Women and Work in the Philadelphia Almshouse, 1790–1840


This essay examines women’s presence in the almshouse of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the early republic. Welfare institutions were dependent on poor women’s labor in two vital ways: first, institutions required a cheap and flexible workforce in order to operate with reasonable efficiency, and women provided much of that labor, particularly in household functions within the institution. Second, making labor a fundamental part of the relief process allowed administrators to argue that public funds were being used responsibly to ameliorate poverty without promoting a permanently dependent population. While the Philadelphia almshouse maintained a manufactory from 1807 into the 1880s, an industrial factory model was not feasible for almshouse manufacture: the necessity of providing for inmates as a public institution, and the flexibility demanded in effective employment of able-bodied paupers, rendered the almshouse manufactory ineffectual as an urban manufacturing enterprise.

Administrators probably never expected to extract enough labor from the inmates for the institution either to turn a profit or to become self-sufficient, but antebellum administrators maintained that labor had moral value. Administrators’ treatment of women’s work in the institution reflected ambivalence about women’s role in an industrializing economy, concern about women’s employment in industrial production, and unease about the moral threat posed by poor women as members of (and contributors to) a permanent underclass. Focusing on women’s particular connections to these institutions as inmates and workers can shed further light on the influence of local relationships in the welfare process, and on the gendered nature of poverty in the early republic.