Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Off To The Poorhouse?
Years ago, it was illegal to be poor. People who couldn’t care for themselves financially were rounded up and shipped off to the poorhouse. Drifters looking for work, foreigners who couldn’t speak the language, squatters or anyone who was caught begging would likely find themselves there, too.
Poorhouses evolved through the years. In the early 19th century, communities usually paid people to take in the poor; the lowest bidder would be paid by the community to feed and shelter them. There was no oversight of these places and conditions varied greatly from place to place. They were often called almshouses, too. Anyone who was able was expected to work around the home; in England, they came to be called workhouses.
After the Civil War, housing indigents became more governmentally-controlled; poorhouses were often funded and overseen by individual counties and were also called County Homes. These places were run to be as self-sufficient as possible, so they were often large, well-constructed buildings on big tracts of land, sometimes called Poor Farms or County Farms; there are still many roads named Poor Farm Road.
There were a number of reasons a person may find themselves in a poorhouse, so the inmates (as they were called) had varying levels of ability. Some were crazy, some were physically disabled, some were “weak-minded” and others were completely able; often the work to be done was taking care of other residents.
Poorhouse life was difficult. There was tremendous social stigma and residents were treated badly by the greater community; tales of visits to poorhouses tell of children being terrified, as if the residents were wicked. Residents had no freedom: they ate what was given them and they performed the work they were assigned. Rules were strict and firmly enforced; officials didn’t want anyone taking this charity by choice. Researching these places makes you sad; the few pictures hold no smiles. Here’s a melancholy listing of poorhouse residents:
It’s difficult to research the poorhouse era. There are few stories of residents, as many of them had no families. Many died and were buried in unmarked graves in poor farm cemeteries. Here’s a picture of the poor farm from my county.
I’ve seen a couple online references to a poorhouse in my hometown, although I haven’t found evidence of it. I’m going to check with the oldest lady in town. I did find a Poor Farm Museum in a county near mine: http://www.hillsdalecounty.info/history0041.asp
Apparently, Ohio is one of the best documented states of poorhouse history. (The building in the picture at the top of the post once housed Annie Oakley!)
Many of former-poorhouse buildings are still being used. Most poor farms evolved into government-sponsored institutions specific to the type of the residents who resided there – County Infirmaries, asylums and homes for the aged. They were the predecessor of modern nursing homes.
The poorhouse era was kind of a long, government-sponsored experiment; officials were just trying to figure out how to handle indigents. Thankfully, what this trial period led them to was the Social Security system.