The Poorhouses of Massachusetts

Wed, 06/06/2012 - 6:00pm - 8:00pm

Architectural historian Heli Meltsner will discuss and show images from her recent book, The Poorhouses of Massachusetts: A Cultural and Architectural History at the Cambridge Historical Society, June, 6:00pm - 8:00pm, The Hooper-Lee-Nichols House - 159 Brattle Street. Free for members $5 for non-members. Please register at or by calling 617-547-4252. 
Poorhouses, as in “Be careful or you’ll send us all to the poorhouse” was, for most of our history a real threat rather than the kind of language fossil it has become. They were unfortunate very real places of last resort. Massachusetts towns and cities used them to shelter their destitute, elderly, medically indigent, orphans and mentally ill residents. In 1860, two thirds of our municipalities delivered needed support in a poorhouse or town farm. As late as 1945, one quarter retained one. The state only took over the job of delivering welfare in 1968.
Meltsner has identified 46 of these surviving buildings built by municipalities, two of them in Cambridge, and 52 old houses recycled for the purpose. Her book discusses the development of the institutions, the life within their walls and their architecture. Meltsner has also documented five still extant tramp houses erected to segregate the huge number of vagrants that flooded the roads in search of work or a meager meal and hard bed.
Come and learn how Massachusetts dealt with its poor, homeless and mentally ill before the inception of Social Security and current welfare programs.