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Family Service of Philadelphia

Family Service of Philadelphia (1879-2000)

By: Michael Barga

Background: In 1873 a financial crisis (Panic of 1873) triggered an economic depression in Europe and North America that came to be known as the Long Depression. During this period many U.S. businesses went bankrupt and many workers lost their jobs.

The traditional methods of charity strained to keep up with the demands of the multitude of poor and sick, as the depression lasted up to six years in some areas of the U.S.  In Philadelphia, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) –a group with a tradition of charity and social action — began to look for a more targeted practice of Christian charity.  

Introduction: At the latter end of the depression, the Quaker community had begun working with professionals in hopes of better organizing their aid to the disadvantaged.  In 1879, the contact between the groups culminated in the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charitable Relief and Repressing Mendicancy (SOC), which later became known as Family Service of Philadelphia.  Within two years, SOC had 9,000 contributors.  The success was largely due to the extensive planning that took place before its official establishment as an organization.  Its prestige would rise with the development of a national publication and its association with Mary Richmond.

Development and Activities: In 1873, the first scientific charity organization, Germantown Relief Service (GRS), was formed in Philadelphia.  The SOC used GRS as a model for its structure and purpose, and GRS had adapted their program using European approaches to charity.  The SOC was connected to a multitude of local relief groups in a non-centralized way.  The semi-democratic nature of its operation was partially due to the influence of Quaker culture.  Many tense meetings over the structure were held between Quaker providers and individuals who hoped for a stronger centralized structure, like leaders from the GRS.

The purpose of SOC was less contentious than its structure and distinguished the Society’s role from groups that provided only direct service.  The hope was to ensure “the proper relief of deserving cases and the suppression of fraud, deception, and street begging” through home-visit investigation and centralizing of case records compiled from many organizations.1 The endeavor was intended to be city-wide, yet it hoped to create a local association with strong authority for each ward in the city.  In forming the local associations, links between Quaker leaders and Quaker soup kitchens in different wards proved to be very helpful.

At the time, Philadelphia was divided into 31 wards, and each was to have a group of friendly visitors, a superintendent, a board of directors, and adequate staff to maintain its own ward records.  A commission was formed to oversee all the ward associations, although some of the poorest areas never participated.  Despite some setbacks, Quakers and many other Christians eagerly supported the innovative SOC; they felt it had the potential to ensure true charity without spreading pauperism.

As the new organization had been forming, soup kitchens were prime targets of criticism.  Charity was widely distributed at the kitchens, and many believed the poor who utilized this charity were immoral, undeserving, and outsiders.  The perception that those on charity were outsiders or strangers, rather than neighbors, largely stems from changes that had occurred during industrialization.

The new economic system had brought many people to Philadelphia and other cities for jobs.  Once the economic devastation of the depression hit, these newcomers and their families approached institutions of social concern for aid; often individuals who lived in the longer-established communities of Philadelphia, like the Quakers, were administrators of the institutions.

Centralized records were considered the main method of fraud prevention, and administrators hoped to more closely track cases than in the past.  While the distribution of relief traditionally occurred only in the winter, some relief was expanded to the summer in hopes of monitoring individual family situations and keeping updated records.

Those who had received help the previous winter became accustomed to summer visits that intended to collect information about spending, saving, and employment activities.  The intrusive practice was considered necessary, because many felt the 1873 depression was a punishment from God.  Those who saw the poor as guilty of economic vice felt the poor’s collective personal sins led to a societal punishment.

In 1876, a Centennial Exposition marking 100 years since the founding of the United States in cities across the nation including Philadelphia took place. The celebration was held in the midst of the Long Depression, a severe financial crisis that created an influx of out-of-work breadwinners and their families to charity organizations.
In 1876, a Centennial Exposition marking 100 years since the founding of the United States in cities across the nation including Philadelphia took place. The celebration was held in the midst of the Long Depression, a severe financial crisis that created an influx of out-of-work breadwinners and their families to charity organizations.

Social and economic factors for poverty, especially related to industrialization, were overlooked in light of this moral and religious analysis.  The demands made by employed workers for subsistence wages, a right to organize, and more reasonable hours challenged the established system; they were not legitimized by those who gave out aid.  Instead, the resulting hardship was recognized as newly developing behavior rather than conditions.

The SOC, which in 1879 changed its name to the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity, quickly became the largest charitable organization in the United States. The agency was innovative for its inclusion of women.  All friendly visitors were female, and the composition was mostly older white upper-class and native-born.

Women were the foot soldiers of the scientific charity movement, and their expert opinions were needed at the policy discussions traditionally led by men.  The result was women’s inclusion in subcommittees and other significant roles which were previously reserved for men.  The Quaker culture, which emphasizes the equality of women, was another likely influence on this structural aspect of SOC.

The soldier-relief activities of women during the Civil War also supported the idea of women going outside of the home.  While these wartime actions were considered in connection to an emergency need, the recognition of these women’s public contributions proved to be helpful in swaying opinion on comparable community activities, like friendly visiting.

Some women seemed aware of the potential expansion and actively sought new roles as they looked to historical figures like Ann Hutchinson, the first female physician and member of a Pennsylvania Quaker community.  Many friendly visitors were also leaders in the voting rights’ movement, like Lucretia Blankenburg, president of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association for 16 years.

The Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association kicked off a statewide campaign to convince the male voters to vote for their amendment. The “Justice Bell”, an exact bronze replica of the liberty bell, took a 5,000-mile tour of the state of Pennsylvania zigzagging through the state and ending in Philadelphia in time for the November election.
The Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association kicked off a statewide campaign to convince the male voters to vote for their amendment. The “Justice Bell”, an exact bronze replica of the liberty bell, took a 5,000-mile tour of the state of Pennsylvania zigzagging through the state and ending in Philadelphia in time for the November election.

In the early years, there was strong tension between male administrators and female friendly visitors, but the first two decades mostly saw an increase in women’s roles within wards and eventually on the Central Board.  Unfortunately, the willingness of women to volunteer or get paid very little early in the history of the SOC likely helped set a precedence of social work as a low-paying occupation, despite the professional expertise and knowledge involved.  This was an unforeseen and likely unavoidable consequence considering the circumstances, and the expansion of women’s roles through the profession of social work was significant for that time.

By 1881, the SOC published the first issue of the Monthly Register, the earliest national social work journal in the United States.  By 1893, the Society had spread to 92 cities and was the stalwart of scientific charity.  Relief was now academic as well as moral, and the Assembly was formed as an Auxiliary to the SOC that would foster innovative discussion of social issues.  It was intended that home visits established a professional relationship in which new practices could be implemented, in addition to distributing aid.

Unfortunately, visitors often showed little respect for the autonomy of the families whom they were assigned to contact.  This is alluded to in one of the original objects of the society that describes the vision for visitors to inspire “better modes of life”.2 There were very few visitors of immigrant backgrounds, and there was a strong element of class struggle in the mindset of the SOC, mainly blaming the lower class for social problems.

There was only one black friendly visitor, and the pervasive segregation of the time was not challenged by the early Society.  Any religious contentions within the Society were bridged as indicated by the diversity of faiths in the early SOC.  This diversity suggests that the important characteristics of a friendly visitor were privilege and education.

Mary Richmond was well-educated, a strong believer in research, an articulate speaker, and a skilled fundraiser.  She was Executive Secretary of SOC for nine years total and helped solidify the organization’s stature in the world of scientific charity.  Having recently arrived to Philadelphia in 1900, she would gain a national reputation for her influence and accomplishments in the city.

She worked on both matters of policy and casework, helping pass laws to support wives who were deserted and reduction of child labor.  Richmond strongly shaped the Seybert Institution and established the Juvenile Court and Children’s Bureau.  In the area of housing, she led a 1905 investigation and facilitated the formation of the Housing Association.

During her tenure, policy for care of “feeble-minded” women and children in institutions also became a legislative priority.  The value of expertise brought by women in social work due to their direct contact with the disadvantaged was embodied in Mary Richmond.  Amidst all of the development, Richmond called for comprehensive evaluation of state-sponsored charities and other evaluative efforts, as well as the organization of social work conferences and groups in the Philadelphia area.

As Executive Director of SOC, Richmond successfully worked with government agencies like the Board of Education and Public Education Association, but scientific philanthropy largely aimed to reduce the presence of government in relief rather than build around it.  Many of the wealthy believed increased city revenues that were supposed to be spent on aid ended up in the hands of corrupt officials.  Some suggested charitable organizations were coerced to support politicians who helped make decisions about their funding.  Still, SOC knew that organizing all of charity included government and its associated groups, as well as coordination with the police who enforce the laws concerning begging and vagrancy.

Toward the end of Richmond’s tenure, the focus had become more on casework than legislation, and when she left in 1909 SOC was on course to become a local leader in the professionalization of the field.  SOC helped with the formation of a school of social work which would later become affiliated with Pennsylvania University in 1935.  This school sent their students to on-the-job training with SOC friendly visitors.  SOC would also play a part in the founding of the National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity in 1911, later re-named Family Service Association of America.  Around this time, the de-centralized ward structure of the organization shifted to a more centralized one.

As the first decade of the 20th century came to a close, the SOC ran into financial trouble.  Some began to question the amount of money spent on administrative costs and expenses unassociated with direct relief.  By the late 1910’s, there had been a few periods of significant financial crises for SOC of which WWI and the outbreak of Spanish Influenza had exacerbated.  In 1919, the bylaws of the organization were changed to reflect a two-fold shift in focus: 1. While individuals would still be served, the support of family life would hold a stronger emphasis.  2.  There would be greater emphasis on counseling to support the disadvantaged since providing and coordinating material relief were both activities of many other organizations.

With the development of what would later become the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, SOC’s shift proved fortuitous.  The new organization provided and/or coordinated the majority of the direct relief given to the disadvantaged of the city.  Despite changes in function and area of expertise, the SOC continued to respond to the needs of the community and remain flexible in providing services.  The organization took needed roles in research and areas neglected by other groups.

In the early 1920’s, SOC, Children’s Aid Society, and 18 other agencies constructed a building at 311 S. Juniper Street in Philadelphia’s center city. It has since been adapted to a residence hall for the University of the Arts students.
In the early 1920’s, SOC, Children’s Aid Society, and 18 other agencies constructed a building at 311 S. Juniper Street in Philadelphia’s center city. It has since been adapted to a residence hall for the University of the Arts students.

In the 1940’s, the SOC focus on individual counseling grew dramatically and expanded to include financial matters.  General Secretary Betsey Libbey was particularly instrumental, especially in ensuring quality of care from the counselors.  At this time, the organization also began accepting relief requests again in order to provide material goods that were not available through other aid organizations.  After World War II, SOC counselors made an impact in the lives of many who had difficulty transitioning after their combat experiences.

The society became Family Service of Philadelphia (FSP) in 1950.  Only a few years earlier, a union had formed for the paid workers in the organization, and structural changes followed the change in name.  Under the leadership of Ralph Ornsby, FSP renewed its focus toward counseling and family matters in the form of Family Life Education (FLE).  The program was local and fostered group parenting discussions, particularly for low-income mothers.

Gertrude Pollak was the manager of Family Life Education, which started in 1951.  She describes the idea that “a child usually reflects, either consciously or unconsciously, the acting-out behavior of the parent” as the premise of one cooperative project between FLE and the Philadelphia Board of Education.3 Referrals were sometimes made through the school and often involved parents who were resentful of the school and other institutions.

There were some psycho-educational components in the program, but the main goal was for the group to provide a less-threatening setting for parents to express their concerns and also vent their negative feelings.  In the process, the strengthened communication skills would lead to better interactions with outside institutions and within the family.  When parents became particularly comfortable in the group, they often opened up about their own problems with their child in the home and exhibited an attitude that moved away from blaming others.

Another significant effort of the Family Service of Philadelphia was their part in Plays for Living, an effort connected to the Family Service Association of America with which FSP was still associated.  Teachers and others used published short theatrical productions to demonstrate possible situations of family life and allowed students to identify with fictional characters.  The plays were often considered conversation starters and helped students express themselves.

FSP continued to change their services in an effort to meet the needs of low-income individuals and the local community over the next few decades.  Often times, a fee-for-service system was set up that left Family Service of Philadelphia with few funds for long-term financial security, and the changes to funding reimbursement requirements were also a significant challenge.  Family Service of Philadelphia closed in 2000 after over a century of work which shaped and was shaped by changes to the field of social work as well as the needs of the local community.

Conclusion: In many cases, the scientific philanthropy movement is presented as a collection of moral crusaders hoping to combat evil by professional means.  This representation of the movement fits well into most social welfare history which “has been written on the assumption of evolution towards the welfare state.”4 While there is truth to the depiction of the movement as moral crusading, the motivations of scientific philanthropy were likely more complex and dealt with multiple issues, especially those related to class.

The expansion of women’s roles, concerns about government corruption and expenditure related to charity, and practical efforts to improve existing private charity all played a part in the formation of the SOC, as well as the unique social make up of Philadelphia at that time.  Regardless of motivation, groups like the SOC were very important in the development of a scientific approach that is still an integral part of social work today.  The history of the Society and later Family Service of Philadelphia demonstrates the difficulties of serving low-income individuals and the way an organization must be responsive to community needs to survive.


1. “Quakers and the Founding of the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charitable Relief and
Repressing Mendicancy” by Julia B. Rauch.  The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 98(4). (Oct., 1974): 450.

2.  Civic Club Digest of the Educational & Charitable Institutions & Societies in Philadelphia compiled by A Committee of the Social Science Section of the Civic Club with an introduction on aspects of Philadelphia Relief Work by Samuel McCune Lindsay.  Philadelphia: George H. Buchanan and Co., 1895: xlii.

3.  “Family Life Education for Parents of Acting-Out Children: A Group Discussion Approach” by Gertrude K. Pollak.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 26(4), (Nov., 1964): 490.

4.  “Unfriendly Visitors: The Emergence of Scientific Philanthropy in Philadelphia, 1878-1880” by Julia B. Rauch.  Dissertation of Bryn Mawr College, the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, 1974: 310.

“Women in Social Work: Friendly Visitors in Philadelphia, 1880” by Julia B. Rauch.  Social Service Review, 49(2), (Jun., 1975), pp. 241-259.

“Background Note,” Pages 6-8, Family Service of Philadelphia Records
(Collection 1961), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

“School of Social Policy and Practice: A Brief History” on Pennsylvania University’s Website:

“Commercial Teaching Materials Used in High School Family Life Courses” by Richard K. Kerckhoff.  The Family Coordinator, 22(3), (Jul., 1973), pp. 275-283.

Photo Sources:

1876 Exposition –

The “Justice Bell” –

SOC Building –

For More Information: Contact the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and visit their website at

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Barga, M. (2012). Family Service of Philadelphia (1879-2000). Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

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