The Poorhouses of Massachusetts

A Cultural and Architectural History


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About the Book

Ever since the English settled in America, extreme poverty and the inability of individuals to support themselves and their families have been persistent problems. In the early nineteenth century, many communities established almshouses, or “poorhouses,” in a valiant but ultimately failed attempt to assist the destitute, including the sick, elderly, unemployed, mentally ill and orphaned, as well as unwed mothers, petty criminals and alcoholics. This work details the rise and decline of poorhouses in Massachusetts, painting a portrait of life inside these institutions and revealing a history of constant political and social turmoil over issues that dominate the conversation about welfare recipients even today. The first study to address the role of architecture in shaping as well as reflecting the treatment of paupers, it also provides photographs and histories of dozens of former poorhouses across the state, many of which still stand.

About the Author(s)

Heli Meltsner, the curator of the Cambridge Historical Society, has been a town planner and a preservation consultant, undertaking numerous nominations to the National Register of Historic Places and historic resource inventories for municipalities and state agencies. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Bibliographic Details

Heli Meltsner
Format: softcover (7 x 10)
Pages: 247
Bibliographic Info: 62 photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2012
pISBN: 978-0-7864-6644-3
eISBN: 978-0-7864-9097-4
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

List of Photographs and Illustrations      ix
Acknowledgments      xi
Preface      1

1. The English Heritage and Early Massachusetts Welfare      7
2. Poorhouse, Workhouse and Almshouse: 1660–1821      15
3. The Town Farm Initiative and the Town- State Dance: 1822–1862      22
4. The Town Farm Organization and Experience      35
5. From Almshouse to Infirmary: 1863–the Present      70
6. The Architecture of Municipal Building for Paupers      84
7. Tramps and Tramp Houses      104
8. The Surviving Almshouses and Infirmaries Erected by Cities and Towns      121

Appendix A: Surviving Almshouses, Infirmaries and Tramp Houses in Massachusetts      185
Appendix B: Massachusetts Almshouses Before 1920      190
Appendix C: Number of Almshouses by Year      193
Appendix D: Place Names Commemorating Almshouses, Town Farms and Poorhouses      194
Notes      197
Bibliography      211
Index      227

Book Reviews & Awards

“This interesting volume on architectural history examines the building of poorhouses in the state of Massachusetts throughout American history”—Reference & Research Book News.