BOSTON'S CHARITY SYSTEM
AN EXTENSIVE and diverse charity system existed in Boston at the turn of the twentieth century. With a tradition of public responsibility and a burgeoning, largely poor, immigrant population, Boston supported over two hundred religious and nonsectarian private charities as well as a publicly funded relief program, the Overseers of the Poor. Dispensing what was called at the time “outdoor relief, ” these programs aided the poor in their homes and offered an alternative to institutional, or “indoor, ” relief. Organized around religious, ethnic, or occupational identity, these charities generally cared for their own. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, for example, aided needy Catholics; the German Aid Society reserved its funds for ethnic Germans; and the Leather Trade Benevolent Society assisted families of its tradesmen. Since their funds were limited, their aid was usually a token gesture hardly sufficient to support a poor man, woman, or family, forcing the poor to piece together support from any number of these organizations. Nevertheless, the charity of Boston's public and private relief agencies spared some of the poor the trauma and embarrassment of going to the public poorhouse, institutions that divided families, housing the destitute in bleak dormitory arrangements. Outdoor relief, in contrast, provided widows with children a chance to keep their families together, gave the aged and infirm some assistance, and supplemented the wages of the working poor by aiding families during periods of economic downturn or illness. Offering small cash grants or aid in kind—food, coal, and clothing—Boston's charities provided needed assistance to the city's poor. 1
In the nineteenth century, Boston's charity system depended on the cooperation of private and public charities. Declaring that “municipal relief and private charity should supplement each other and act in union, ” the city had constructed a Charity Building in 1869 on Hawkins Street in downtown Boston. It was to this building that the city's poor came seeking assistance.