Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society Related to the Economically Disenfranchised

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An Overview



This guide is an overview of manuscript collections at the Massachusetts Historical Society that contain information by or about the economically disenfranchised.


This guide is an overview of manuscript collections at the Massachusetts Historical Society that contain information by or about the economically disenfranchised. The vast majority of MHS collections on this subject documents direct or indirect charitable work by affluent and well-connected people and therefore consists of material about rather than by affected individuals and communities. This charitable work was frequently moralistic in nature and reflected the prejudices and judgments of the time. For example, poverty was considered by many to be a moral failing, and distinctions were made between the "worthy poor" and others. However, the collections listed in this guide also contain specific details about the lived experience of individuals and families receiving assistance and are therefore a valuable source of information for social history.

This guide is divided into three sections: early items documenting the treatment of the economically disenfranchised in colonial Massachusetts; collections of public organizations, private organizations, and churches providing charitable goods and services; and first-person accounts by individuals and families living in impoverished conditions. These personal accounts are unfortunately rare, but are highlighted in this guide where known. The guide will continue to be revised as relevant collections are acquired by the MHS.

This guide is a general overview and introduction and is not intended to be comprehensive. Material related to poverty or financial hardship, as well as references to philanthropy, may be found in many collections of personal and family papers that are not specified here. The collections listed below may contain material on the working class, labor unions, immigration, disability, people of color, and other related subjects, but they are not the primary focus of this guide. Photographs, artifacts, and printed items are also not included, though the MHS does hold published material about the economically disenfranchised, such as sermons and reports of charitable organizations. These publications are individually cataloged in ABIGAIL, the online catalog of the MHS.

The guide includes links to catalog records and collection guides in the Detailed Description below. Several of the collections have been fully digitized, and digital images can be accessed from the guides, available at the MHS website. For additional information, search ABIGAIL using the access terms below or email the library for assistance.

Detailed Description

Early Treatment of the Economically Disenfranchised

Throughout the 18th century, colonial New England governments engaged in a practice called "warning out," modeled on British law, which allowed localities to refuse residency to "undesirable" individuals, including those who may require financial relief from the municipal treasury. Individuals warned out were ineligible to receive public relief and were required to move to a different locality.

The MHS holds a number of documents related to this practice across the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A photostat copy of a volume of bonds for securities against strangers, 1670-1700, lists men and women refused admittance into Boston by the Board of Selectmen, including for financial reasons. Other items include a petition by the Charlestown Selectmen to exclude inhabitants, 1708; a statement of Jonathan French of Methuen about the residency of his grandfather, 1737; a letter to Rehoboth officials about the residency of Betty Hodges, 1766; a petition from the Wrentham Selectmen about Ebenezer Smith, 1767; and a list of families going as "donation poor" to Concord, 1775. The Robert Love record book, which has been fully digitized by the MHS, lists all persons Love warned out of Boston between 1765 and 1766. Individuals of "low circumstances" were forced to leave the city within 14 days. The volume contains their names, their current lodgings, and where they lived prior to Boston.

Two large warning out books, 1745-1792, also form part of the Boston Overseers of the Poor records. Each entry includes a name, date, town or country of origin, and length of time in Boston, as well as, in some cases, family members and race. Also included is the name of the person responsible for each warning out.

Charitable Organizations

The vast majority of MHS collections related to the economically disenfranchised consist of papers of charitable organizations, both public and private; church records; and personal papers of individuals associated with charitable organizations. Public organizations, private organizations, and churches are listed in separate subsections below.

Public Organizations

The public organization most heavily represented in MHS collections on this subject is the Boston Overseers of the Poor. The Overseers were established by a colonial act in 1692 and incorporated in 1772. They provided food, fuel, medicines, and sometimes money to the so-called "deserving poor" of Boston, as well as occasional support for the economically disenfranchised in other Massachusetts towns, and they operated facilities for those in need, including women and children at the Temporary Home and men at the Wayfarers' Lodge. The MHS holds three manuscript collections documenting the work of the Boston Overseers: a large collection of financial, administrative, almshouse, and Temporary Home records, 1733-1925, that has been fully digitized; one volume of accounts, 1769-1792; and an autograph album, 1788-ca. 1877. Of particular interest in the Overseers records are casebooks containing details of individuals receiving assistance and papers of the Temporary Home related to children, foundlings, and adoptions, with biographical information.

Almshouses, sometimes known as "poorhouses," have a long history in Massachusetts. Boston's first almshouse was built in 1662. Economically disenfranchised men, women, and children were committed to almshouses by the Overseers of the Poor and often required to work on a "poor farm." Mistreatment at these institutions was common, though reformers began to organize in the 1800s and agitate for improved conditions.

The Boston Overseers of the Poor records contain a significant amount of material related to the Boston Almshouse, including letterbooks and accounts concerning individuals from other towns committed at Boston and from Boston committed at other towns; accounts of almshouse supplies; several admission and discharge registers; and records of deaths and causes of death. The MHS also holds, in the records of the Dorchester Antiquarian and Historical Society, a receipt book of almshouse keeper Samuel Proctor between 1756 and 1761 documenting food purchases, midwifery services, and other expenses. The Charles Henry Frankland diary includes several pages of extracts of Boston Almshouse records written by Thomas Frankland in 1813. These extracts consist of detailed notes on the lives and histories of several unidentified women living there.

The records of two other almshouses at the MHS contain substantive details about individuals committed to them. The register of paupers at Danvers Alms House in Peabody, 1841-1859, kept and annotated by superintendent Adino Page, lists names, ages, residences, and dates of commitment and discharge, as well as deaths, transfers, sentences, escapes, illnesses, and disabilities. Supt. Page also noted individuals with mental illness or alcoholism, alleged sex workers, children of unmarried or deceased parents, boarders and tradespeople, and individuals that worked specific jobs on the almshouse farm. Beginning around 1857, the volume contains more detailed descriptions of behavioral and psychological problems and family histories. Individuals committed to the almshouse included immigrants, especially from Ireland, England, and Scotland; military veterans; Black people; and Indigenous people.

The records of the Roxbury Almshouse in Boston, 1845-1865, consist of a notebook with the name of each person living there, as well as their country of origin, discharge date, and number of years in residence. Also included are lists of deaths; coffins furnished; cases of typhus, smallpox, and cholera; and bills and accounts of money received. This collection has been fully digitized.

Overseers of the Poor of other Massachusetts towns are also represented in MHS collections. Included are letters to the Abington Overseers, 1816-1820, requesting relief for people in debt or in debtors' prison; an account book of the Newton Overseers, 1807-1817, containing records of money spent for boarding, medical care, funerals, and other goods and services; letters to the Haverhill Overseers, 1838-1843, requesting aid for individuals; and a vote of the Chelmsford Selectmen and Overseers, 1727, granting lodging, employment, a horse, and debt relief to a man named Samwell (or Samuel) Gould. The vote was rejected by Gould.

The library also holds records of the Charlestown Overseers of the Poor, 1847-1873, including minutes, lists of members, accounts, records of aid recipients, applications to the almshouse, and narrative histories of aid recipients from 1864 to 1866. Among these recipients were widows, children, and Civil War veterans. This collection has been fully digitized.

For records of public charitable work at the state level, see the papers of the first treasurer and receiver general of Massachusetts, Henry Gardner, 1762-1908, including receipts related to state support for the economically disenfranchised, and the Gardiner Tufts letterbooks, 1864-1892, which document Tufts's work as visiting agent for the Massachusetts Board of State Charities during Reconstruction, in particular his work on behalf of juveniles and wards of the state.

Private Organizations

Private charitable activity in Massachusetts, both by organizations and individuals, has taken many forms over the centuries. The Massachusetts Charitable Society was founded in 1762 by a group of Boston men, primarily artisans and tradesmen, for "mutually aiding and assisting each other, their families, widows and orphans who may be reduced by the adverse accidents of life." It was the first society of its type to enroll members without regard to religion, trade, or nationality, and it is still in operation today. Records of the Massachusetts Charitable Society, 1762-1994, consist of correspondence, meeting minutes, financial papers, member biographies, and other material, including letters about appeals for aid.

The Lend a Hand Society, also still in existence, is a nonsectarian charity founded by Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale in 1891. Members have engaged in a wide variety of philanthropic endeavors over the years: they established a lunchroom for working women; donated books to schools and libraries in the rural South, both Black and white; worked with the Boston Floating Hospital for sick children; contributed to medical aid in Canada; and established and supported many other initiatives, such as providing wheelchairs to those in need. The Lend a Hand records, 1843-1982, not only document the society's work, but also include Hale's personal correspondence about the differentiation between the "deserving" and "undeserving poor," Irish immigration, a farm for orphaned children, and other subjects.

Many private charitable organizations represented in MHS collections have espoused explicitly religious principles, as spelled out in their constitutions and by-laws. For example, the New Bedford Benevolent Society, established in 1849, engaged in charitable work to the economically disenfranchised that combined "physical" and "moral" considerations. Members of the Boston Young Men's Christian Union, organized two years later, were encouraged to "surround [the recipients of their aid] with Christian influences, and to interest them in the cultivation of a religious life."

The MHS holds four journals of Methodist clergyman Luman Boyden, 1854-1863, a missionary working directly with economically disenfranchised populations on behalf of the Boston City Missionary Society. Boyden visited and assisted the residents of East Boston, including Protestant, Irish Catholic, African American, and immigrant families, many living in tenement blocks. Detailed, daily entries and monthly reports describe the families' poverty and privations; alcoholism; domestic violence and other crimes; suicides; and illnesses such as tuberculosis, smallpox, and typhoid fever; as well as Boyden's attempts at conversion, advocacy of temperance, and referrals to the almshouse. Included are the names and addresses of residents. This collection has been fully digitized.

The Boston City Missionary Society, with which Boyden was affiliated, was founded in 1820 as the Society for the Religious and Moral Instruction of the Poor. Its first secretary was fellow minister William Jenks, whose papers are also housed at the MHS. Jenks's papers contain material related to his many religious and charitable activities, including the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1816-1832, which sponsored missionaries and schools throughout New England; the Marine Bible Society, 1820; the American Seaman's Friend Society, 1822-1825; and the Society for the Religious and Moral Instruction of the Poor, 1822-1828, with Sunday School records for African American and immigrant communities, 1817-1823. The collection includes specific information about economically disenfranchised individuals, as well as Jenks's personal journal describing his work with Black and Chinese families in Boston in 1822. See also the additions to the William Jenks papers, 1802-1879.

Many charitable organizations were founded to address the needs of a specific population. For example, the Boston Port and Seamen's Aid Society operated a church and a boarding house for sailors, as well as an outfitters shop to employ the wives and daughters of men at sea. The society concerned itself not only with the physical, but also the moral well-being of sailors, by opposing what it called the "temptations" of seafaring life. Included in the collection are administrative and financial papers, 1829-1977, but also vital records documenting births, marriages, and deaths, with detailed demographic information. The mission of the Sailors' Snug Harbor was "relieving and supporting decrepit, infirm or aged sailors" by providing them with a permanent home and provision for old age. And the Gloucester Tenement Association offered affordable housing to the widows and children of lost fishermen of Gloucester.

Other organizations established specifically to provide for women and children include the Boston Female Asylum and the Society for Helping Destitute Mothers and Infants, both represented in the Perry-Clarke collection; the Society for the Employment of the Female Poor, which employed women to do washing, ironing, and sewing (this collection is fully digitized); the Dean Foundation for Little Children, which distributes grants for medical and social services for children; and the Massachusetts Infant Asylum, established in 1867 to accommodate "deserted and destitute infant children." The example of the Massachusetts Infant Asylum also illustrates how distinctions between private, public, and religious charities can be complicated; the organization was private, but Overseers of the Poor were permitted to place infants there at public expense, and churches provided some financial support.

Older women needing housing may have been admitted to an institution like the Home for Aged Women in Woburn. The MHS holds their records, 1915-1956, as well as those of the Home for Aged Colored Women, 1843-1949. The latter home was founded in 1860 by Rev. James Freeman Clarke, his mother Rebecca Parker Clarke, and Rev. Leonard A. Grimes to provide for elderly Black women with no family to adequately care for them. Black women were not permitted to reside in charitable homes designated for white women. The Home for Aged Colored Women housed 10-20 residents at a time, 60 years or older, or gave monetary assistance to elderly Black women living elsewhere. Residents were expected to participate in daily prayers and perform housework, if able. The collection contains financial records, donor lists, committee notes, board meeting minutes, and annual reports, but also descriptions of applicants and residents, many of whom had been formerly enslaved, including personal histories, living situations, and deaths. Also included is correspondence discussing applicants, as well as a nurse's log, 1910-1912. This collection has been fully digitized.

Among the other specialized charities documented in MHS collections are the Jacoby Club for older men and men with alcoholism, the Scots' Charitable Society for people of Scottish heritage, and the Charitable Irish Society for people of Irish heritage. Of particular interest in the Charitable Irish Society records, 1737-2008, are papers related to Irish immigrants in Boston, to whom the society offered temporary loans or referrals for work. Included are meeting records and letters about specific petitions for aid; records of two Catholic charitable societies, 1831-1842; papers discussing poverty during the Irish potato famine and the Great Depression; and detailed reports by the society's immigration agent Julia C. Hayes, 1910-1917. Hayes met with immigrants, primarily girls and women, as they arrived at the Boston docks and helped them to find jobs or reunite with family members. Her reports document the details of specific cases and the society's efforts to enforce certain standards of behavior. Additional papers concerning aid to Ireland during the potato famine can be found in the papers of sea captain and China merchant Robert Bennett Forbes.

Charitable organizations were often established in response to specific precipitating events. Relief for the victims of Boston fires was provided by a committee of religious societies in 1787, the Boston Fire Committee in 1795, the Summer Street Fire Committee in 1872, and the Massachusetts Charitable Fire Society. And Bostonians suffering financial hardship under Thomas Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807 were aided by charitable subscriptions, 1808-1810.

Many affluent men and women of Massachusetts worked with one or more of the organizations listed above, among others. Collections of personal and family papers at the MHS contain a wealth of information on individual philanthropy, including the following: the Amos Lawrence papers and papers II, the Emily Marshall Otis Eliot diaries, the Frank Lowell Kennedy papers, the John Wells Farley papers, the Joseph Lee papers, the Lowell family papers, the Marian Lawrence Peabody papers, the Otis Norcross diaries and papers, and the William Lambert letterbook. The Putnam-Jackson-Lowell family papers contain papers of Elizabeth Cabot Putnam related to her social welfare work, 1879-1922, particularly with minors within the Massachusetts home visitation and guardianship programs, as well as primary and reform schools. Included are detailed case histories, reports on her investigations into suitable homes for abandoned and neglected children, and her speeches on public service and the education of African Americans. Lawyer and historian Thomas Coffin Amory also wrote extensively about the economically disenfranchised in Boston.


Churches of all denominations in Massachusetts have engaged in work on behalf of the economically disenfranchised, and the MHS holds collections of many of them. The records of King's Chapel, the first Anglican church in Boston, include an "account of mony received and distributed to the poore," 1753-1757; a "poor's book," 1758-1774; papers of the Charities Committee, 1827-1900; and other records of the church's charitable endeavors. See also the additions to the King's Chapel records, 1733-1992.

Similarly, the records of the Old North Church contain a book of "poor accounts" listing donations to individuals and including their names, 1733-1759; a warden's ledger, 1889-1911; and a journal of the Sunday School Fragment Society, 1818-1854, a society of women who sewed clothing and loaned it to children to wear to Sunday School.

Among the First Church of Boston records are a number of volumes showing money distributed to those in need, including four Sacramental and Poor Fund record books, 1696-1833, with occasional names of recipients; one volume kept by Rev. Nathaniel L. Frothingham and Rev. Rufus Ellis, 1841-ca. 1885; and another titled "Records of charitable assistance for families in Roxbury," 1889-1894, listing families by name and address, the number of family members, employment history, financial situation, and other social details. An account for each family includes the date and type of contribution, often wood, coal, groceries, rent, medical care, or shoes. First Church operated a Sunday School families program, in which an employee of the church visited families of the congregation, distributed funds for their use, and reported on their living conditions. In addition to this volume, the collection includes loose material related to the program with details about the lives of people visited in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, Brookline, and Roslindale, 1881-1886 and 1923-1926, as well as numerous loose accounts.

The Second Church of Boston encompassed or was affiliated with a number of charitable groups, including the Benevolent Fraternity of Churches, the Board of Charity, the Boston Quarterly Charity Lecture, the Ladies Benevolent Society, and the Second Church Club. These groups are represented in volumes and loose papers in the collection. Records of the Poor Fund, 1829-1865, form part of the treasurer's volumes.

Other collections of Boston churches and religious societies containing material about aid to the economically disenfranchised include the Boston Episcopal Charitable Society records, 1724-1905; the Hollis Street Charitable Union records, 1873-1879; and the Ladies Benevolent Society records, 1888-1900. Records of the Massachusetts Congregational Charitable Society, 1786-1979, are also held at the MHS.

In 1826, Unitarian clergyman Joseph Tuckerman was appointed by the Executive Committee of the American Unitarian Association to serve as minister at large to impoverished families in Boston. His papers, 1799-1863, include 20 volumes of diaries describing his ministry work, with details about individuals and families, as well as his efforts to establish similar ministries in England. The collection also contains an account book of the Poor's Purse, 1827-1835, listing expenditures, receipts, memoranda of loans, and wood accounts.

Outside of Boston, records of the Watertown Lend a Hand Club, a branch of the Lend a Hand Society, form part of the First Parish of Watertown collection. These records consist of loose papers and bound reports, 1904-1979. Also included in the collection are papers of the Watertown Female Society for the Relief of the Sick, which supplied clothing, blankets, food, and medical supplies to those in need. These papers consist primarily of loose financial material and bound volumes, 1816-1955, including rules and regulations, membership lists, sewing society records, meeting minutes, and accounts.

The MHS also holds a volume of burial records of the North Burying Yard in Holliston. This manuscript volume, copied from an original record book around 1894, includes information about the graves of "town paupers."

Personal Accounts

First-hand accounts of poverty and financial hardship in collections at the MHS are unfortunately very rare. Individuals and families with wealth and privilege leave much larger documentary footprints, and therefore the vast majority of MHS papers come from these individuals and families. The lives of the economically disenfranchised are most often seen through the lens of the elite.

However, the MHS does hold a few items highlighting the voices of these underrepresented men, women, and children. Among them is the diary of an unidentified itinerant laborer, 1878, in which the writer describes in detail the hunger, cold, and desperation he experiences during his travels west in search of work, as well as the resourcefulness necessary to survive.

Personal correspondence from people in need includes letters to William Jenks from Joseph Bartlett, his former mentor who had fallen on hard times. Letters written between 1812 and 1823 relate to Bartlett's "absolute distress," sickness, and poverty. Letters to Dr. Abiel Heywood of Concord consist of pleas for aid on behalf of Nancy Barron, 1827-1828. The first, written by Nancy's mother Rebecca Barron, details the family's health and financial trouble and asks Heywood for rent money, which is two months overdue. Nancy had an unidentified mental illness and was later confined to Concord Asylum. And Mary J. Newhall Breed wrote a testimonial in 1933 "to the Societys of Boston" explaining the circumstances leading to her unemployment and asking for help finding work for her and her husband. Newhall was elderly and physically disabled.

Many collections of personal and family papers document periods of financial trouble, if not outright poverty. For example, papers dating from the time of the Great Depression describe the effects of the stock market collapse on businesses and individuals. Other papers describe families having difficulty making ends meet. The Frances Elizabeth Gray papers consist primarily of family correspondence and Gray's diaries, 1830-1868, revealing the family's struggles after the death of their mother. Gray was only a teenager when her mother died, leaving her to care for her twelve younger brothers and sisters while their father pursued his failing business interests elsewhere. Many letters to Gray from her brothers contain requests for money and clothing and complaints about unpaid bills.

Additional first-hand accounts by the economically disenfranchised are undoubtedly buried within MHS collections and will hopefully continue to come to light. This guide will be updated as relevant material is discovered or acquired by the MHS.

Preferred Citation

When using the items described in this guide, researchers should cite the collection containing the item.

Access Terms

For information about the collections and items described in this guide, consult, ABIGAIL, the online catalog of the Massachusetts Historical Society.


Charitable societies.
Poor children.
Poor families.
Poor laws.
Poor women.
Public welfare.
Warning out (Law).
Working class.