Skip to main content

Friendly Visitors, 1887

Friendly Visiting

By Marian C. Putnam

Editor’s Note: There is little or no biographical information about Ms. Putnam except references to her presentation at the 1887 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Correction.  

I have been asked to write a paper on the “theory and value of friendly visiting as compared with other forms of charitable work”; and I shall try to show that it is a simple and efficient means of helping people, and also that it affords an excellent training for any larger field of work. By “friendly visiting,” we mean seeing and knowing people in their homes, and trying, by means of personal influence and practical suggestion, to improve their condition. Many persons agree in thinking this a good method of helping the poorest and most ignorant classes. Others, on the contrary, while admitting that there is no harm in visiting sick old women or taking children on country excursions, believe that any good worth working for must come from improving the conditions under which the people live. Better schools, better prisons, better laws, model tenement houses, more open spaces, cheap amusements,– these things will benefit the community, it is said; but “visiting” is like pouring water through a sieve,– no permanent good can come from it.

I believe that both kinds of work are, needed, and should be done at the same time. The low standard of morality and intelligence and the lack of self-control, that keeps large numbers of people very poor and degraded, come partly from external conditions that may be improved, and partly from weak wills that may be strengthened and wrong tendencies that may be checked.

Those of us who believe in the power for good of friendly visiting do so because we have become convinced that only as the people we try to reach can be roused to wish for better things is there any hope of improving their condition. There must be some force besides that of improved surroundings to help turn these to good account; and that force must come from the people themselves, for whose benefit schools and libraries are founded. We all know the force is there; that, however deadened in the minds of the drunken or disheartened parents, at least in their children there are all the possibilities for good as well as for evil that children are born with. The question is how to get at this force, how to turn the current of these lives into the right channels, and make the next generation better than the last. I believe this can be done by approaching people in their homes, as families, better than in any other way. So long as we know only this boy or that girl, we look at the problem solely with a view to his or her interests; but let us know all the members of a family, and our conclusions as to what should be done for any one of them may be very much modified.

The great power of a wise personal influence and example to find and bring out the good in seemingly vicious people is clear to any one who has been able to watch the results of faithful visiting. But good results cannot be reached unless the visitor works in a spirit of patience and courage, with a longing to help his neighbor for his neighbor’s sake and a clear idea of what he is attempting.

I do not include here those visits to the sick or unfortunate made for the sake of giving pleasure. These have their own place; but I am now considering visiting as one of the agencies of social reform, to which we look for elevation of the poor and ignorant.

The object of a visitor should be, first of all, to try to make the family better and happier where they are and with the resources they have. We come to realize after a time that the majority of poor families in a city must continue to live without any very striking change of circumstances; that the children of intemperate parents must, except in very flagrant cases, remain at home, and be cared for as best they may be; that boys and girls must grow up surrounded by temptations, to take their part, by and by, in making or marring the welfare of the community. It is here — in the homes of the lowest class of the residents of a city or town — that the true work of a visitor lies. Visiting is not primarily relief work, though relief may be necessary, nor the work of helping people to go where their labor is more needed, important as that may be. It has its own large field, which is one that is often turned away from as hopeless. It is a visitor’s part to go into a wretched household as a friend, to make acquaintance with the members of it, win their confidence, and become familiar with their circumstances, temptations, and difficulties, in order to find out what can be done to improve their condition. He must look at life from their point of view, till after a time, by sympathy, knowledge, and affection, he finds himself at last at the place where his advice may be given and taken, where his coming brings happiness and hope and a new desire to live rightly.

We cannot easily overestimate the good that friendly visiting may do, but we should also remember that we may inflict serious injury on our ignorant neighbors by injudicious action. If we are impatient to alter their situation at once, by taking away ill-fed children from their parents, for instance, instead of trying to have them better fed where they are, or by eagerly furthering every vague desire of theirs to get a different kind of work, regardless of the fact that the dissatisfied persons may not have any fair chance of succeeding in their new trade, our hasty judgments may only serve to increase the difficulties of the case.

A visitor must have the courage not to act till he understands the family. He is there to help them, but not to harm them by rash interference. He should be as loath to do anything to break up the family as if it were that of his own brother or sister by blood. He must be prepared to see suffering and wrong-doing that he cannot prevent, and be willing to wait till he knows what the difficulties and troubles are, and then be ready to make the most of the opportunities that arise for meeting them. There are many families where the evils are of such a kind that it is plain they cannot be cured except by the persistent effort of these people themselves, which makes the outlook seem hopeless. It is precisely here, however, that a visitor can be of use. He can lead them to believe that the effort is worth making, encourage them to make it, and take hold with them to meet the difficulties in the way.

For example, let us take a very common case. Here is a woman with half a dozen children, and a husband who works and usually supports the family, but who also drinks. The woman is ignorant and shiftless. She has begun her housekeeping with a few pretty things that have either been broken, lost, or packed away “out of the dirt.” She is soon overburdened with cares, and she loses any ambition she may have had, and drinks a little herself. Her children are dirty and ragged, and fed on bake-shop pies. They are brought up without any training, half-nourished, half-clad; while their mother idles away much of her time talking with neighbors who are worse than she is, and their father feels that he has more than done his part if he provides them with shelter and food.

We can see the future of such a family with dreadful clearness. The first illness may leave them destitute, and, lead to seek alms, they lose what little independence they had left; or at any time the habit of drinking a little may grow into confirmed intemperance, and the man can no longer get steady work. Shiftlessness and intemperance, which lead to crime and pauperism, are the inheritance of the children, who easily yield to the many temptations that surround them. Relief cannot help them. Education, which might do so much for the children if it went hand in hand with home influences, often only disgusts them with their parents, and makes them turn with eagerness towards people whom they consider a little higher up, –smartly dressed, perhaps, but sometimes more dangerous companions than the old ones. A girl in a bad quarter of the city, who despises her mother’s advice and protection, is exposed to the gravest dangers. We constantly hear it said that we cannot help the older ones, but that we must save the children. It seems clear to me that to help one without the other is usually an impossible task. Their interests are too closely bound together.

Such families as the one I have described, unless they are to be broken up, can only be helped by some direct influence that infuses a different spirit, new hopes and wishes, into their lives. This, difficult as it seems, may be done by a good visitor. Little by little, the interest and dulled ambition of the mother may be awakened. The active sympathy of the visitor may rouse her to care for the little details of comfort and decency in her household, the total disregard of which is at the bottom of much misery and vice. The possibilities of making a room pretty, bright, and habitable; the pleasant games at home and the parks and libraries abroad that are never resorted to; the clothes that might be warm and respectable, if sensibly chosen and well made and mended; attractive reading that might be found,– all these matters, trifling in themselves, may be made the means of reforming the home life, and consequently — changing the whole future of the family. In most cases, it is possible to do this. And no one can know, until he has fairly tried, the great interest he himself will feel in the details of the daily life of a household after he begins to see how important they are to the growth of self-respect and happiness; and his own interest will communicate itself to the jaded mother and fretful children to a surprising degree.

A genuine concern in all the small matters of home life quickens the visitor’s sympathies, wins the affection of the family, and is the surest way of getting an influence over them. Such an influence, once established, may be used for their good in many ways,– to help the man or woman to stop drinking, to advise them about work, to help them to take care of their children, and to decide what to do if the children go wrong. But most important and most hopeful is the influence acquired over the children themselves. A thoughtful and sympathetic friend may help them to make the best of their lives, and his counsel at some crisis may save them from serious evils or start them on the path towards prosperity.

I have spoken of the reluctance one should feel to separate parents and children; but I believe no one should be a visitor who is not ready to take such a step, should it prove the right thing to do. A visitor ought to know the laws of the land, and be able at the moment, when such a course is the best one, to have a man prosecuted for non-support of his family or to have children taken away from parents who neglect them. But, except in cases of actual cruelty, this should be a last resort.

Many persons who are willing to take a part in managing institutions and societies of various kinds for the benefit of the poor shrink from visiting, even when they believe in its efficiency, because they believe that it requires special gifts and talents. It seems to me that sympathy with the needs of the people to be helped, a strong wish to help them, and good judgment are the only talents required to make a visitor; and these, surely, are not less, but more necessary when we try to help numbers of people instead of one family.

For some years, as secretary of one of the District Conferences of the Associated Charities, I was very familiar with the work of the visitors; and I was surprised to find that it was not one or another temperament which made good visitors, but the good sense and devotion which they brought to their work. A successful visitor may be a silent and reserved person or frank and cordial, young or mature, lively or serious, either a man or a woman. It matters very little so long as he cares enough to help the people he visits to stand inconvenience and discouragement on their account, and to carefully consider what ought to be done before taking active measures for interfering in their affairs.

Instead of needing unusual gifts, this work is one which any one who cares to do it may learn to do, and where long experience is not a necessary element of success; for it is a work for which our daily lives fit us. It is merely going a step farther than we are constantly obliged to go at home, and applying the same judgment and sympathy that we use in our own households or for our natural friends to the difficulties and problems of these other households which so much need the stimulus and help that we can give them. I do not mean to say that it is work for very young persons, because it brings with it a sad knowledge of the wrong and misery in the world that it may be well to keep from them, and because questions come up which they cannot deal with; but inexperience need not keep any one back, especially if the visiting can be done with the advice of more experienced people, who are always on hand and more or less under direction.

I have tried say to that I believe a wise visitor may be an important power for good in the community; that his work is to help the members of one or two households to live better and to be better; and that, in so far as he succeeds, his success works a radical improvement in the people he deals with.

But suppose he fails. Suppose after several years’ work the family he has tried to help seem as hopeless as ever. Will he not rightly feel that, if he had been working at a more practical problem,–starting a boys’ or girls’ club, for example,- the time would not have been thus lost?

In the first place, I would answer that failure of conscientious, devoted work in the homes of the poor is very rare, though the results may not be exactly those which were looked for; but, granting that the visitor may have failed, he can hardly count the time lost, if his wish to do something for the public good was a lasting one. Perhaps he will have learned more, from his failure, of the life and condition of the poor, more of their needs and limitations, than some one else who has been treasurer or chairman of two or three societies during the same time. Whatever the actual results may be in a given family, the painstaking, earnest work of a visitor, extending over a number of years, will give him a knowledge of the characters and lives of the people he wants to help, that will make his judgment of the greatest value to any one who is starting any kind of scheme or society intended to benefit the ignorant and destitute.

Is not one reason why so many relief societies, amusement clubs, etc., do harm instead of good, that they are started and managed by people who do not know the needs they try to meet? We all feel what an advantage it would be if a day laborer of intelligence and character, whose life had brought him very near to his shiftless, destitute neighbors, would become a member of a relief or tenement-house committee. An experienced visitor should be able to bring to any work for the material, moral, or legal improvement of the condition of the lowest classes the kind of knowledge of their lives that is possessed by one of themselves.

In conclusion, let me say once more that any good that comes from friendly visiting is important and far-reaching, because it touches the springs of human action, tending to develop self-respect, domestic happiness, and higher ambitions. The smallest result of this kind is worth much patient endeavor, for it may prove the bit of leaven that will leaven the whole lump. While we do all we can to improve the laws, dwellings, and institutions of our country, let us not forget this other and more personal work that should be carried on at the same time with public reforms. Not only is it worth doing for its direct results, but it is invaluable as a training to prepare us for dealing intelligently with the problems of crime and pauperism, whether we are practical workers or whether we are simply helping to create that strong force, public opinion, without which no great reform is possible.

Source: University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:

University of Michigan:

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Putnam, M.C. (1887). Friendly visiting. Presentation at the Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Correction. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=9149.