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Charity bazaar, St. Vincent infant asylum, November 14-25; Coliseum Chicago. 1901.
Charity bazaar, St. Vincent infant asylum, November 14-25; Coliseum Chicago. 1901.
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID ppmsca.42803

State/Local Institutions 


In Colonial times, the care of the indigent (the poor, the aged, the sick, and others) who had no family to help them were the responsibility of the local community as it existed through kindness or mutual aid. As the size of local communities grew larger a more regulated system of caring for the indigent was needed and the pattern developed was similar to those of the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601.  A local tax was levied for the purpose and an Overseer of the Poor was charged with the responsibility. In 1824, New York State enacted the County Poorhouse Act, a measure that directed each county to erect one or more poorhouses to care for the “worthy poor.” Expenses for building and maintaining these institutions were to be paid by tax funds levied by the county government.

About the time the Civil War ended, a number of state institutions were being erected to care for specific populations deemed unsuitable for being cared for in county poor houses, e.g., the insane, the disabled, children, women. Below are entries describing some of these developments.

Use the SWHP search bar to locate additional articles on almshouses, orphanages, sanatoriums and other institutions. Primary sources related to these topics may be found through the Social Welfare History Image Portal.


  • A Discussion of Public Relief: 1940This report was prepared by Anna Kempshall, Director of Family Service, and most likely to have been presented to the Board of Directors of the Community Service Society November 4, 1940. The subject of relief was very timely because a number of the New Deal programs enacted in 1935 created the nation’s first universal social safety net that included federal and state funding for financial grants to poor individuals and families.
  • After Care for the Insane: New York State 1906After Care for the Insane was another much needed service that was introduced, organized and came to fruition in 1906 by Miss Louisa Lee Schuyler. When inmates were discharged from the state hospitals, many had no where to go. They had no home, no job, no friends or relatives willing to help them and many had children that had been separated from them during their incarceration. Miss Schuyler and her league of volunteers of The State Charities Aid Association helped these people to re-enter society with a helping hand by working in co-operation with the superintendents of the state hospitals.
  • Asylum for the Deaf and DumbWritten by John Crowley/ The Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, the first permanent school for deaf Americans, opened in 1817. At that time, “dumb” meant only “unable to speak” but in early America almost all those who were born deaf never learned to communicate with others except by home-made signs, and deaf people were often regarded as cognitively impaired as well.
  • Boarding System For Neglected Children (1894)Presentation by Miss C. H. Pemberton, Acting Superintendent of The Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania at the Twenty-First Annual Session of the National Conference of Charities And Correction, 1894. This is one of three presentations by distinguished leaders of the era in a section of the meeting on “Child-Saving.” Together, the three entries describe the institutions, deplorable conditions and efforts to reform and improve the care of vulnerable children.
  • Brief History of Government Charity in New York (1603 - 1900)This entry describes the history of legislative actions taken by the New York State Government for the poor in New York State from 1603 to 1900. Derived from the research of Linda S. Stuhler.
  • Care of the Filthy Cases of Insane: 1885Written by Stephen Smith, M.D., State Commissioner of Lunacy, New York City. "The care of these patients is all that can be desired. Each of these hospitals has a regular day and night service, so organized that the filthy are trained, if possible, to habits of personal care and cleanliness. They are not only promptly changed when found to be soiled; but, as far as practicable, their necessities are anticipated, and they are required to protect and care for themselves."
  • Care Of The Insane In New York (1736 - 1912)Written by Linda S. Stuhler. "...the hospital was an institution of great public utility and humanity, and that the general interests of the state required that fit and adequate provision be made for the support of an infirmary for sick and insane persons."
  • Chapin, John B., M.D., LL.D.John Chapin, M.D., LL.D. (1829 – 1918) — Advocate for the Chronic Insane of New York, and the Removal of All Insane Persons from the County Almshouse. This 1918 Obit was copied with permission and derived from the blog researched and developed by Linda S. Stuhler.
  • Cleveland Federation for Charity and Philanthropy: 1913From its inception, the Cleveland-area volunteers were the first in the country to set up a volunteer-driven system to study human care needs, to allocate funds, and monitor their use. The new organization added budgeting to the single campaign concept, i.e., funds were allocated to agencies on the basis of demonstrated need rather than on hopes for as much money as possible. This "citizen review process" became the model for United Way organizations across the country.
  • Colony For Epileptics (1914)"From the inception of public care of the insane in New York State epileptics were undoubtedly provided for from time to time, but no special provision was existent beyond a separate ward in the various hospitals. In 1873 Dr. Ordroneaux mentioned special provision for the epileptic on Blackwell’s Island." This entry was copied with permission and derived from the blog researched and developed by Linda S. Stuhler.
  • Committee Of The Connecticut Asylum For The Education And Instruction Of Deaf And Dumb Persons (1817)The founders of the Connecticut Asylum—like most educators of the deaf during the antebellum years—saw their primary goal as saving the souls of deaf children. This goal reflected the influence of the Second Great Awakening and, in particular, religious reformers’ hope that social reforms would help to bring about the Millennium. This is an Abridged Text of the Report.
  • Community Chest Movement: An Interpretation 1924"Rich and poor, the various religious denominations, the great forces, social, commercial, and religious, should be willing to join hands for common ideals, to make a better city for the living of human life, better health for all, better educational opportunities for young and old, moral conditions that strengthen character, better laws, less legal restrictions, and better standards of living. The community chest is a factor in this great work, and if organized and carried on in the proper spirit will contribute substantially to the realization of this high aim." By C. M. Bookman, Executive Secretary, Community Chest and Council of Social Agencies, 1924.
  • Community Councils: What Have They Done And What Is Their Future? (1919)Presentation by John Collier, Director, Training School for Community Workers at the National Conference Of Social Work Annual Meeting in 1919. "I want to insist at once that Community Councils are independent, self -operating neighborhood organizations...As such they remain, now that the war is over, to help in the work of reconstruction and in the upbuilding of a useful and beautiful leisure life."
  • Duty Of The States Toward Their Insane Poor: 1874Presentation by Dr. J. B. Chapin of the Willard Asylum for the insane on "The Duty of the States toward their Insane Poor."
  • Education of Deaf and Blind African Americans in Virginia, 1909-2008History of Virginia's first school for African American deaf and blind children.
  • Eighth Report Of The Directors Of The American Asylum For The Education And Instruction Of The Deaf And Dumb (1824)"During the first half of the nineteenth century, deaf educators saw their primary goal as ensuring that deaf students learned the Christian gospel. Like educators of blind children and those labeled as idiotic, teachers of deaf children had several other goals, including teaching basic academic skills and providing vocational training. This report also discusses some of the challenges faced by educators of deaf children and their counterparts at schools for blind and idiotic children..."
  • Family Service In The Charity Organization Society, 1935This article was written by Anna Kempshall, a nationally renowned social worker. "Two general principles that are basic in casework philosophy help in differentiating the specialized service of a caseworking agency: (1) that individuals react differently to the problem of need and dependency (2) that casework services have not been limited to persons in economic difficulty."
  • Family Service: Community Service Society 1940A report to the board of directors of the Community Service Society of New York, 1940, by Anna Kempshall, Director of Family Service. "The realization that there is nothing more precious than the life of a child places upon our caseworkers a grave responsibility. To understand the impact of, the currents and cross currents of the environment upon the delicate and elusive mechanism of a child's mind and heart is a challenge to science, religion, education, and social work."
  • First Annual Report Of The Trustees Of (Mass.) State Lunatic Hospital: 1833Other institutions, both in Europe and America, which have exhibited the most remarkable proportion of cures, have discriminated in their admissions, receiving the more hopeful cases only. The inmates at Worcester have been a more select class than were ever before assembled together; but unfortunately for success in regard to cures, it has been a selection of the most deplorable cases in the whole community. Of the one hundred and sixty-four individuals received, considerably more than one half came from jails, almshouses and houses of correction, and about one third of the whole number had suffered confinement for periods varying from ten to thirty-two years.
  • Hindrances To The Welfare And Progress Of State Institutions (1883)Presentation at the Ninth Annual Conference of Charities and Corrections 1883 by Michael Anagnos. "...public institutions for the poor and the perverse, the halt and the criminals, the blind and the deaf, the idiots and the insane, are established by law, and are supported by means raised by general taxation. This policy, admirable and beneficial as it evidently is in most respects, is not free from grave disadvantages and certain dangers..."
  • Hoyt, Dr. Charles S.Dr. Charles S. Hoyt (1822-1898): Superintendent of New York State and Alien Poor, in the Service of the State Board of Charities. This 1898 Memorial to Dr. Charles S. Hoyt was copied with permission and derived from the blog researched and developed by Linda S. Stuhler.
  • Indoor And Outdoor Relief (1890)A Report of the Committee by F. B. Sanborn, Chairman, at the Seventeenth Annual Session of the National Conference of Charities And Correction, 1890. "Both indoor relief...and family aid, or outdoor relief, as properly practiced, are both indispensable in any comprehensive plan of public charity. Wherever and whenever one of these methods has been wholly given up, accidentally or purposely, evils have followed which only the introduction of the omitted method could wholly remove."
  • Insanity in the Middle States: 1876This entry is from the Proceedings of the third Conference of Charities held at Saratoga, New York, September 6, 1876. by Mr. Sanborn. "Insanity is, in the middle states, as in the other states, increasing disproportionately to the increase of population..."
  • Institute of Family Service, C.O.S.Written by Anna Kempshall, Director of the Institute of Family Service. "The recent period of social and economic change has affected the programs and functions of many social agencies in the community. The Institute of Family Service has constantly adjusted its program in relation to the total community situation, making such revisions of practice and procedure at various times as seemed indicated."
  • Kirkbride, Thomas StoryThomas Story Kirkbride 1809-1883 — Physician, Psychiatrist and Developer of the Kirkbride Plan. This article was used with permission and derived from the research of Linda S. Stuhler.
  • Life In The Asylum (1855)The Opal was published by the patients at the New York State Insane Asylum in Utica during the 1850s. It contained comments on current events, literary essays and book reviews, poetry, and descriptions of events at the asylum, including the dramatic and musical productions of the patients themselves.
  • Listening to Patients: The Opal as a Source The Opal, which was “dedicated to usefulness,” is a ten volume Journal that was written and edited by the patients of the Utica State Lunatic Asylum, (1851 – 1860). The more than 3,000 pages of material in The Opal includes political commentary, humor, advice, and theory on insanity in the form of articles, poetry, prose, cartoons, plays, and literature.
  • Lowell, Josephine ShawJosephine Shaw Lowell (1843-1905) — Social reformer, Founder of the New York City Charity Organization Society and advocate of the doctrine that charity should not merely relieve suffering but also rehabilitate the recipient. By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.
  • Management Of Almshouses In New England (1884)Presentation by Frank B. Sanborn at the Eleventh Annual Session, National Conference Of Charities And Correction, 1884. 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.
  • Massachusetts Report On Public Charities: 1876 As Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Health, Lunacy, and Charity, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn held the most powerful position on the board. This report to the National Conference of Charities illustrates Sanborn’s deep faith in the power of statistical research to illuminate the nature of social problems.
  • Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital: New York - 1891This is a lengthy "Letter to the Editor" of The New York Times written by "Index Medicus," a medical society and journal. If New York State was transferring patients out of their district to another state hospital, why couldn’t the State pay for the transportation of patients whose family and friends wanted them to receive homeopathic medical care as opposed to allopathic medical care?
  • Moral TreatmentWritten by Dr. James W. Trent, Jr., Gordon College. "Moral treatment was a product of the Enlightenment of the late eighteenth century. Before then people with psychiatric conditions, referred to as the insane, were usually treated in inhumane and brutal ways."
  • Moral Treatment of the Insane: 1847That some cases of insanity require medical treatment we believe, but we also believe that a large majority of the patients in Lunatic Asylums do not. There is much analogy between many of the patients found in all such institutions, and the passionate, mischievous, and what are called bad boys in a school, and there is about as much propriety in following the example of Mrs. Squeers, and physicing and medicating the latter as the former, in order to cure them or to change their propensities. Rational hopes for the improvement of either, should we believe, be founded on moral management alone.
  • New York State Care System For The Insane Completed: 1896"The Governor has approved the bill creating the Manhattan State Hospital and providing for the transfer of the lunatic asylums of this city and the care of their inmates to the State"
  • New York State Charities Aid Association: 1873The following First Annual Report of the State Charities Aid Association was addressed to The Board of State Commissioners of Public Charities of the State of New York in 1873. "“The objects of our work are of a twofold nature. 1. To promote an active public interest in the New York State Institutions of Public Charities, with a view to the physical, mental and moral improvement of their pauper inmates. 2. To make the present pauper system more efficient, and to bring about such reforms in it as may be in accordance with the most enlightened views of Christianity, Science and Philanthropy."
  • New York State's County Poor Houses (1864)In 1864, an investigation was made concerning the treatment of the “insane” confined in the county poor houses of New York State. Dr. Sylvester D. Willard’s Report was the instrument that persuaded the New York State Legislature to pass, on April 8, 1865, The Willard Act, “An Act to authorize the establishment of a State asylum for the chronic insane, and for the better care of the insane poor, to be known as The Willard Asylum for the Insane.” What follows is the original report to the New York State Legislature by Dr. Sylvester D. Willard, Secretary of the Medical Society.
  • One Means Of Preventing Pauperism (1879)In 1876, Josephine Shaw Lowell (Mrs. C.R. Lowell) was appointed by Governor Tilden of New York State to be the first woman commissioner of the New York State Board of Charities. She served in this position until 1889, using her post to speak out, lobby, legislate, and advocate for people who were unable to do so themselves. Her investigations led to the establishment of the first custodial asylum for feeble minded women in the United States in 1885 and to the House of Refuge for Women (later the State Training School for Girls) in 1886.
  • Opening of the Virginia State School for Colored Deaf and Blind Children, 1909The following is a transcription of a newspaper article published in The Times Dispatch  (Richmond, Va.) on August 15, 1909, p. 18. The story details the opening of the first residential school for African American blind and Deaf children in Virginia.
  • Organization of Municipal Charities and Corrections (1916)Paper presented by L. A. Halbert, General Superintendent, Board of Public Welfare of Kansas City, Missouri at the National Conference Of Charities And Correction Held In Indianapolis, 1916. "If we were able to ascertain the activities of all incorporated towns and cities, it would show a tremendous volume of activity and an expenditure of many millions of dollars."
  • Organization, Powers, And Duties of State Boards of Charity (1892)Written by William P. Letchworth, Chairman Of The Committee On State Boards Of Charities. "It should be borne in mind that few things in this world are perfect; and, even in a charitable institution, we must look for the maximum of excellence instead of perfection..."
  • Our New York State Charities: 1873"At present these petty criminals spend their time in complete idleness in the county jails, and go out worse than they entered. To improve this class there should be a separate department in the State work-houses proposed, and the criminal statutes should be changed, so that the magistrates could commit them to these, and for longer terms than is at present the custom."
  • Over The Hill To The Poor-House (1872)Poem written by Will Carleton in 1897.
  • Poor House Conditions: Albany County, New York - 1864In 1824 the New York State legislature enacted the "County Poorhouse Act," a measure that called for one or more poorhouses to be built or established in each county. Thenceforth, all recipients of public assistance were to be sent to that institution. All expenses for building and maintaining the poorhouse(s) and supporting its inmates were to be defrayed by the county out of tax funds. The Act also created a new body of relief officials: County Superintendents of the Poor.
  • Poor Relief and the AlmshouseWritten by Dr. David Wagner, University of Southern Maine. "Poorhouses (almshouses were simply the same thing with the old English word “alms” for charity used) started out rather small, sometimes in private homes, and at first were scattered in America. But in the 1820s, when America ceased being a completely agricultural society and began to receive more immigration, reformers such as Josiah Quincy in Massachusetts and John Yates in New York led a drive to build almshouses or poorhouses in every town and city. Their purposes were deeply steeped in a desire to not only save money but also to deter the 'undeserving poor.”"
  • Removal of Children From Almshouses (1894)Presentation by Homer Folks, Chairman, Secretary of the State Charities Aid Association of New York. This entry is one of three presentations by distinguished leaders of the era at the 1894 Annual Meeting of the National Conference on Social Welfare in a section of the meeting on “Child-Saving.” Together, the three entries describe the institutions, deplorable conditions and efforts to reform and improve the care of vulnerable children.
  • Removal of Children From Almshouses in The State of New York (1894)Presentation by the Hon. Wm. P. Letchworth, Member of the State Board of Charities Of New York. This entry is one of three presentations by distinguished leaders of the era at the 1894 Annual Meeting of the National Conference on Social Welfare in a section of the meeting on “Child-Saving.” Together, the three entries describe the institutions, deplorable conditions and efforts to reform and improve the care of vulnerable children.
  • Schuyler, Louisa LeeTo say that Louisa Lee Schuyler was a humanitarian and a pioneer in social work would be an understatement. Miss Schuyler was the driving force in the movement to reform the poor house system in New York State.
  • State Board of Charities of New York: Reports 1878-1884n the early years of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, representatives of the states in attendance were invited to share reports on their experiences, problem areas and achievement in connection with the charities and institutions in their respective states. Below are reports from the New York representative at the conferences held from 1978 to 1884.
  • State Boards Of Charities: A Report Of The Committee - 1889Report by H. Hastings Hart presented at the Sixteenth Annual Session of The National Conference of Charities and Correction. "A board of charities is a balance-wheel to steady the motion of the charitable machinery of the State. It is its office to promote the wise founding and the safe running of public charities, to correct and prevent abuses, to check extravagance, to promote economy, and to rebuke niggardliness."
  • State Care of the Insane: New York 1901"Rise and Progress of New York State Care of the Insane: 1901" by Goodwin Brown, Ex-State Commissioner in Lunacy. "It is consonant with its destiny and greatness that the Empire State should have, of all States and countries in the world, the most complete, humane, and comprehensive system of caring for this most unfortunate class."
  • Syracuse State Institution For Feeble-Minded Children: (1916)"The State of New York thus became the first one in the United States to make separate and special provision for the feeble-minded. Two years later the Legislature provided funds for the erection of permanent buildings on a site in Syracuse donated by philanthropic citizens."
  • Technical Training And Industrial Employment Of The Blind In The United States (1908)Written by S. M. Green, Superintendent of the Missouri School for the Blind: 1908. Most blind people became blind as adults, but most schools barred adults from attending. Sheltered workshops could employ only a small fraction of blind adults, leaving most without any recourses other than relying on relatives or entering a poorhouse.
  • Tewksbury Almshouse InvestigationAs can be seen in this excerpt from the Lowell Weekly Sun’s coverage of the Tewksbury investigation, people with disabilities made up a significant proportion of the population of poorhouses. By the 1860s, many states had established institutions to educate deaf, blind, and cognitively disabled children and people deemed temporarily insane. People with other impairments—and especially disabled adults—whose families could not support them had no recourse other than the poorhouse. Moreover, conditions within almshouses often proved disabling or even deadly.
  • Three Years In A Mad House (1851)"Astounding Disclosures! Three Years In A Mad House," by Isaac H. Hunt, 1851. Hunt, a former patient at the Maine Insane Hospital published a scathing attack on his treatment by the institution’s attendants and doctors. Isaac Hunt describes all sorts of abuses and mistreatment. His account makes people wonder whether or not the asylum offered conditions better than those uncovered in local almshouses and jails by the investigative reports of Dorothea Dix. Out of Hunt’s complaints came an investigation by the Maine Legislature into conditions at the asylum.
  • Treatment of the Insane: 1876The "Preface" is from the Proceedings for the third Conference of Charities held at Saratoga, New York, September 6, 1876. It is followed by a paper titled “The Treatment of the Insane” delivered paper by Dr. Nathan Allen, of Lowell, Mass.
  • Virginia Home and Industrial School for GirlsThe Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls opened in Bon Air, Va., in 1910 as a reform school for the “care and training of incorrigible or vicious white girls … without proper restraint and training, between the ages of eight and eighteen years.”
  • Watts, Lucian Louis (1888 – 1974)Lucian Louis Watts was a Virginia statesman who advocated for government services to support blind citizens. As the first Executive Secretary of the Virginia Department for the Blind and Visually Impaired, he promoted campaigns to prevent blindness, oversaw the development of educational programs for blind adults, and was instrumental in the introduction of sight-saving classes for children with impaired vision in Virginia’s public schools.
  • Willard Asylum for the Insane: Steward's Report 1900Steward's Report by Captain Morris J. Gilbert, 1900. According to Dr. Robert E. Doran, Jr., author of "History Of The Willard Asylum For The Insane And The Willard State Hospital," “...he was totally responsible for all purchasing as well as overseeing the farm and maintenance work.”
  • Willard State Hospital, New York. Primary Sources
  • Willard, Sylvester D.Sylvester David Willard, M.D., LL. D. (June 19, 1825 – April 2, 1865) — Volunteer Surgeon in Civil War, Founder of Willard Asylum for the Insane