|Title||Poor Relief in Harvard, Massachusetts, Town History|
|Author||Henry S. Nourse|
|Type||Primary Sources: Other|
The small town of Harvard, Massachusetts changed its way of providing for the poor in the early nineteenth century. At one time, the town used the traditional system called “vendue,” where poor individuals were auctioned off to those who would agree to care for them most cheaply. In 1825, the community decided to adopt a new method. Writing in 1894, the local historian Henry Nourse described the changes in poor relief in the town from before the Revolutionary War until the 1890s.
Excerpt from the History of the Town of Harvard, Massachusetts published in 1894.
Joseph Blood and family seem to have been the first to receive regular aid from the town treasury. May 22, 1749, the town voted to instruct the selectmen to “see what the necessity of Joseph Blood’s family was and Releave them as they thought best for the Present.” For two or three years bills were paid “for finding Joseph Blood and family house room.” In 1753 the town built a small house upon the eastern border of the common, where an acre had been temporarily improved by John Wright, the pound-keeper. In this, which was called the “town’s house,” and was in fact the first alms house, Blood’s family were installed. In 1758 a well was dug and stoned, “so that it may be sufficient for Joseph Blood’s family.”…May 17, 1762, “the Town voted to purchase a Cow for the use of Joseph Blood’s family, and also voted to have the said Cow kept this year at the Cost of the Town.” In 1778 Joseph Blood and his family being dead, the cow was sold by order of a vote in town meeting.
The next occupant of the town’s house was the wife of Phineas Whitney, a soldier in the Continental [Revolutionary War] army. Other poor people became a town charge, mostly widows, and cows were kept for them, and the selectmen were ordered to inquire into their necessities and give assistance accordingly. November 18, 1785, it was “voted that the Town’s House be appropriated to the use of a Work House to put idle persons in if need be.” In 1797 ground and house were sold. The town by this time adopted a less humane but then customary method of providing the care of paupers—they were sold for the year to the lowest bidders. Soon there began to appear annually in the town’s accounts such strange items as: “For Liquor at Vendueing* the poor. 3.13.” The bidding at an auction, even where humanity was for sale, went very slowly on, if without fluid stimulants. It is said that many of the recruits who swelled the ranks of the Shakers* were the lonely and aged, chiefly widows and spinsters, who feared the coming of poverty and the shame of the annual vendue. The evils of the system probably stirred the town’s conscience, for in 1818, a committee was instructed to consider whether some better method for the support of the paupers could not be devised. The recommendation of this committee, which was adopted, was to contact with some one to relieve the town of all care of the poor for a term of years. Captain Oliver Hill offered, for the sum of twenty-five hundred dollars, to support the town’s paupers for three years, including “clothing, lodging, food, necessary doctoring and funeral expenses,” and this bid, being the lowest, was accepted.
The increase of pauperism became so marked at this period that a committee was appointed to investigate the causes. Their report is the first word favoring temperance found in the records…
June 20, 1825, a committee, empowered to purchase a suitable farm and buildings as a home for the paupers, reported that they had bought ninety-four acres in the easterly part of Harvard, of Phineas Davis, paying twenty-four hundred dollars. The poor were ordered to be put upon this farm by the following March, and a committee was instructed to secure a suitable man and wife to have charge of the establishment, and to submit a bill of fare and rules and regulations for the institution. The settled ministers* were invited to preach in turn once a month to the town’s wards*. The committee reported fourteen rules, serious breach of which could be punished with solitary confinement upon bread and water for “not less than twelve, nor more than forty eight hours;” also this bill of fare:
The selectmen have always acted as overseers of the poor, employing a superintendent of the town farm at a salary of from two hundred and fifty to three hundred and seventy-five dollars. There are now [ca. 1890] but three town paupers, and the number has rarely risen above fifteen, though the building can well accommodate twenty-five or thirty. In 1838 a new barn was built. The farm house originally upon the place having grown too shabby and uncomfortable for further use, on February 17, 1868, it was voted to build a suitable alms house, which resulted in the completion of the present building in 1869 at a cost of about $8200.
Glossary*settled minister - a minister (clergyman) who has a contract with a congregation to live in that community and provide pastoral care
*Shakers - members of a millenarian sect
*Vendueing - selling at auction; accepting bids for the contracts for the care of a poor persons at auction
*wards - persons under care of a guardian, in this case the care of the town
SourceHenry S. Nourse, History of the Town of Harvard, Massachusetts (Harvard, Mass.: Printed for Warren Hapgood, 1894), 126-129. Edited by Old Sturbridge Village.