Through extant photographs and documents housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, this exhibition illustrates the origins and development of a number of female operated charitable and philanthropic societies in Philadelphia.
Inspired by the coffeehouses and gentleman’s clubs of London, citizens of Philadelphia—most prominently Benjamin Franklin—played a central role in the formation of early voluntary associations. The societies like those formed by Franklin were more democratic and philanthropic in the sense that they attempted to provide the means of self-improvement and self-support. Franklin created the Junto, a club for mutual improvement, in 1727. He also helped to found the first volunteer fire department and the first subscription library in America. Indeed, it was in Philadelphia that modern notions of philanthropy materialized.
However ambivalent Americans felt towards private companies and voluntary associations, the political, economic, and religious life of the first decades of the United States forced its citizens to embrace them. Associations and charitable corporations were a means for many, from social dissenters to elite, to project their own political voices and public influence. Fraternal orders and associations of artisans brought a sense of collective security for their members.
The First and Second Great Awakenings and the rise of evangelicalism throughout the eighteenth century brought together Protestant groups and philanthropic associations which became part of their “evangelical machinery.”
Since women were barred from participating in electoral politics, they used associations as a means of creating their own separate spheres of educational, cultural, and philanthropic activity. These factors, in addition to increased participation of women, led to an expansion of voluntary associations in urban centers like Philadelphia.
The Female Society opened the House of Industry, where women were employed to make various textiles. The House of Industry was the Female Society's main focus until 1949, when new opportunities for women had begun to open, and the sewing room was closed. In its place, the Friends House for Older People was established to provide work and a social gathering for elderly members of the community. This eventually became the Philadelphia Senior Center.
The official policies of the Magdalen Society changed throughout the nineteenth century. The society was initially a refuge for prostitutes (excluding African American women) where they lived under strict rules. For example, inmates were not allowed to discuss their previous circumstances, were made to read scripture diligently, and were not allowed to leave without the permission of the Visiting Committee. In 1850, the Board of Managers changed their policy to require inmates to stay at the asylum for at least a year, and older women were discouraged from applying for assistance as it was believed that young women would be easier to reform. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the Magdalen Society’s policies shifted again to be a home for wayward or homeless girls.
As some historians have argued, the changes in the Magdalen Society in the eighteenth century reflect the variety of patterns of institutional development in the nineteenth century. They have argued that the Magdalen Society highlights the ambivalence of Victorians towards prostitution and the variation in evolution between asylums for the control of prostitutes and those for other deviant and dependent populations.
The PFASS was on the forefront of the abolitionist movement: the society vigorously petitioned to end slavery and to boycott slave-manufactured goods. To do this, the society organized petition drives which allowed women to participate in a form of political expression. They raised money to help fund an African American school as well as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. The society also organized fundraisers to support black Philadelphians and to expand the opportunities available to them.
After the gag rule was implemented--which led Congress to “table” anti-slavery petitions--and mob violence had destroyed Pennsylvania Hall, the PFASS reoriented its approach to supporting the abolition movement. The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society sought to focus on fundraising, especially at the annual fair through the sale of sewn articles and other goods, instead of recruiting new members to help knock on doors to obtain signatures for petitions. Throughout its existence the society supported the Underground Railroad through financial donations, housing, protection, and transportation.
The CAS worked to help promote the passage of laws that prohibited the commitment of children to the same institutions as adults. This effort was spearhead by Helen W. Hinckley, a member of the CAS Board of Directors. In 1883 the board also passed a resolution that stated that it would “receive and care for all children whose mothers are committed by the Magistrates of this City to the County Prison, or to station-houses, during the term of imprisonment of the mothers.” Providing a temporary home for children whose parents were incarcerated or ill was a key function of the CAS.
According to its Second Annual Report, the CAS had cared for 681 children during the year 1884. Over the next fifty years, that number grew steadily. In 1910, the number of children cared for was 1,961. In 1924, 2,546 children received care. In 1934, CAS reported 3,030 children receiving care during the year.
Many smaller child welfare organizations merged with the Children’s Aid Society, including the Philadelphia Home for Infants, where this photo was taken.
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