. Applying for public welfare and receiving aid from the state is also a present day relief method. Although the tactics and procedures of poor relief have changed (certainly the fourteenth century idea of unconditional charity), the philosophy of poor relief has remained constant over the years. It is unfortunate, however, that such a stigma had developed for those receiving aid from the program.
|Expenses for Beverly’s City Home (1905)|
|Superintendent and Labor||$1,680.84|
|Groceries and Supplies||2,402.64|
|Repairs and Furnishings||693.93|
|Medicine and Burials||171.46|
|Shoes and Clothing||218.66|
|Adapted from the 1905 City Records|
|Beverly City Home “Inmates”|
|Male Inmates||14 (44%)|
|Female Inmates||18 (56%)|
|Caucasian Inmates||32 (100%)|
|Married Inmates||0 (0%)|
|Average Inmate Age||44yrs Old|
|Able to Read||24 (75%)|
|Able to Write||23 (72%)|
|Able to Speak English||31 (97%)|
|Nativity in MA||17 (53%)|
|Nativity in ME||1 (3%)|
|Nativity in NY||1 (3%)|
|Nativity in Ireland||7 (22%)|
|Nativity in Scotland||3 (9%)|
|Nativity in Germany||1 (3%)|
|Nativity in France||1 (3%)|
|American Born Inmates||12 (38%)|
|Foreign Born Inmates||19 (59%)|
|Adapted from the 1900 United States Census for Beverly Massachusetts|
2 Ibid., 23.
3 Ibid., 6.
4 Katz, Michael B. In The Shadow of the Poorhouse (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1986), 22-3.
5 Bremner, Robert H. The Public Good (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 17.
6 Komisar, 21.
7 Lens, Sidney. Poverty: Yesterday and Today (New York: Thomas Y Crowell Co., 1973), 38.
8 Katz, 27.
9 Komisar, 41.
10 Katz, 104.
11 1900 United States Census, Population Schedule, Beverly Massachusetts.
12 Beverly’s City Records for 1905 (Beverly, MA: The Allen Print, 1906), 45.
13 Ibid., 45.