Poor Women and the Boston Almshouse in the Early Republic
Abstract

This essay argues that, during the period 1795–1817, the Boston Almshouse was a female space organized around the lives of poor women. Through quantitative and qualitative analysis of Boston Almshouse records, supplemented with Boston town records, newspapers, and related documents, the author shows the centrality of women to the institution. Even though men had official responsibility for the Almshouse, women’s concerns shaped its structure and rhythms. First, even though more men than women passed through the Almshouse doors, women always constituted a majority of its residents. Second, most Almshouse women had been born within fifty miles of Boston; Boston and its Almshouse were part of their known world. Most Almshouse men, in contrast, were born outside the U.S.; the Almshouse was an unfamiliar place in an unfamiliar city. Third, the functions of the Almshouse were women’s work, not men’s work. The duties that more prosperous women performed individually in private homes, poor women performed communally in the Almshouse: preparing food, making and washing clothing and bedding, birthing and raising children, nursing the sick, tending the handicapped, laying out the dead. Finally, many female inmates used the Almshouse to anchor their families during crises specific to women’s lives: in the last stages of pregnancy; when their children were sick; when their husbands died or were unable to provide the necessities of life through their labor; and when illness and weakness rendered women vulnerable in old age. Four mini-biographies of Almshouse women, reconstructed from available documents, illustrate the potential of the Almshouse to create a real community of support for poor women


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