Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Almshouse, Workhouse, Outdoor Relief: Responses to the Poor in Southeastern Massachusetts, 1740-1800

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Almshouse, Workhouse, Outdoor Relief: Responses to the Poor in Southeastern Massachusetts, 1740-1800

Article excerpt

In Duxbury, Massachusetts, local folklore emphasizes that before the current Surplus Street was named, it was called Poverty Lane because it led to the "poor" farm, and before it was Poverty Lane, local residents knew it as Folly Street, over which one's folly led to the Almshouse.1 Although such local folklore suggests a rather stringent attitude towards giving alms to the poor in colonial society, the issue of poor relief absorbed much of the attention of town officials before and after the American Revolution. Throughout the colonial period and early republic, many Massachusetts towns faced growing numbers of needy men, women and children in need of relief. There were two common ways the problem of poverty was addressed.

One form was outdoor relief, which took the form either of handouts of cash and provisions or an arrangement to board individual paupers with private families for a specified time. A second way of aiding the poor, which developed in many towns especially from the 1750's onward, was to build poorhouses, workhouses, or town farms where people would work for the town for their support. The blending of these two methods in the colonial period was ultimately eclipsed as almshouses and workhouses emerged in the nineteenth century as the dominant form of public relief for the indigent. The poor working for "their keep" reflected society's attitude toward helping the poor and the place of the needy in society.

This paper surveys the poor relief policies adopted by towns in Plymouth County, Massachusetts. It documents changing approaches to poor relief in rural, rather than urban, communities. Specifically, this paper addresses these questions. During the transitional period from 1750 to the early nineteenth century, how prevalent were workhouses in local communities? Although much of the historiography to date has dealt with poorhouses in urban areas, how did poor relief measures evolve in small towns? Did policies evolve in linear fashion, or were there frequent policy shifts back and forth from the various methods? Did rural towns and cities adopt similar methods at the same time? What circumstances caused them to adopt different measures? Furthermore, this paper offers a comparison of an urban jurisdiction, Boston, with two small towns in Plymouth County, Bridgewater and Duxbury, both of which constructed poorhouses in the eighteenth century to show how poor relief policies evolved throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century outside of a major urban area. In addition, this paper will attempt to reconstruct the lives and experiences of individual poor people. Often ignored in discussions of the social causes of poverty in society, the poor were the ones primarily affected by poor relief practices. Individual stories can often provide data concerning the types of people directly impacted by poor relief policies. Admittedly, data is often sketchy at best, but addressing this aspect of indigenous life is important.

In recent years, the issues of poverty and poor relief have not gone unnoticed by colonial American historians. In the past twenty years, dozens of books and articles have been written about the extent of poor relief and the role of transient poor people in the social hierarchy of society. The literature about the poor in colonial New England not only reflects English attitudes inherited from the mother country, it also underscores the emphasis on urban communities' rather than rural agrarian towns as a focus of study.

When tracing the development of poor relief policy, it is important to consider the manner in which English attitudes about poor relief influenced the settlers who brought with them a conditional blueprint for emulating English society in the New World. Edmund S. Morgan and Robert Kelso discuss the transformation of English social attitudes about the poor in colonial life, specifically in the rise of settlement and poor laws in colonial political laws. …

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