|Title||Town Returns to the Quincy Committee, Public Record|
|Type||Primary Sources: Public Record|
In 1820, the Massachusetts General Court (State Legislature) appointed a special committee, headed by Josiah Quincy, a well-known politician and reformer to investigate the methods used for the relief of paupers in Massachusetts towns, to study the problems of the poor relief system, and to recommend revisions of the laws on poor relief. The Quincy Committee sent out a survey or questionnaire to all the towns in the state, asking them to describe their poor relief systems and describe the problems they encountered. 162 towns responded. The Committee’s final report was published in 1821. Appended to the report were excerpts from 32 of the 162 town responses, referred to as returns. As a group the published returns strongly favored the establishment of poor farms and poorhouses. A sampling of the returns has been included here.
Excerpts from the Town Returns to the Quincy Committee, 1821
Abstract from returns of Towns……Relative to Paupers.
A Poor House, no land attached to it. The Adults supported in the Poor House at 86 cents each per week, clothing and house furnished occasionally by the Overseers, expenses trifling. Children supported in private families and clothed and kept to school, average expenses per week, 67 cents each. The advantages we have experienced from supporting Adults in the Poor House are, that applications for assistance from the town are less frequent, from a reluctance of going to a Poor House, and being subject to the immediate control of the Overseers.
In 1817, this town built a new Poor House. The male subjects in the House that are able to work are employed in sawing wood for the House, tending the garden, and occasionally work for other people at farming and sawing wood, and doing other things.
The female subjects are employed in cooking, washing and doing the necessary work of the House; they also, in the course of the year, spin considerable yarn for making cloth for the use of the House, and to pay for weaving, which is done out of the House.
In past years, the subjects were generally employed in picking oakum*; and although they did not pick but little each of them in a day, yet it amounted to considerable in a year. It is not in our power to state to you the advantages of supporting the poor in a Poor House, or otherwise, but this we are very sure of, that we have five subjects in our House at this time, and have had as many these five years past, that we believe, that we could not have put them out, short of three dollars and fifty cents per week, each.
We have no Poor House, but the opinion of our town, we think is rising in favor of one; and the present year, for the first time, we have contracted with an individual for the support of the whole, except a very few particular cases. This is an approximation in method towards that of supporting them in a Poor House, and has operated towards a reduction in number, and a diminution of the expense of those remaining on the list.
It may perhaps be totally useless for us to remark, that the cause of pauperage in a very large share of the instances on our list, may be traced to habits of intemperance; and these habits, in too many instances, are originated or increased, by improper and unlawful indulgences in licensed houses*.
The expense of maintaining the poor, since the establishment of an Alms House, is more than fifty per cent. less than the year preceding; but by adding the interest on the money which the poor house cost, it will make the saving something less than fifty per cent. The saving arises from two causes, first, by reducing the number of the poor, and second, from the same number’s being boarded cheaper in an Alms House, than in private families. The number of the poor maintained by the town is reduced, by reasons of an unwillingness in the poor to go to the Alms House, and in their friends to let them go, and greater exertions are made by both, for their support otherwise.
There are about four acres of poor land attached to the Alms House. The poor are principally employed in picking oakum; but there is but very little demand for that article at this time, and consequently we realize but very little from the labor of the poor.
We employ a man and his wife, as keepers of the house, and pay them two hundred dollars a year; we are so fortunate as to have very good keepers. It is our opinion that the utility of an Alms House depends very much on the convenience of the house, and the ability and integrity of the keepers.
By the short experience we have had in supporting poor in the Alms House, we are con-fident that it is the cheapest way, where the number is twenty or more.
The poor in our town are much more comfortable in the Alms House, than they were when boarded out.
Agreeable to your request we inform you that we have a Charity House, attached to which is about 200 acres of land.
The employment of those that are able to work, is principally agricultural. The domestic arrangement is committed to the mistress: and the female poor are employed in spinning, weaving, and such other work as is generally performed in large families. The poor who are able to work, do it with cheerfulness, and but little coercion has been found necessary for the performance of what they are able to do. In respect to the comparative benefit of supporting the poor in Poor Houses, or at large, we answer, that, in our opinion, a Poor House has many advantages over promiscuous*, or boarding at large. 1st. The poor are under the immediate charge of a master or mistress, selected by the Board with special respect to their good principles and habits, and capacity for government and economy, and whom the poor are taught to respect and obey by the directions of the Overseers. 2d. The constant or stated visits of the Boards. 3d. The Board can at any time inspect the whole of the Poor at one visit; make certain inquiry and obtain informa-tion of the conduct and general deportment, of all under their control; give advice, ad-monish, restrict, punish, or award, as the general interest requires. 4th. A house of this description is a check to disorderly persons, and saves expense from the common course of law. Besides, being united in one house, their habits can be marked, and the employment best suited to their age and capacity more distinctly pointed out. We enjoin the keepers of the house to give advice and when the subjects prove refractory, to make use to suitable means to reclaim them. Boarding at large. 1st. The person who receives the Pauper, generally does it from a principle of gain, or some advantage separate from the comfort and reforma-tion of the individual. Generally, therefore, there is not that attention given, necessary; and often the Pauper experiences careless indifference, resulting from his being poor and dependent, and that too by his own misconduct: Consequently, reformation, (if any is neces-sary), health, cleanliness, acquiring industrious habits, & c. are sacrificed to self interest. No doubt remains with us, by a comparative view, that the advantage is manifestly in favor of a Poor House. By the consideration of less expense, order, regularity, industry and temperance, hope of amendment to the vicious, and assistance to the reformed. For morality is considered essential to peaceable society, and reformation in the poor of a town, is a great pecuniary benefit.
We have an Alms House, with about twelve acres of land in different parts of the town, governed by a keeper and his wife, (appointed yearly by the Overseers of the poor) whose duty it is to employ the men on the land, and on the highways, when the surveyors want them, or in picking oakum in the house, when there is no work to be done on the land, &c. If any of them are shoemakers, they make and mend shoes for the rest. The principal part of the women pick oakum, some of them spin, and make and mend clothes for the others. The children are kept at school in the Alms House, (one of the Paupers being school master) until places can be provided for them, which is generally before they are 12 years old. The average expense of supporting them, (adults and children) for the last five years, has been one dollar and four mills* per week, per statement above, and we presume it would have cost thirty three per cent. more, if we had no Alms House. In a town situated like this, we think the above 12 acres of land is as much as can be cultivated to advantage, as the Paupers are generally very infirm and old, and not acquainted with farming, and the land three quarters of a mile from the house; but with the help of one hired man, we cut hay sufficient for a pair of oxen and horse, and two cows, and raise potatoes and other sauce* for the house nearly all the year, on this land. In a country town, or where land is cheap, we think an Alms House, with a farm attached to it, would be the cheapest way of supporting the poor.
In the year 1818, we contracted with an individual for the support of the poor for three years, by which we make a considerable saving. Our contractor informs us, that he employs them in farming, braiding straw, and knitting, spinning, &c.—the product of which will cloth them.
We are satisfied that the more and the better provision is made for Paupers, the more the number of Paupers will be increased.
There is a brick house, in which there are ten rooms, and also an addition now made of six rooms more, as tenements for the poor. Also a brick building, separated from the house, with four cells or places of close confinement for the refractory and delirious, with other accommodations. There are about two acres of land attached to the same, a part of which is cultivated by the poor, sufficient to raise vegetables for their support. The males who are able, after cultivating the ground, and preparing the wood for use, are employed at all times in sawing of wood, &c. in the neighborhood, and in repairing the highways; the females, a few of them, in carding and spinning. A man and his wife are hired by the year, who live in the house, and take the oversight and charge of the poor, and render an account therof to the Overseers.
The charge accruing to the town for the support of the poor has been greater out of than in the house for the five years past. Many families are partially supplied with wood in the winter, and necessaries furnished to those that are sick, at other seasons.
With regard to the tenth and last question, we state, that to those families that are in indigent circumstances, or aged individuals who have a dwelling house of their own, there has been allowed a stated sum per week, rarely to exceed 75 cents. But in our opinion, generally, the poor, and those unfortunate beings who degrade themselves by intemperance and idleness, would be more useful, and their lives rendered more comfortable and happy, to be placed in a house suitably provided for that purpose, where they might have good food and clothing, and be employed to advantage to the community, be better provided for, and temptations rendered less dangerous, than if assisted by the funds raised for the support of the poor, and yet suffered to remain in their own families.
Previous to the year 1818, the poor of this town were put out to board by the week, by and under the direction of the Selectmen; clothing and a Physician furnished by the town, and all extra expense of sickness, paid by the town.
For the year 1815, our average number through the year, was forty three persons; the average expense per week, was $1.25, sum total $2795.
For the year 1816, average number, thirty eight persons, average expense per week, $1.37, sum total $2707.12 cents. For the year 1817, average number, forty three persons, the average expense per week, $1.20, sum total $2683.20 cents. In the year 1818, the town built a house for the better accommodation of the poor; purchased about an acre of land, on which were raised the principal part of our vegetables. Said house is governed by a master, who resides in said house, who is under the direction of a Board of Overseers of the House, joined with the Selectmen, who meet once a month to inspect said house. The principal employment of the subjects of the house is the manufacture of oakum…
It may be confidently stated that the chief sources of pauperism in this country, are idle-ness, improvidence and intemperance. If any laws can be devised to lessen the operation of those causes, pauperism will be lessened nearly in the same proportion.
The manner in which both public and private charity is often administered, affords encouragement to each of those vices. The idle will beg in preference to working; relief is extended to them without suitable discrimination. They are not left to feel that just con-sequences of their idleness. The industrious poor are discouraged by observing that bounty bestowed upon the idle, which they can only obtain by the sweat of their brow . . .
Intemperance is the most fruitful source of pauperism: More than half the adult persons who have been admitted to our Work House, for sixteen years, have been addicted to the excessive use of ardent spirits. As an amendment to the existing laws upon this subject, it is suggested that drunkenness should be made punishable either by fine and imprisonment, by a summary process before a Justice of the Peace, or by commitment to the Work House by the Overseers of the Poor; that the use of ardent spirits in Work Houses, or by Paupers, who are supported or relieved by their towns, should be prohibited; that retailers of spirituous liquors be prohibited, under a penalty to be recovered in a summary* way, from selling any spirituous liquors to any person who is supported or relieved by any town as a Pauper; that Overseers of the Poor be prohibited from affording any relief to any person as a Pauper, who is habitually intemperate in the use of ardent spirits, unless such person shall be con-fined in some Work House or House of Correction; that the number of retailers of spirituous liquors, should be restricted in a certain proportion to the number of inhabitants in each town, and that the duty on licenses to retailers, be increased.
It will be proper here to suggest . . . that previous to the year 1818, this corporation had invariably been in the habit of letting out the poor to those persons who would take them on the cheapest terms, at public auction, without due regard to proper situations and suitable accommodations. Thus it frequently happened, that the truly unfortunate and worthy Pauper, would suffer materially for the necessaries of life, and not unfrequently meet with unkind treatment from the person who contracted to support him. Notwithstanding attempts had been made at various times to substitute some more feasible and economical method of supporting the Poor, the inhabitants could not be convinced of its expediency until this year, (1818,) when it was discovered that the expenses of maintenance had almost doubled.
This arrested the undivided attention of the citizens. At a regular Town Meeting it was voted, to instruct the Overseers of the Poor, who were joined by a respectable Committee, to contract with some person or persons to support them in a family; the contractor or contractors to furnish and supply all the poor of said town constantly, and at all times, with suitable meals, drink, clothing, lodging and nursing, good medical aid, in case of sickness, and schooling proper to the young; and in case of the decease of any of the poor, to see them decently interred free of any expense to the town. Notwithstanding this town has never erected a house to be exclusively appropriated to the use of the poor, the method we have lately adopted, will enable us to draw a comparison between the one mode and the other. In all towns there is a class of people naturally disposed to be lazy and indolent, and while they can be billeted out in private families, they continue to indulge themselves in such habits. They care but little for any thing more than what is sufficient to nourish the body, and while the whole corporation is at the expense of their maintenance in this way, they pass their time in sloth and inactivity. Place these characters in a family where the whole body of the poor are situated, and you find they are uneasy and discontented. A degree of pride begins to operate in their bosoms; this proves an incentive to exertion; they quit their station and shift for themselves. Here, then, eventually, is a saving to their town. Consider the subject in a more important point of view: Many characters become a burden to society by their dissolute and intemperate habits. This is an increasing evil in all towns. Persons of this description placed under the immediate inspection and control of a Superintendant,whose interest it will be to look after their morals and command their labor, will possibly in time become renovated. It is the duty of those who manage the prudentials* of a corporation to study economy and retrench all unnecessary expenses, and when such exertions are seconded by an union of its members, the effects resulting therefrom are speedily realized . . .
Thus we infer, that as it relates to this town, and we see nothing why it will not apply to other towns, the method of supporting the poor in Poor Houses, is most advantageous, attended with the least expense and most conducive to habits of temperance, industry, and economy.
Glossary*licensed houses - establishments with an official liquor license such as taverns
*mill - 1/10 of a cent
*picking oakum - pulling apart old rope to sell the fiber as caulking for sailing ships
*promiscuous - composed of all sorts of things or persons, of high or low position, male and female
*prudentials - discretionary concerns and economy
*sauce - vegetables
*summary - brief
SourceJosiah Quincy, Massachusetts, General Court, Committee on Pauper Laws [Boston, Printed by Russell and Gardner, 1821], 13-16, 18-20, 22-23, 26-27, 31-32, 34-35. Edited by Old Sturbridge Village.