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What is an Almshouse? - Definition & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How do we treat the poor? This has been an important question in the history of England and the United States. In this lesson, we'll examine almshouses and see how they attempted to answer this question.

The Almshouse

When would you like to retire? In modern society, daydreaming about retirement is a favored pastime. However, for most of human history this idea didn't exist. There were no such things as pensions or social security. So, what did you do when you became too elderly to work? For that matter, what did you do if you were injured, mentally ill, or lost your job?

In English-based cultures, the solution was an institution called the almshouse. An almshouse was a place where those who could not care for themselves, and had no family to care for them, were collectively fed and sheltered. In one sense they were humanitarian. In another, they treated people as unwanted and segregated them from perceived ''normal'' populations. There's a deep history to how we treat the elderly, sick, orphaned, abandoned, and poor today, and it all starts with the almshouse.

The Almshouse in Medieval and Colonial Society

Our story starts back in medieval Europe, when churches were the sole sources of organized medicine and charity. Church hospitals tended to those who could not afford doctors, and basic relief programs tried to provide food and shelter to those in need. In short, they provided alms, or charity. This is the root of the term almshouse.

In medieval society, alms were managed by the church
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In the 17th century, England expanded upon institutional relief through creation of new Poor Laws, which organized state-based charity for those in need. Still, Poor Laws were poorly defined and poorly managed. A person had to basically prove that they were worthy of aid in order to receive even minimal state assistance.

So, what became of the ''unworthy''? They were on their own. Almshouses were unorganized as receptacles of society's outcasts. These institutions did provide some relief, keeping the ill, elderly, orphaned, disabled, and impoverished fed, but were mainly used to marginalize and segregate these populations. Almshouses emerged in England, but grew quickly in the American colonies.

American Almshouses in the 19th Century

The concept of the almshouse began to change in the 19th century. As American society became more agricultural, many almshouses were incorporated into farms. The tenets worked the farms and sold the produce at the markets. The standard of treatment in these institutions did not tend to be very high, and almshouses became essentially like prisons where those who could not care for themselves were forcibly detained.

A so-called poor farm in Illinois
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What was emerging, however, was a new cultural idea about the treatment of marginalized groups. Early 19th-century reformers began to see almshouses not as the waste bins of society, but as institutions of rehabilitation. The goal of almshouses, they believed, should be to reform people and make them better citizens, with the goal of reintroducing them into normal society. It's important to remember that, at the time, criminality and mental illness were seen as inherently linked, along with conditions like laziness, alcoholism, and poverty. The belief was that all of these could basically be treated in the same way by reforming the moral character of a person.

Not everyone was comfortable with this concept, however. To many Americans, almshouses would only serve to reward the lazy and incompetent. Americans feared that providing aid to those in need made them less self-sufficient. Again, remember that things like criminality and poverty were seen as reflections of moral character. So if a person was impoverished, it wasn't because of his situation or social class or extenuating factors. It was because he was a bad person. Americans who believed this didn't want to waste time and money providing for the welfare of those who they still deemed to be unworthy.

Late 19th-century almshouses upheld themselves as moral, rehabilitating institutions
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End of the Almshouses

The same reforms that led to rehabilitation-based almshouses eventually began to undermine these institutions. Later 19th-century reformers started to actually understand that being impoverished was not the same as being insane, which was not the same as being a criminal, which was not the same as being an orphan.

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