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Smith, Zilpha Drew

Zilpha Drew Smith (1852-1926)


Pioneer in the Charity Organization Movement and Early Social Work Educator


Introduction: Zilpha Drew Smith was a pioneering social worker in the late 19th century.  She served as the general secretary of the Associated Charities of Boston from 1886 to 1903. Under her guidance Boston’s charity network was skillfully organized and efficiently run. She developed and tested the method of using volunteer friendly visitors, an essential component of the charity organization movement. Smith stressed the importance of district committees of Associated Charities supervising and assisting friendly visitors.  She also encouraged the volunteers to aspire to being board members and to sponsor, support and participate actively in other community services.

Using her experiences, Smith developed some of the earliest training materials for staff training courses.  For example, in 1888, Miss Smith organized the Monday Evening Club, an association of charity workers.  Three years later she organized training classes for the professional staff of Associated Charities.  After her retirement from Associated Charities, Smith accepted an academic position in the newly established Boston School of Social Work providing her the opportunity to share her experience and training materials with aspiring social workers.

Career:  Zilpha Drew Smith was born January 25, 1852 in Pembroke, Massachusetts.  She was the third of six children of Judith Winsor (nee McLauthlin) and Silvanus Smith.  When she was still young her family moved to East Boston, where her father, a skilled craftsman in shipbuilding, established a shipyard. Her family instilled in her the basic values of the Protestant ethic and nurtured her interest in social service.  Zilpha Smith’s mother was engaged in a number of reform efforts such as temperance, religious tolerance and woman suffrage.

In 1868, Zilpha Smith graduated from Boston Girl’s School and soon became a telegrapher in the Commercial Telegraph Office in Boston.  While working, she contributed her time as a volunteer in the Cooperative Society, a local relief organization. She then had the opportunity to be a government clerk, and given the assignment to reorganize the index of the Probate Court of Suffolk County. In 1879, Smith was hired to lead the office staff in the newly founded Associated Charities of Boston.  In 1884, she was asked to become the director of the registration bureau.  This was also the year when Smith gave her first presentation about friendly visiting at the annual meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections held in St. Louis, Missouri. In her presentation, Smith described how her agency was attempting to organize the various charities in the Boston community by enlisting the cooperation of the churches, public services, philanthropists and other relief organizations. The purpose of this effort and its initial structure was described in her 1884 presentation:

“…The Charities of Boston are associated for two purposes:

First, to exchange information privately between charities interested in the same family, through the records and written reports of the central office; and

Second, to secure personal consultations on general subjects and about particular families.”

 The records of the central office for the last year concerned nearly 11,000 families.

At the general conferences for the discussion of broad questions, there is usually a fair representation from the various charities of the city; but, as few charities divide their work by districts, it is impossible for those working throughout the city to be represented at each of the fourteen district conference meetings which are held each week. Consultations between the charities about individual families, therefore, must usually be brought about by our visitors or agents, who go from one person to another of those interested in a family, until we are possessed of full knowledge concerning it, and can act upon the advice received or give advice in our turn.

We are not a relief society. Under our by-laws, we can hold no fund for relief; and we believe that in Boston our society is better off without one. We are on the best of terms with almost all the relief-giving societies and agencies, and the number of those co-operating with us has increased constantly.

We now have over 600 volunteer visitors, who visit about 1,400 families. As a rule, these volunteers are not almsgivers. The conferences and the visitors possess various degrees of efficiency, but many of them are very successful. Were the visitors left to them selves, a large proportion of their work would be weak and fruitless, and perhaps given up entirely. It is of the organization of our district conferences, which strengthen and encourage the work of friendly visitors, that I wish especially to speak.

When we began, five years since, each conference was allowed to work its own way out, under the general plan of hearing reports of visitors at the conference meetings, and acting upon them there. As the number of families in our care increased, it was found that all the visitors could not be heard, and that each family needed more study than could be given in a conference meeting. Various plans were tried; and the one I now describe, proving the most successful, has been adopted by nearly all our larger conferences, and by smaller ones also, except that the work:of the case committee is by them included in that of the executive committee….”

In 1886, Smith was appointed general secretary of the Associated Charities of Boston and formally launched her professional career in the charity organization movement and social work education.  Under her leadership, Associated Charities was successful in bringing together most of the charities and relief organizations operating in Boston.  Building on the skills she learned earlier, Smith organized a central file of families being served, a system of district offices, paid agents and volunteer friendly visitors. In an 1887 presentation at the annual meeting of the National Conference of Charities held in Omaha, Nebraska, Smith described aspects of the relationship among committees, volunteer visitors and paid agents doing the service of Associated Charities:

 “…Who shall do this personal work? I think the Committee must bear the responsibility of enlisting visitors and keeping them interested. A wise Committee becomes familiar with the condition of the families visited, shows a constant interest in the visitor’s work, gives information and suggestions, urges the visitor to use his ingenuity, and encourages him to keep on, neither deserting his family when discouraged nor deeming himself of no use when they are prosperous. When a Committee does all this, visitors are glad to bring from time to time fresh recruits to a service they have found helpful and inspiring.

Let the Committee, on the other hand, act chiefly as an adviser of its paid agent, and decide what shall be done in the crises which poverty brings, without any long looks ahead to see what preventive measures may be initiated now, or be led away by general schemes to the neglect of individual work, expecting that each visitor will go on for himself after a family has been assigned to him, and the number of visitors will steadily diminish.

One who holds only the position of a visitor can help to convert a committee which fails on the friendly side of the work, if patient, good-tempered, and in earnest in the desire to strengthen the work of the Conference. Written reports which include direct questions as to the problems in hand and which require an answer make the Committee think about the visitor’s work. They become interested in the constantly changing problem of the family, and the experience gained in one case enables them to offer suggestions to other visitors….”

Smith retired from Associated Charities in 1903 and almost immediately moved into an academic position as the assistant director of the newly established Boston School of Social Work.  Smith’s extensive experience with Associated Charities had convinced her that volunteer charity workers would benefit from some level of professional training.  It was her view that friendly visiting (or case work investigation) demanded the skills of an investigator combined with the objectivity and precision of the social scientist.  She believed that professionally trained charity workers would be better able to help their families but also prepared to educate and inform the courts, legislators and the public.

Zilpha Smith retired in 1918 and died in Boston in 1926.


Encyclopedia of Social Work, 17th Issue, Vol. 2, 1977. National Association of Social Workers, Washington, D.C. pp. 1272-1273.

Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in America, Walter I. Trattner, Editor, 1986. Greenwood Press, Westport, Ct. pp. 681-683.

 How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. (2013). Zilpha Drew Smith (1852-1926): Pioneer in the charity organization movement and early social work educator. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=9175.