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Management Of Almshouses In New England (1884)

The Management Of Almshouses In New England

A Presentation by Frank B. Sanborn at the Eleventh Annual Session, National Conference Of Charities And Correction, , Held at St. Louis, October 13-17, 1884.

Introduction: Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the National Conference of Charities and Correction (NCCC) was the leading forum at which policymakers and charity reformers discussed social problems and potential solutions. Figures such as Franklin Benjamin Sanborn—secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Health, Lunacy, and Charity and Inspector of State Charities—regularly presented papers at the NCCC meetings. In this paper for the NCCC, Sanborn reviews the basic structure of poorhouse care in Massachusetts and demonstrates reformers’ intense interest in controlling costs and removing able-bodied children from poorhouses.


THE poorhouses of New England are generally called almshouses, and have been since their first establishment, more than two centuries ago; using the old English name which in England is now given to private charitable establishments, while what in New England is called an almshouse is in the mother country termed a workhouse. Like the English “workhouse,” our “almshouses” were originally parish establishments, the New England town and parish having formerly been the same jurisdiction, although there may now be fifty parishes in a single large town like Boston. It is very seldom, however, that a New England town, or even a city, contains more than one almshouse. The city of Boston, at present, has four; but this is quite exceptional. In New Hampshire, the town almshouses, which were once numerous, have lately been superseded to a great extent by county almshouses, such as are common outside of New England. No other New England State, I believe, has yet adopted the county system; nor does it prevail exclusively in New Hampshire. In Massachusetts there is a single State almshouse, with nearly a thousand inmates, and about 225 city and town almshouses, of all sizes, and containing from a single inmate to 500, as in one or two cities. A fair example of the better class of these town almshouses is one in a rural town, of which the following description has recently been given me by Dr. Nathan Allen, one of the Almshouse Visitors for the Board of Health, Lunacy, and Charity, who inspected it about two months ago: —

“The almshouse at B. has a large farm, estimated at over 400 acres. The land is good and valuable, a part of it occupied for a long time as a poor farm. The house was burnt some ten years ago, after which the present house was built. It is large and looks like a hotel, with fifty rooms, and might accommodate three times as many inmates as it has to-day, August 10, — 14 paupers (the average number being seldom over 20), all American, and remarkable for great age and good health. The rooms are well ventilated and lighted, neat and cleanly, the men’s and women’s departments entirely separated; while each inmate is furnished with a room. Several of the women take good care of their rooms. I went through the house and into nearly all the rooms. The whole establishment is superior to many private houses. The superintendent, E.G., has had charge for five years. He is paid $450. Mrs. G. is a superior woman and admirably adapted to the place. She knows everything about the house and also about every inmate. The food is superior in quality and amount. The inmates are: T.B., 97; L.W., 90.; C.C., 83; L.B., 68; G.B., 63; F.T., 56; S.P., 56; M.R., 56; S.J., 44; L.H., 34; E.M., 20; M.B., 19; H.M., 3; G.E.M., one year. T.B. is the oldest man in the town, and retains his senses surprisingly. It is so with L.W. and C.C. Not an insane person is found among them.”

The farm connected with this almshouse is exceptionally large, and perhaps there is no one of the 230 almshouses in the State which has so many acres of land connected with it. It is customary, however, to have a farm of a hundred acres attached to each town almshouse, the aggregate acreage of land thus used in Massachusetts being about 22,000; although in many cases there is but an acre or two. It seldom happens that these large farms can be cultivated by the labor of the pauper inmates, who are generally aged or infirm men, unless they are insane or epileptic. Only a small part of them is cultivated at all, the greater portion being woodland or pasturage; but the produce of the farm, in most cases, supplies the inmates with vegetables, milk, etc., and in some is sufficient to pay all the expenses of the almshouse. Frequently, the almshouse keeper also has charge of the town roads, or does some labor in connection with them, or attends to some other department of the town service, such as the care of cemeteries or the distribution of supplies for out-door relief. In a few towns, the almshouse is used as the place for keeping the town records and transacting a large part of the town business, the “selectmen,” or chief officers of the town, being in such cases “overseers of the poor.” This latter title is the name given to the chief officers who direct the relief of the poor in all parts of New England, corresponding to the term “guardians” in England and “supervisors” in some of the United States. Occasionally, though not often, one of these overseers of the poor is actually the keeper of the almshouse; but this officer is generally appointed from a class of persons who devote themselves to the occupation of almshouse keeping, and who therefore remove from town to town as their occupation ceases in one place and begins in another. Some of these keepers remain in one position for twenty years; but this is rare, the only instance which occurs to me being the keeper of the almshouse in Plymouth, the oldest town in Massachusetts. The average length of service in the towns visited this year is about four years, and the average salary of the keeper is $387. This is a sum too small to secure the best service, and in less than half the Massachusetts almshouses is the management up to the standard which would be maintained in a State establishment for the same class. On the other hand, there are few instances of gross neglect or abuse on the part of the almshouse keepers; while there are many more instances of such careful management as is indicated in the almshouse above described. From my slight acquaintance with the almshouses of the other New England States, I have no reason to doubt that the standard of management is highest in Massachusetts; although there are many well-kept almshouses in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. The whole number of these establishments now in use in the six New England States is believed to be about 600, for it is impossible to state this exactly. It therefore seems that Massachusetts, with a population nearly half that of all New England, has but a little more than a third part of the almshouses: whence it follows that the average number of inmates must be considerably greater in a Massachusetts almshouse than in the almshouses of other States.

During the year ending April 1, 1884, the whole number of inmates in the 230 city and town almshouses of Massachusetts was a little more than 7,000; while the average number was less than two-thirds as many, — namely, 3,920. This would give an average number in each almshouse of 17 persons. Of the whole average number (3,920), less than 620 were insane; although among the whole number of different persons during the year (7,000) there may have been 700 insane persons, or one-tenth of the whole almshouse population. During the same year, the number of insane persons in the hospitals and asylums of Massachusetts was nearly 5,000; so that not more than a seventh part of the insane persons under public supervision in Massachusetts have been in the smaller almshouses during the past year. If to these were added the insane population of the Tewksbury asylum (connected with the State Almshouse, but under medical management), the number of insane persons even nominally in almshouses would be less than a fourth part of the whole number under public supervision. This is much less than the usual proportion. In the State of New Hampshire, for instance, there were in 1883 354 insane persons in the ten county almshouses; while the State Asylum at Concord contained only 300 insane persons at that time. As there were undoubtedly some insane persons in the still existing town almshouses of New Hampshire, it would appear that more than half the New Hampshire insane are in almshouses, probably three-fifths. In Vermont, the proportion must be nearly as great. In Connecticut, it is much less, because the rapid enlargement of the State Asylum at Middletown has withdrawn many of the insane from the town poorhouses, so that the number now remaining in the 101 poorhouses of Connecticut does not probably exceed 150, while the number in insane asylums was upwards of 1,100 during the year 1883. In Rhode Island, the proportion of the insane in town almshouses seems to be even less than in Connecticut; but the statistics are not at hand. Taking New England as a whole, it is safe to say that less than a fifth part of all the insane under public supervision are in the almshouses (estimated at 600) in the six States.

The county almshouses of New Hampshire, which have grown up within the last twenty years, were never reported upon as a whole by the State authorities until 1883, when a special commission on the condition of the insane published a valuable report. This showed that the ten almshouse farms contained about 4,000 acres of land, ranging in size from the Grafton County almshouse with 650 acres to the Cheshire almshouse with 230 acres. The ten county almshouses contained during the year a population something less than 2,000, and an average population of about 1,030, rising in the winter to about 1,250. The average weekly cost for all the inmates was about $1.50, which is about 35 cents less than the average weekly cost at the single State Almshouse of Massachusetts, containing in 1883 an average population of 1,000, or nearly as many as in all the county almshouses of New Hampshire. Between a third and a half of these almshouse inmates in New Hampshire were insane or idiotic, and something more than a third part might properly be called insane. The State Commission, from whose report these facts are drawn, report strongly against retaining so many of the insane in these almshouses, and say that nearly a fourth part of them were confined in strong rooms in February, 1883. The general management of these New Hampshire almshouses, however, judging by the two largest, which I have visited, and from the statements made to me by a member of the State Commission, is kindly and frugal, without being specially censurable, except that the insane ought to be under better medical supervision and to have more and better attendance. This is the general criticism to be made on the treatment of the insane in almshouses, even when they are under a State supervision as vigilant and enlightened as that in Wisconsin appears to be.

The State Almshouse of Massachusetts at Tewksbury, which was last year the subject of so much criticism, was at that time in better condition than any large almshouse which I have ever visited, and is now slightly improved. About ten years ago there were serious neglects and some abuses in this almshouse, chiefly in the care of the insane; but these had been corrected for years. The almshouse and insane asylum at Tewksbury are now under medical management. This change, which had been long contemplated, secures the better care and greater skill that generally accompany the management of the insane by a resident physician, so that it is now safe to say that the Tewksbury almshouse is in better condition than any such establishment in New England. In consequence of the burning of the Bridgewater State Workhouse in 1883, the Tewksbury almshouse has had a larger population in the year which ended October 1 than ever before, the whole number of different persons residing there for longer or shorter periods during the year having been nearly 3,800. The average number was almost exactly 1,000, the net cost about $93,500, and the average weekly cost, therefore, $1.80. This weekly cost, though larger than in the county almshouses of New Hampshire, is considerably less than the average cost in the 230 city and town almshouses of Massachusetts, which was nearly $2.50 a week during the same year. Some of these small almshouses, and occasionally a large one, show an average cost of $4 or $5 a week, — generally, in consequence of a small number of inmates in an almshouse calculated for a much larger population.

The almshouse buildings in New England, having been occupied in most cases for forty or fifty years, and sometimes for eighty or one hundred years, are not at present well adapted to modern ideas of comfort and convenience. New almshouses are now built in Massachusetts at the rate of about five in a year, including such extensive rebuilding and enlargement as gives the town practically a new almshouse. Generally speaking, these new structures are well adapted for the comfort and separation of the inmates; and some of them are very costly. The town of Lancaster, not far from Worcester, with a population of 2,100, has built within the last year an almshouse of brick and stone, with new farm buildings, and capable of receiving some 50 inmates, at a cost, including furniture, of nearly $30,000; yet the present number of inmates is less than 10, so that the average construction cost for each inmate of the present number is about $3,000. This, however, is more than twice as costly as any other new almshouse known to me. The State is building, and has nearly completed, an almshouse department at the State Workhouse in Bridgewater, at a cost, including furniture, water supply, heating apparatus, etc., of about $90,000 for 300 inmates, or an average of $300 construction cost for each inmate. These buildings are entirely of brick and stone, as near fire-proof as any such structures can be, and very well adapted to the care of the almshouse population on the dormitory plan; that is, in a large common room, both for dormitory and hospital purposes, and with very few single rooms. At the Lancaster almshouse, just mentioned, there are single rooms for the inmates; and this, of course, is a more costly style of building. Generally speaking, the Massachusetts almshouses, except that at Tewksbury and those in a few of our cities, are not crowded with inmates even in winter, when their population is about thirty per cent. greater than in midsummer. Many of the rural almshouses have room for twice their present number of inmates; and, in half our towns at least, the almshouse population is not increasing from year to year. In most of our twenty Massachusetts cities, it increases considerably.

The number of children in the Massachusetts almshouses is less than that of the insane; and in half of them at least there are no children at all, except the feeble-minded. The Connecticut almshouses have lately been relieved of many children by the establishment of county homes under a new law passed in 1883-84. The secretary of the Connecticut Board of Charities writes me as follows concerning them: —

“The County Temporary Homes are in operation in all the counties under the enclosed law, and draw a great many children from poorhouses, and prevent a great many from going to them. You will find an account of them up to January 1, last, pages 56 to 72 of the report. Since that time, they have made good progress. There is a home in each county, — eight in all, — and from 175 to 200 children have been in up to date, October 7; and not far from half of that number have been provided with suitable family homes.”

No movement so extensive as this to provide separate homes away from the almshouse for poor children is going on elsewhere in New England; but, in Massachusetts, we have for some years been placing such children in families with very good results. And our cities, which contain nearly half our almshouse population, are forbidden by law to retain children above certain ages in the almshouse. This law is not completely enforced as yet, but takes effect more and more each year. There is, in other respects, a very perceptible improvement in the management of the Massachusetts almshouses since I first began to visit them, twenty years ago. What is now much needed is the union of several towns in the support of a single almshouse, so that the number of inmates may be large enough to warrant the employment of a better class of officers than we now find in many of the smaller almshouses, and an increase of the salary, until the average, instead of less than $400, as now, should be $500 or $600. This amount would secure in Massachusetts the services of very competent men and women, such as are now employed at this rate in our better almshouses. The State laws permit such unions among towns; and these would be better in our State than county almshouses, could such be established. But, with our laws and customs, county almshouses could scarcely exist in Massachusetts.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Sanborn, F.B. (1884, October). The management of almshouses in New England. Proceedings of the National Conference of CHarities and Correction. St. Louis, MO.

Source: National Conference on Social Welfare.


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