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National Conference of Charities and Correction

National Conference of Charities and Correction (1874-1917): Forerunner of the National Conference of Social Welfare

By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.

Executive Committee of the National Conference of Charities and Correction
Executive Committee of the National Conference of Charities and Correction

The Beginning: In February 1872, Frederick H. Wines, secretary of the Illinois Board of State Commissioners of Public Charities, and Andrew E. Elmore, president of the Wisconsin State Board of Charities and Reform spent a few days visiting institutions in Wisconsin and discussing issues they encountered in their responsibilities.  Following these discussions and exchange of ideas, the men decided to write to delegates from state boards of charities in other states in the Upper Mississippi Valley.  Subsequently, in May 1872, representatives from state boards in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan met for two-day  conference in Chicago.  They met again on April 15, 1873 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The meetings attracted national attention and the American Social Science Association embraced the idea and enlarged its meeting to include all the boards of both charity and health. It is important to note that the American Social Science Association was organized in 1865 and modeled after the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science of Great Britain. It functioned through four departments, education, health, finance and jurisprudence to which a fifth was added in the fall of 1873, social economy. Both the English and American associations were the embodiments of the conviction that the application of science to the problems in human relations would result in new discoveries and improvements in the field of social relationships.

On May 20, 1874, representatives/delegates from the State Boards of Charities of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Wisconsin met in New York City at the invitation of the American Social Science Association and organized the Conference of Boards of Public Charities. Invitations to the meeting were sent jointly by the Section on Social Economy of the American Social Science Association and the Massachusetts State Board of Charities. The purpose of the meeting was to establish some sort of clearinghouse of ideas and experiences between state boards.

During its first meeting, held under the auspices of the American Social Science Association, the Conference of State Boards invited other organizations and social welfare leaders to sit with it and take part in the discussions. The First Conference of Charities was a remarkable meeting, though there were only about twenty persons present, and only four States represented. Five of the members of that Conference became Presidents of the organization: Mr. J. V. L. Pruyn, in 1874; Mr. F. B. Sanborn, in 1881; Mr. William P. Letchworth, in 1884; Mr. H. H. Giles, in 1887; and Dr. Charles S. Hoyt, in 1890. It included several eminent physicians, among them Dr. Stephen Smith of New York and Dr. J. B. Chapin, superintendent of the Willard Asylum. Rev. John Hall, D.D., was an active participant in the proceedings,– a fit precursor of the many notable clergymen who have shared in this work. Mrs. Mary E. D. Lynde of Wisconsin, Mrs. Caroline H. Dall of Massachusetts, and Miss M. E. Pettee of Connecticut took part in the discussions. Women were admitted to the Conference on equal terms with men. There were no formal rules. No resolutions were adopted, and no effort made to formulate a platform or to give effect to the ideas of the Conference beyond their publication in the Proceedings of the American Social Science Association; and the lines thus marked out by that First Conference have been followed pretty closely ever since. The leading subjects discussed were: (1) State Boards of Charities; (2) The Care of the Insane; (3) Public Buildings; (4) Pauperism (including Settlement Laws, Outdoor Relief, and Almshouses); (5) City Charities and (6) Statistics of Crime and Pauperism.  In 1875 there were added to the Conference program: (7) Reports from States; (8) Medical Charities (including Hospitals); (9) Care of Dependent Children; (10) Care of Delinquent Children; and (11) Immigration.  In subsequent Conferences,  the following topics were added to the Conference agenda: (12) Tramps; in 1878, (13) Prison Reform (including Convict Labor); in 1880, (14) Charity Organization; and (15) Epileptics; in 1882, (16) Education of the Deaf and Blind; in 1884, (17) Provision for the Feeble-minded; in 1887, (18) The Indian Question; and in 1891, (19) Women’s Work in Philanthropy.

By 1880 the number of members had grown to over 125, most of whom were representatives of public institutions or agencies and delegates of private bodies.  The charity organization movement, appearing in the United States in 1877, at once took an important place with the state boards in both the personnel and programs of the Conference. In 1879, 25 representatives of State Boards of Charities and Corrections met outside the auspices of the American Social Science Association and changed the name of their organization to the National Conference of Charities of and Correction, a name it bore for nearly forty years.The declaration of independence from the American Social Science Association was not particularly opposed by the members of either organization, even though there was an overlapping membership between the two bodies.

Following the separation from the American Social Science Association, the leaders of the Conference changed the organization’s direction from being interested in scientific inquiry and shifted its major emphasis to administration and methods of practice.  In their roles as leaders and board members of state boards of charity and reform, participants in the Conference had to give an account to their constituents as well as to the legislatures of their state.  For this reason, participants were challenged to confront their day-to-day problems and what was being done about them: the numbers of insane were increasing; children were being raised in almshouses; the mentally deficient were increasingly a menace to the well-being of society; dependency was placing an increasing burden on taxpayers.  As a result, questions addressed at the annual meetings included such topics as: Is it better to care for dependent children in institutions or foster care, and why? How can the growing number of insane be handled? How can pauperism be prevented?  What is the purpose of prisons, reformatories?

Ed. Note: For additional information about the history, activities and achievements of the National Conference of Charities and Correction read the President’s Address of 1893 entitled: The Progress Of The Past Twenty Years By Hastings H. Hart

For more information:

Trends in Social Work, as reflected in the Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Welfare, 1874-1946, by Frank J. Bruno, Columbia University Press (New York), 1948.

Social Service Organizations, Vol. 2. Peter Romanofsky, Editor-in-Chief. Greenwood Press, (Westport, Ct.) 1978.

National Conference on Social Welfare

Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction

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