Philadelphia Information Locator Service
From the Newsletter of the Philadelphia City Archives, # 34 & 35, June & October 1978
by Priscilla Ferguson Clement
(Note: Record Group 35, the Philadelphia Guardians of the Poor, has been reorganized during
the late 1990s. Therefore the record series numbers given in this article are not accurate. Click
on the link to the Guardians of the Poor to view the current organization of the records of the
Guardians and both the Almshouse Hospital and its successor, the Philadelphia General
The Philadelphia City Archives is the repository of a remarkably comprehensive set of manuscript materials concerning the city's indigent population and its poor relief system. This collection should be of interest to students of public welfare and public institutions, and to scholars seeking data on the sick and aged poor, impoverished women and children, and the so-called "deviant" poor, including prostitutes, vagrants, and drunks. A fine catalogue to most of the manuscripts is John Daly's, Descriptive Inventory of the Archives of the City and County of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: City of Philadelphia, 1970). However, at present this bibliography is incomplete because, subsequent to its publication, the Archives accessioned additional records from the Philadelphia General Hospital, successor to the Philadelphia Almshouse.
(Note: the complete described holdings of the Philadelphia City Archives are available at the City Archives web page. Click the bottom button marked "links to Philadelphia City Archives")
My purpose is to describe both the old and the newly acquired data on the City's poor in the Archives for the year 1800 to 1887 (record group 35) when the Philadelphia Guardians of the Poor administered the welfare system. (In addition, the Archives hold some materials on eighteenth century poverty and welfare, also catalogued under record group 35, and a considerable number of manuscripts pertaining to indigence and institutions in the City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in record group 65.) The Guardians of the Poor were unpaid administrators of a welfare system that provided most poor with institutional care in the City's Almshouse, a multifaceted facility which served at one and the same time as a hospital, insane asylum, manufactory, jail, and orphanage. In addition public relief officials provided some other indigent Philadelphians with outdoor relief in their own homes in the form of pensions, provisions, fuel, and medical aid .
The best source of information on Philadelphia public welfare in the nineteenth century is undoubtedly the Minutes of the Guardians of the Poor, 1788-1887 (35.6) and the Minutes of the Almshouse Managers, 1788-1828 (35.16). Unfortunately, neither set of volumes is indexed, nor, for that matter, are the minutes of any of the committees formed by public welfare administrators. Some years after the demise of the Almshouse Managers in 1828, public officials formed an Almshouse Committee, and its minutes which cover the period 1837-62 (35.20), though less complete than those of the Managers, are nevertheless useful. The Committee on Out Wards was the successor to the Almshouse Committee, and its minutes encompass the years 1862-87 (35.34). There were several other committees concerned with various facets of Almshouse administration. The Board of Physicians Minutes, 1809-45 (35.39) are extremely brief and sketchy, but the Hospital Committee Minutes, 1836-87 (35.30) are more detailed.
Also useful are the Minutes of the Committee on the Lunatic Asylum, 1852-66 (35.31). The minutes of the Committee on Manufacturing, 1807-87 (35.32) are largely a catalogue of the numbers of inmates employed at various tasks. (For similar information on the house factory before 1807 see 35.49, Treasurer's "Weekly Entries," 1791-1822.) The Minutes of the Children's Asylum Committee, 1820-33, 1857-66 (35.23) are fairly comprehensive and are continued for the years 1883-87 in the Minutes of the Committee on Out Wards.
The history of the Almshouse as an institution and of the impoverished Philadelphians who took refuge there can also be traced through sources other than committee minutes. As we have seen, the Philadelphia Almshouse served many functions, but perhaps its most important was that of a hospital. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the Almshouse Managers retained physicians who ministered to the City's needy sick in medical and surgical wards. The Almshouse Hospital, Receiving Register, 1800-6, 1880-85 (35.112) includes names of male and female patients, their ages, dates of admission, disease and "event," whether they were "cured," "died," or "relieved." An Almshouse physician noted down similar information in Almshouse Hospital, Register of Sick Wards, 1805, 1807 (35.152), but he also recorded wards to which he assigned patients and medicine prescribed for them. In these early years of the nineteenth century, not all sick inmates could be accommodated in medical and surgical wards. The apothecary recorded the names of such patients as well as their ages, "complaint" and "event" in Almshouse Hospital, "Register of Sick," 1800-7 (35.151).
For later years, hospital admissions data are more extensive. In the Men's and Women's Receiving Ward Registers, 1836-87 (35.114 and 35.117-some volumes of which are missing) officials listed by date of admission each patient's name, birthplace, age, race, diagnosis, and ward to which assigned. The occupation, marital status, number of previous admissions, and discharge date or death of most of these patients can be traced through Almshouse Hospital, Female Register, 1803-88 (35.116) and "Men's Register," 1828-88 (35.113), which are arranged by letter of the alphabet (and within each letter, by date of admission). The newly acquired "Philadelphia Hospital, Admissions and Discharges", 1883-84 (35.189) is arranged in the same manner as the Female and Men's Registers and contains identical information for a one year period only.
Officials chronicled births in the Almshouse Hospital for the years 1808-29, 1843-73, 1878-85 (35.157) and deaths for 1881-83 (35.158) only. They also noted the results of Post Mortem Examinations for 1867-84 and 1887 (35.159).
For some years there remain fairly detailed records of certain wards in the hospital. For example, there is a Register of the Men's Eye Ward for 1886-87 (35.153), which includes each patient's name, age, birthplace, marital status, diagnosis, and "result." The Archives recently acquired three other such registers, including Maternity Cases, 1885-87 (35.175); Men's Venereal Ward Register, 1876-85 (35.183), and Women's Venereal Ward Register, 1875-87 (35.184).
In addition to these ward registers, a few other records of venereal patients hospitalized in the Almshouse are extant. For the years 1808-12 there is a volume of Syphilis Costs Accounts (35.156), but perhaps most interesting is the Prostitutes' Register, circa 1863 (35.167). In this volume, beside the name of each prostitute treated for venereal disease in the Almshouse, officials recorded her age, birthplace, marital status, number of children (their ages and whether or not legitimate), date and cause of becoming prostitute, trade and whether followed, wages and number supported by them, and occupations of parents. There is also a Venereal Case Book for 1864-69 and 1884-85 (35.182).
This case book is one of several in the Archives. Most of the Almshouse Hospital case records, many of them newly accessioned, are grouped in 35.154. However, there are filed elsewhere the aforementioned Venereal Case Book as well as a few Surgical Case Records, 1816- 17, 1864-70, 1884-85 (35.179)- Obstetrical Ward Case Records, 1865-70, 1884-85 (35.181); and Nervous Ward Case Records, 1883-87 (35.180). Officials noted in these volumes each patient's name, age, birthplace, marital status, occupation, family history, diagnosis, daily case history and treatment, and names of attending physicians.
Case records provide some information on drug therapy in the Almshouse Hospital, but such data are also available in Apothecary's Ledger Rx Cost Per Inmate, 1805-6 (35.104); Drug Items Issues Ledger, 1885-87 (35.106); and the newly acquired Prescriptions Compounded, 1882- 84, 1887 (35.187).
While most of the sick poor received treatment in medical and surgical wards in the Almshouse, officials sometimes hospitalized those with contagious diseases elsewhere. The Archives recently acquired the records of a temporary facility occupied by indigent yellow fever victims in 1803. See Acting Manager of (Temporary) "Schuylkill Almshouse," Accounts, 1803 (35.198).
Besides its function as a hospital, the Almshouse also served as a manufactory where able-bodied, unemployed, indigent Philadelphians labored to produce items for sale and for house use. The best records of the Almshouse factory cover the years when it apparently employed many _ and sold substantial amounts of goods: the first decade of the nineteenth century, the years between 1835 and 1845 when the new Almshouse at Blockley was first open, and the 1870's.
For the early nineteenth century, the Steward recorded in his Manufacturers' Sales Journal, 1805-8 (35.101) items produced in the institution, their prices and purchasers. He noted similar information, as well as the amount paid poor persons employed in the manufactory, in the "Sundries Account," 1808-10 (35.196-newly accessioned). The Committee on Manufacturing in their Minutes, 1807-87 (35.32), and the Treasurer in his "Weekly Entries," 1791-1822 (35.49) also posted the number of paupers employed in the Almshouse. Furthermore, early in the century, public relief officials in Philadelphia paid some poor for labor done outside of the institution. These officials listed the names and amount earned by indigent women who spun thread in their own homes (and later returned it to the house manufactory, where weavers wove it into cloth) in Out-Door Spinners' Accounts, 1806-7 (35.97). The Steward kept profits and loss accounts for cloth and other Almshouse products in his Manufactory Accounts Ledger, 1808-10 (35.100).
Somewhat similar records exist for the 1830's and 1840's. In these decades the Steward entered the items fashioned in the Almshouse as well as the number (and occasionally the names) of pauper employees in his Weekly Summaries, Goods Manufactured, 1834-38 (35.91) and in Weekly Statements of Tailoring, Painters' and Glaziers' Work, Shoemakers', Weavers', Carpenters' Production, 1835-44 (35.92 - 35.96). He also kept balance sheets for each department in a volume entitled Almshouse Factory Production Accounts, 1835-42 (35.193).
Records of the Almshouse manufactory in the 1870's are scantier. The Committee on Manufacturing in its Reports, 1871-78 (35.33) only entered weekly recapitulations of the value of goods produced in the institution. Somewhat more useful are the Weekly Statements of Manufactory Production, 1835-44, 1873-78, 1882-86 (35.90- the late nineteenth century volumes are new acquisitions) in which the Steward listed the type and amount of work done in each factory department and the totals paid inmate laborers.
Often labor in the Almshouse manufactory served as a punishment for lazy, able-bodied paupers. Officials also occasionally denied intractable inmates temporary leaves from the institution and sometimes even incarcerated them in cells. Almshouse administrators recorded the names of those who suffered these various forms of punishment in the "Black Book," 1810-20, 1826-34, 1880-87 (35.160). They also noted the names, ages, race, and birthplaces of drunks and vagrants committed to the institution in the Men's Cell Docket, 1834- 46 (35.161); the Female Vagrant Register, 1874-77 (35.118); and the Male Vagrant Register, 1879-80 (35.174).
Even as homeless adults often sought refuge in the Almshouse, so too did abandoned and orphaned children. There were "nurseries" in the institution for some of these indigent youngsters, while others, after 1819, entered a new public facility called the Children's Asylum. The Philadelphia Guardians of the Poor recorded the names, dates of admission (and sometimes the dates of discharge and reasons for leaving) of children in their care in the Nursery Register, 1827-32 (35.130); the Register, Children's Asylum, 1819-87 (35.127-volumes for some years of which are missing); and the Register of White Male Children, 1848-49 (35.129). However, not all impoverished children for whom the Guardians of the Poor were responsible resided in the Almshouse or Children's Asylum. For example, as the "Nurse Book," 1806, 1815 25, 1831-39 (35.145) indicates, foundlings dwelt with wet nurses employed by public officials. In addition, illegitimate children who were public charges often remained in their infancy with their mothers who obtained "outdoor pensions" from the Guardians of the Poor. The names and amounts of aid granted these mothers and children appear in Committee on Bastardy, Cases Referred To, 1822 25 (35.21); Committee on Support Cases and Collections, Minutes, 1848-73 (35.37), "Bond Book," 1799-1827 (35.137); and Bonds for Support of Illegitimate Children, 1853-1858 (35.158)
While the Philadelphia Guardians of the Poor willingly paid for home or institutional care for very young public charges, they indentured out to learn a trade older, able-bodied, indigent boys and girls. For the names and ages of those indentured, to whom and in what trades see Indentures Made, 1788-97, 1804-28, 1837-74 (35.133). Copies of the actual indenture papers are available in Indenture Papers and Bonds, 1795-1888 (35.135). Furthermore, the Guardians of the Poor occasionally used the indenturing process as a method of relinquishing impoverished children to private charitable institutions. Officials inscribed the names of some such male orphans in Indentures Made to Girard College, 1847-53 (35.134).
Records of poor children assisted by public relief officials in nineteenth century Philadelphia are fairly extensive. Less exhaustive but nonetheless useful are various materials in the City Archives which illuminate the quality of life of young and old inmates in the Almshouse Of particular interest is the Department and Ward Census for 1807-10 (35.124) in which an official listed by ~ward the name, age, birthplace, place of residence, number of years in the Almshouse, and house occupation of each inmate. Moreover, the Clothing Issues Ledgers, 1805-31 (35.81-some volumes are recent acquisitions) reveal the type of garments issued paupers, the Liquor Book, 1808-10, 1813-17, 1859-74 (35.86), the amount of porter, wine, and beer distributed to them; and the Register of "Liberties of the Gate" and Passes from the Grounds, 1823-31, 1842-43, 1873-87 (35.166-portions are new acquisitions), the names of paupers deemed worthy enough to move in and out of the institution. Death registers reflect the precariousness of existence in the institution, while elopement (escape) records reveal something of the attitude of inmates toward it. Almshouse employees noted inmate mortality in Female Deaths, 1878-87 (35.178-a recent acquisition) and both deaths and elopements in Male Escapes and Deaths, 1857-77 (35.1260. There are additional elopement entries in several new volumes recently accessioned by the Archives which cover the years 1876-87 (35.176-77, 35.192).
Of all the public welfare records in the Philadelphia City Archives, the Almshouse admissions books probably constitute the most comprehensive source of information about the City's poor population. An exhaustive list of house admissions survives in the Daily Occurrence Docket, 1787-1888 (35.75), but it is difficult to decipher and includes many overlapping volumes. In the earliest years of the century, officials entered each inmate's name, date of admission and place of residence in the Almshouse Admissions Books, 1785-1827 (35.110), which are arranged by letter of the alphabet (and within each letter, by date of admission). However, for the period 1812-35 the Almshouse Weekly Admissions and Census (35.111) is much more useful. It is ordered by date of admission, and entries include inmate's name, place of residence, number of former admissions, complaint, and apartment or ward to which assigned. For the years 1828-88 it is possible to trace Almshouse admissions through the Almshouse Hospital, Female and Men's Registers (35.116 and 35.113) which, in spite of their titles, include extensive information on all inmates (not just those who were ill) admitted in these years. Weekly statistical summaries of admissions and discharges are available in Treasurers"'Weekly Entries," 1791-1822 (35.49) and in Treasurer, General Ledger, 1820-31 (35.45).
Not all persons admitted to the Philadelphia Alms house were paupers. Some entered the institution when their families or employers contracted to pay the Guardians of the Poor room and board fees. For the names of such inmates and the payments made for them see Inmates Boarding Accounts Ledger, 1805-8, 1811-30, 1843-46, 1856-57, 1860-64 (35.69-some volumes in this series are recent acquisitions).
Other Almshouse inmates were not city residents and consequently not the responsibility of the Philadelphia Guardians of the Poor, who often tried to collect monies for their care from their home communities. The names of inmates adjudged non-residents appear in Accounts of Charges to Other Counties for Maintenance of their Residents, 1811-87 (35.122-portions are new accessions) and Non-Resident Register, 1834-73 (35.123). A more comprehensive description of each non-resident inmate including his or her name and often occupation, parents' occupations, birthplace, and various places of residence survives in "Examinations of Paupers," 1822-44 (35.121).
While Philadelphia public relief officials retained fairly complete reports of persons admitted to the Almshouse and of the care accorded them in the various divisions of the institution, they kept less comprehensive records of the other major form of public welfare in the nineteenth century outdoor relief to the poor in their own homes. For only a few years are there complete lists of persons who received this form of public assistance. In 1814-15 the Guardians of the Poor maintained a Register of Relief Recipients (35.139) in which they entered each outdoor pensioner's name, residence, weekly allowance, and "condition" (widowed, aged, sick). In a similar volume for 1828-32, employees of the Guardians added each recipient's age, race, marital status, birthplace, occupation, numbers and ages of children, and reason why each one was granted relief. Public officials also noted down comparable data in the "Pauper Lists," 1821-29 (35.140), which, however, are difficult to read. For later years the Visitors of the Poor made Monthly Reports, 1860-72 (35.143) in which they totaled the number of outdoor relief recipients and broke them down by birthplace and nationality .
To conclude, it should be evident that the Philadelphia City Archives retains a unique set of
manuscript materials of interest to students of nineteenth century social, economic, and urban
history. Medical historians, and scholars engaged in research on the history of women, children,
or the aged-all should find many useful records for their research.