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Almshouses

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almshouses

Institutions designed in the 1800s to house poor children, adults, the elderly and the mentally ill, generally with no distinctions made between these groups in terms of services; also known as "poor-houses."

Because of reports condemning such facilities as unsafe and unclean, almshouses fell out of favor with the public by the late 1800s and no longer exist today. An alternative to almshouses at that time was "outdoor relief," which was financial aid to the poor in their own homes, usually provided by a town "overseer of the poor" and in later years by the county or state public agencies. (See "A Brief History of Adoption" [Introduction] at the beginning of this book.)

According to author Homer Folks in his book, The Care of Destitute, Neglected and Delinquent Children, published in 1902, the first American almshouses were built in the latter part of the 1700s in such large cities as Philadelphia, New York City, Baltimore and Boston.

Almshouses were later created in other states as one means of caring for the poor. In some cases, parents actually lived with the children in the almshouse. Orphans were also housed together with the indigent elderly and the mentally ill, as well as with juvenile delinquents. The percentages of families, orphans and elderly varied with the facility, the state and the conditions at the time. Later reformers decided it would be far preferable to separate children in orphanages, and separate institutions were created for different groups, such as children, the mentally ill and the indigent elderly. (In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America provides a depiction of almshouses and institutions.)

A Michigan report in 1870 revealed there were over 200 children under age 16 in Michigan almshouses. Subsequent to the report, the state legislature created a state public school for dependent children in 1874.

Massachusetts began separating poor children from poor adults in 1872. Then in 1879, legislation required overseers of the poor to place the children of paupers in either families or orphan asylums.

The state of New York passed legislation in 1875 requiring the removal of all healthy children over age three from almshouses and placement of them into orphanages, families or other institutions. (The age of the children to be removed was dropped to age two in 1878 and no longer exempted children who were not healthy.)

In 1878, Wisconsin followed suit with legislation ordering the removal of all children from almshouses. A state school housing the children was built in 1885.

The trend continued among states until the early 20th century, when orphaned, abandoned and indigent children were cared for apart from almshouses with funds for outdoor relief, orphanages and such social experiments as the ORPHAN TRAIN.


Homer Folks, The Care of Destitute, Neglected and Delinquent Children (New York: Macmillan, 1902).

Michael B. Katz, In the Shadow of the Poor-house: A Social History of Welfare in America (New York: Basic Books, 1986).

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