Charity Organization Societies (1877 – 1893)
By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.
Introduction: The genesis of the Charity Organization Society (COS) movement had its roots in urbanization and the loss of “community” and mutual aid prevalent in rural areas of Western countries. By their very nature, urban areas fostered industrial accidents, diseases, unemployment, poverty, family breakdown and other social and economic problems. When afflicted by unemployment, sickness, old age or a physical disability, individuals and families without relatives or financial resources had few options: apply for public relief, appeal to private charities or beg help from strangers.
The problems of dealing with urban poverty increased significantly when an area suffered an economic depression, labor strife or some other event that left large numbers of able-bodied men and women without a source of income. A vast number of independent groups had formed to ameliorate the problems of poverty caused by rapid industrialization, but they operated autonomously with no coordinated plan. The primary emphasis of the COS movement was to employ a scientific approach to cope with the expanding problems of urban dependency, the proliferation of private philanthropies and growing evidence that some individuals and families had learned to “game” the system by successfully appealing to multiple organizations for help.
The COS emphasis on a scientific approach led to the use of investigation, registration, and supervision of applicants for charity. It resulted too in community-wide efforts to identify and coordinate the resources and activities of private philanthropies and the establishment of centralized “clearinghouses” or registration bureaus that collected information about the individuals and families receiving assistance. These innovations were later incorporated into the casework method of social work, the organization of Community Chests and Councils, and the operation of Social Service Exchanges.
The industrial growth that followed the Civil War created crowded urban areas and led to poverty on a scale never before witnessed in the United States. Cities were filled with rural and immigrant poor families required to live in unsanitary and unsafe housing and work in dangerous factories. Then, in 1873, an economic depression in Europe combined with the turbulence of the post-Civil War years, led to a collapse of the American economy and what is known as “The Long Depression.” Banks and businesses failed, unemployment rose to 14% and those who retained their jobs saw wages cut to as little as one dollar per day.
The great risk for even the most virtuous hard-working families to fall into pauperism and end up at the charity of the community was another result of the depression. The New York Society for Improving the Condition of the Poor found this to be true in New York City, seeing an increase from 5,000 families on relief in 1873 to 24,000 in 1874, and to an average of more than 20,000 families during the later 1870’s. Newspapers consistently reported the increased use of soup kitchens. The perception that basic relief efforts were enabling an increasingly vagrant group especially grew in large cities like Boston, where idle workers had demonstrated and demanded the city to employ them in public works. Many community leaders and supporters lost faith in the credibility of traditional charity and its ability to avoid enabling the unemployed. Especially among the rich, the urgency for a reformed effort likely grew in response to this attitude. In some cases, the government corruption that had been exposed during the depression was also an impetus to scientific charity. The economic depression of the 1870s profoundly strained benevolent organizations; therefore, it was clear that a more organized system of charity was necessary.
An illustration of these times and the rise of a professional beggar class was described in 1880 by Reverend Oscar C. McCulloch, Pastor of Plymouth Church, Indianapolis at the seventh annual meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections. His presentation entitled “Associated Charities” detailed the need to organize charities:
“…Every worker among the poor in our cities finds himself saying, “Who is sufficient for these things?” Let him conscientiously attempt to dispense charity wisely in any one instance, and he is made sensible of the organization of pauperism, and of the complex problem of poverty; of suffering beyond his reach, and of setting tides of evil beyond his control. My own introduction to this work was in this wise: In a small room I found an old blind woman, her son, his wife and two children, his sister with one child. There was no chair, table or stool, a little ” monkey stove,” but no fire; no plates, or kettles, or knife, fork or spoon. Such utter poverty horrified me. I soon had coal, provisions and clothing there. Chance led me into the office of our township trustee, where the historical records of all applicants for public aid are registered. Here I found that I had touched one knot of a large family known as “American Gypsies.” Three generations have been, and are, receiving public aid, numbering 125 persons; 65 per cent. were illegitimate; 57 per cent of the children died before the age of five. Distinctions of relationship were ignored. In the case above cited, the child of the sister was by her own brother. Since then I have found that family underrunning our society like devil-grass. In the diagram which I hold before you, the extent of it is traced to over 400 individuals. They are found on the street begging, at the houses soliciting cold victuals. Their names appear on the criminal records of the city court, the county jail, the house of refuge, the reformatory, the State prison and the county poor asylum. I give this as an illustration of the organization of pauperism, which takes it beyond the control of the individual and of the single society, making necessary an organization of charitable forces if the evil is ever to be controlled….” 1.
COS leaders wanted to reform charity by including a paid agent’s investigation of the case’s “worthiness” before distributing aid. They believed that unregulated and unsupervised relief caused rather than cured poverty. The paid agent, usually a male, made an investigation and carried out the decisions of the volunteer committee concerning each applicant, including maintaining records. A volunteer or “friendly visitor” was recruited to offer advice and supervise the family’s progress. COS visitors sought to uplift the family and taught the values of hard work and thrift to individuals and families. The COS set up centralized records and administrative services and emphasized objective investigations and professional training. There was a strong scientific emphasis as the COS visitors organized their activities and learned principles of practice and techniques of intervention from one another. COS views dominated private charity philosophy until the 1930s and influenced the face of social welfare as it evolved during the Progressive era.2.
Origins of the Charity Organization Society Movement
The London Charity Organization Society (COS) founded in 1869 became the model for the United States. It had as it objectives: 1) bringing order out of the chaos created by the city’s numerous charities by offering district conferences at which the agencies could discuss their common problems and coordinate their efforts; and 2) insisting on careful investigations of appeals for help and a city-wide registration of applicants. The London Charity Organization expressed the thought of all those who would follow in the COS movement: “By this organization, when fully carried out, it is hoped that no loophole will be left for imposture; no dark holes and corners of misery, disease and corruption remain unvisited; no social sore fester untouched by wise and gentle hands; no barrier of ignorance or selfish apathy stand unassailed between the rich and the poor; no differences of creed prevent unity of action in the common cause of humanity.”
The COS movement was introduced into the United States by two men from Buffalo, New York who were deeply concerned about the expanding destitution caused by the Long Depression of the 1870s. One was an Episcopal rector, Rev. Stephen Humphreys Gurteen, and the other was T. Guilford Smith, a young successful business man and a parishioner at St. Mary’s Church where Rev. Gurteen served. Along with a circle of friends, they discussed the social and economic problems of their community, the proliferation of private charities, and what more could be done to ameliorate poverty. A plan emerged and as part of that plan, Rev. Gurteen traveled to England and spent the summer of 1877 learning about the London Charity Organization Society. On his return, the two men drew up plans to adopt a COS in Buffalo.
The impetus for the Buffalo COS was the economic and social circumstances that resulted from a decade of severe economic depression and industrial strife in the 1870s. By 1877 the United States was entering its fourth year of a depression closely related to a collapse in the railroad industry. The railroads were the advance agents of industrialism, opening a national market for the first time and themselves providing a market for iron, steel, coal, and the products of related industries. Great wealth had been produced by the railroads, and hundreds of thousands of people derived their financial support directly from the wages paid employees. By 1877, construction of new track and rolling stock had virtually halted, related industries were sagging, and wages were slashed for railroad workers. Newspapers began to report cases of starvation and suicide attributed directly to unemployment and despondency. Many able-bodied men became tramps and roamed the states seeking the means of survival. These social and economic conditions were exacerbated in Buffalo because it was a manufacturing and shipping center. When afflicted by unemployment, sickness, old age or a physical disability, individuals and families without relatives or financial resources had few options: apply for public relief, appeal to private charities or beg help from strangers. To combat these conditions, a vast number of independent groups had formed to ameliorate the problems of poverty caused by the economic depression and mass unemployment; however, these agencies operated autonomously with no coordinated plan.
The Conditions Being Confronted by the COS
The Buffalo COS and the others that followed in the United States, like the London model., was intended to coordinate the city’s numerous charitable agencies, but it went an important step further. Rather than provide indiscriminate provision of alms, the society focused on more directed philanthropy or scientific approach for distributing assistance. In 1880, Reverend Oscar C. McCulloch, a Member of the Committee on Charitable Organization in Cities and Pastor of the Plymouth Church in Indianapolis gave a presentation at the seventh annual meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Correction. His paper detailed the problems a COS was attempting to solve by describing the operation of the Indianapolis Charity Organization Society, which was established in 1879.
“…The need of the organization of charities in our cities springs, first, from the wasted energy and effort. ” Half the labor of the most laborious people in the world is either wholly wasted, or of such an imperfect character as to require much further labor; which evils need not have been if there had existed considerable skill in organization.” So says Arthur Helps in his essay on ” Organization in Daily Life,” and he adds: ” There is another great branch of human endeavor, indeed the greatest, in which organization is especially necessary, and that is in the administration of charity.
“Few realize the number of agencies that exist for the amelioration of the condition of the poor, or the amount of money spent. Christianity has become ” structural,” that is, a part of the very structure of society, working instinctively and unconscious of its origin. Out of this “structural Christianity” flow all the tender feelings and earnest efforts which embody themselves in orphanages, asylums, societies and schools. What are all these but the casting out of evil ” in His name?” ‘
“Yet, says Rev. S. H. Gurteen, ” in spite of all that is being done in the way of charitable relief, it is found, on all hands:
1. That pauperism is steadly on the increase in almost every city in the land.
2. That the most truly deserving are those who do not seek, and, therefore, very often do not get, relief.
3. That the pauper, the impostor, and the fraud of every description, carry off, at least, one-half of all charity, public and private; hence there is a constant and deplorable waste in the alms funds of every large city.
4. That, by far, the larger part of all that is given in the name of charity is doing positive harm by teaching the poor to be idle, shiftless and improvident.
5. That but little effort is made, as a rule, to inculcate provident habits among the poor, or to establish provident schemes, based on sound business principles, so as to aid the poor to be self supporting.
6. That little, if anything, is being done to check the evils arising from overcrowded and unhealthy tenements, or to suppress the causes of bastardy, baby-farming, and other evils peculiar to the individual city.”
The Need for Organization
Objectives: The early movement to organize local charities addressed itself to two over arching objectives: 1) attempting to ameliorate the extensive suffering caused by destitution and the growth of poverty and vagrancy in urban areas; and 2) reducing the conflict between social classes. Early leaders of the movement professed the idea that poverty could be lessened, hardship ameliorated and professional beggars eliminated by employing a rational system of scientific charitable administration. This would be achieved by replacing the existing chaos in helping the poor by systematically coordinated private agencies. It was further believed that greater social class harmony would come from the mutual respect that would develop as the volunteers and staff experienced greater contact and relationships with poor families seeking assistance. In his 1880 presentation, Rev. McColloch outlined these elements:
“…The principles and objects of the society may be thus stated:
1. The complete severance of charitable relief and other charitable work of the society from all questions of creed, politics and nationality.
2. The social and moral elevation of the poor, (1) By bringing the richer and poorer classes into closer relations with each other by means of a thorough system of house-to-house visitation; and (2) By the establishment of provident and humane schemes for the gradual improvement of the condition of the poor.
3. The reduction of vagrancy and pauperism.
4. The prevention of indiscriminate and duplicate giving.
5. The prevention of imposition.
6. The procuring of immediate and adequate relief for the worthy and needy ones in the city….”
Methods and Operation: The emphasis on a scientific approach led to the use of investigation, registration, and supervision of applicants for charity. It resulted too in community-wide efforts to identify and coordinate the resources and activities of private philanthropies and the establishment of centralized “clearinghouses” or registration bureaus that collected information about the individuals and families receiving assistance. The workforce for the organized charities would consist of trained “friendly visitors.” (Note: These innovations were later incorporated into the casework method of social work, the organization of Community Chests and Councils, and the operation of Social Service Exchanges.) In Rev. McColloch’s presentation he details the methods as follows:
“…The general methods by which this society seeks to effect its objects and carry out its principles are: (1) Cooperation of all existing agencies. (2) Districting of the city and thorough investigation of the poverty and pauperism in the districts, and of the history, character and condition of every applicant for relief. (3) Organizing a trained band of visitors who go from house to house in friendly ways. These methods need detailed explanation.
1. Cooperation of existing charitable agencies. This brings together: The mayor, the police, the overseer of the poor and the heads of the institutions, as representatives of the official aid given; The local charities, fraternities, private institutions and churches as representatives of the private aid given; Individuals who are interested in the movement. From these a certain number is chosen as council or executive committee, whose function will be described later. It is evident that such a society, if complete, could, by aggregate wisdom and combined force, effect large results. It would present a solid front to imposture; effect exchanges of information; measure the work to be done and inaugurate schemes for doing it, which would be as wise and as successful as the business methods and plans of its members.
2. Districting the city. The society is practically related to the poverty and the pauperism of the city, through what is called its district committees or ward conferences. The various churches, clergy, local charities and societies, together with delegates from the overseers of the poor, dispensaries, unite in any district or ward. An office is opened, a superintendent hired. It is the business of this superintendent to make himself acquainted with the condition of the district; its needs, abuses, evils, and its various remedial agencies. All applicants for relief are registered and their case; carefully and kindly inquired into. I shall describe the committee in action later; suffice it to say that in the district committee the poor come up for consideration as individuals.
3. Organized visitors. It is the tendency of all societies to crystallize into fixed forms and methods. Work becomes mechanical; the order is one of routine. The individuals become members of a class to be dealt with by rule. There is no personal relation of individuals of the society with individuals of the class. Then, too, the society is suspected; treated with cunning and deceit, because of the benefit to be derived. To counteract both these tendencies bands of visitors are organized, of men and women. who will visit the poor in their homes. They take their warm hearts, cheery spirits and wise thoughts into homes where need is. They establish personal relations. They give no aid, save that which friendship dictates, nor are they allowed to use their position for purposes of proselytism or technical spiritual instruction….”1.
A Governing Council: A council or executive committee was the heart of a COS. It was composed of representatives of district committees, representatives of charitable institutions, associations, etc., and ex officio members representing business, public officials and others specially selected for their standing in the community. In a central office, and under the immediate control of the Council or Executive Committee, a general registry was kept. In the general registry were all applicants for aid, whether from public or private sources, and information that served as a basis for plans and action. Rev. McCulloch listed the contents and their importance in his 1880 presentation:
“…”It will be remembered that the objects of the society are to reduce vagrancy and pauperism, and to ascertain the causes; to prevent duplicate and indiscriminate giving; to secure the community from imposture, and to see that all deserving poverty is relieved.
“But this can only be done when there is known the amount and extent of poverty, the names and addresses of all receiving aid, the various beneficiaries of the relief agencies. To this end the following system of registration is adopted:
1. The names of all applying for or receiving official outdoor aid, are entered. In the office at Indianapolis, transcripts of their history, as they appear on the books /of the township trustee, are taken. Related families are grouped together.
2. The names of all persons receiving aid in the various institutions or outdoor, are entered. These include the dispensaries, the hospital, the almshouse, etc.
3. All persons relieved by associations, societies, guilds, churches, so far as they cooperate, are registered.
4. All persons relieved by private charity, so far as they can be ascertained.
5. All persons in penal and reformatory institutions, and passing through the courts.
“All these are entered upon special and separate books and then gathered into a ” general index” in columns appropriately headed. Such a registry is valuable for the following reasons:
1. It reveals, according to its completeness, the extent of poor relief in the city.
2. It reveals the overlapping or the receipt of aid in the case of any individual from more than one source.
3. It reveals the amount of aid received by any one family.
4. It shows family lines; grouping together those related by marriage and descent.,
5. It shows the pauper or crime history of those families tracing them into prison, almshouse, reformatory or refuge.
6. It gives histories of families and individuals from which to deduce the causes operating to bring a family down; causes of heredity, association, etc.
7. It outlines the methods to be taken to elevate a family, or an individual, now degenerating, or remove another from evil associations.
“The information thus gathered is confidential, as regards the public, save to those entitled to know. The results are at the service of those who wish information in any particular case. The sources from which information is gathered are so many that the result is more accurate than could be reached by any single society or individual. The overseers of the poor, churches and benevolent individuals can, by the use of this register, inform themselves as to the history, condition and habits of all applicants for aid….”
“The District Office is the best illustration of the work of the society upon the individual. Each office has a paid superintendent, who is also its visitor. He investigates and is the medium through which the committee communicates with the various relieving agencies on the one hand, and the poor on the other. In District No. 1, Indianapolis, the method: of procedure is as follows:
The name and address of the applicant is entered upon the applicant book. Then in the record book are entered those facts which it is thought necessary to know. These are: Birth-place, previous residence, time in city, landlord, physician, age, name of woman before marriage, occupation, income, children; their names, ages, schools, earnings; rent and rent due; pawn tickets; help, if any, received from any other source; relations in the city or elsewhere able to assist. The applicant’s own statement of condition and need is then taken down, with the names of any references he or she may be able to give. If the case is known, and there is immediate need, the superintendent can grant immediate aid, reporting the same at the weekly meeting. He makes a personal visit to the house, and verifies, as far as possible, all the statements. The references, physicians, landlord and minister are written to on forms, which contain a prepaid answer-blank, to insure response. The police are interrogated, and the official register of public relief, or the filed transcripts in the office, are then examined. All these are entered in the record, and become a full and comprehensive history of the case. With the results thus obtained the case is brought before the committee. This committee is composed of representatives from the township trustee’s office (our poor office), the benevolent society, our principal relieving agency, the flower mission, from several of the churches, and, in addition, several individuals. The case brought up is carefully and kindly considered. Each individual is treated with respect, and with the desire to do that which shall permanently help him. Is he worthy or unworthy? If worthy, is there real need, or only fancied? If aid is required, of what kind-employment, food, fuel, medical attendance, nursing, institutional, and from what source? If resident for one year, then the township trustee is the proper source. If here only a short time, the benevolent society. If sick, the dispensary physician must aid; the flower mission visit, taking food, ice, milk, flowers, etc. It will be seen that there is no delay, no referring of the applicant from one society to another. The societies are here represented and at once assume the care of the case. If one society cannot give all the aid required, others combine; so that immediate relief and adequate aid are given. If employment is needed, the name is taken by some member, is also entered upon the book of the employment bureau of the benevolent society, and is printed in the Weekly Bulletin of the society.
“Friendly Visitors: The society seeks to interest and utilize a large number of/ visitors for personal work among the poor. Their work has already been described. Once each week the visitors meet. The cases passed upon by the district committee are taken up. Only here the worthy and unworthy are considered as proper subjects for friendly visiting. The visitors report as to their visits, plan out methods of helping, secure work and places. Each visitor is entrusted with but two or three families, which she is to visit every week or two. Once a month she is to make a formal report of the condition and progress of her families. It is this which gives the poor the greatest gift-a friend. As Miss Octavia Hill says: ” You want to know them, to enter into their lives, their thoughts, to let them enter into some of your brightness to make their lives a little fuller, a little gladder. You might meet them face to face as friends; you might teach them; you might sing for and with them; you might gladden their homes by bringing them flowers, or, better still, by teaching them to grow plants.”
“And this mercy is “twice blessed. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” For the truth is taught that ” pity and need make all flesh kin.”1.
Rapid Expansion of the COS Movement
In 1893, a Report of the Committee on History of Charity Organization, was given by Charles D. Kellogg, Chairman, at the Chicago meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections. The title of his report was “Charity Organization in the United States.” Below is the introductory portion of his report detailing the expansion of COS since 1877.
“RELIEF TWENTY YEARS AGO.– Legal relief consisted of outdoor and indoor systems, the latter being universally institutional; and therefore it only falls incidentally within the scope of Charity Organization efforts. The practice of legal outdoor relief differed greatly in different communities. In New York City the provision for this form of aid was comparatively slight, and consisted in appropriations for fuel distribution and for the adult blind in equally inadequate amounts, and a trifling sum for medicines at the City Hospital. In some cities, like Buffalo, Philadelphia and Brooklyn, large appropriations of money were made for outdoor relief, and its administration did not escape the suspicion of corrupt and political taint at times. In New England cities and towns, overseers of the poor or selectmen distributed, much at their caprice, the relief provided by taxation. But from every quarter testimony arises that the system was without adequate safeguards of investigation, tests of destitution, or means of hindering duplication of relief from several sources simultaneously, or of making the relief adequate to the necessity. Private almsgiving, for the most part through organized and often incorporated societies, was profuse and chaotic, while still behind the demands made upon it, and was dispersed in tantalizing doles miserably inadequate for effectual succor where the need was genuine, and dealt out broadcast among the clamorous and impudent. Amid all this mean prodigality there were almoners seriously and studiously in earnest to make the relief they gave beneficent and not injurious; but the system, or rather want of it, and the exaggerated conceptions of their resources excited among the poor, degraded and impeded their labors. In fact, twenty years ago those in the United States who thought that the function of relief could be lifted above temporary material aid were few in number and but just beginning to be heard. Indeed, it was the industrial depression following the commercial crisis which began in the autumn of I873, throwing multitudes out of work and making a heavy draft upon the benevolent, which seems to afford the starting-point for the examination and reformation of the prevailing methods of charity…. (p.54)
“…Buffalo has the honor of being the first city in the United States to produce a complete Charity Organization Society of the London type. The Rev. S. H. Gurteen, an English clergyman, who had been active in the London Society, was settled as an assistant minister in St. Paul’s Church there; and he systematized the work of his parish guild so that every application for aid was promptly investigated. He proposed in I877 the creation of a clearing-office to which the charitable agencies of the city should send daily reports; and he lectured on “Phases of Charity,” attracting much attention. Simultaneously citizens, having met in conference, were engaged in an effort to reform the methods of municipal outdoor relief, which had become extravagant, was careless and corrupt. Failing to obtain legislation in Albany to create a commission for its control, they secured an ordinance from the city, under which, in October 1877, all applications for relief were for the first time investigated by the police. On Dec. 11, 1877, as a result of these agitations, the Charity Organization Society was set afoot at a public meeting; and it adhered to the principle of co-ordinating existing relief agencies and giving no relief from its own funds except in rare emergencies.
“In 1882 there were twenty-two Charity Organization Societies known to exist in the United States, and ten others which had adopted some of the leading features of this movement, and were enrolled as correspondents with the former societies. They embraced cities and towns having a population of 6,331,700, or twelve per cent of the total of the United States; and among them were the chief centres of influence in the country. Of these societies ten were in or had just completed the first year of their operations; and among them were some destined to be the most important in the Union…” 3.
1. Oscar C. McCulloch, A Member of the Committee on Charitable Organization in Cities and Pastor of Plymouth Church, Indianapolis — A Presentation at the Seventh Annual Conference of Charities And Correction, Held at Cleveland, June and July, 1880. (pp.122-135)
2. Encyclopedia of Social Work Vol.1, Seventeenth Issue (Washington, D.C. National Association of Social Workers, 1977) p.97
3. “Charity Organization in the United States.” Report of the Committee on History of Charity Organization, by Charles D. Kellogg, Chairman, P. W. Ayres, T. Guilford, Smith, J. W. Walk, M.D., W. R. Walpole – A Presentation at the National Conference Of Charities And Correction’s Twentieth Annual Session Held In Chicago, Ill., June 8-11, 1893
National Conference on Social Welfare Proceedings (1874-1982). University of Michigan: http://www.hti.umich.edu/n/ncosw/
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN: https://www.lib.umn.edu/swha
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. (2013). Charity Organization Societies (1877 – 1893). Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/civil-war-reconstruction/charity-organization-societies-1877-1893/