Female Philanthropic Associations of Philadelphia

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

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.

The decades following the Revolutionary War saw a dramatic increase in formal, voluntary associations, especially in the northern states, which were organized to meet an array of social, educational, and cultural needs. Contemporaries of the period from 1790 to 1840 called it an "Age of Benevolence.” This shift to larger scale philanthropic institutions is indicative of the trends that led to the founding of the twentieth century welfare state where the government works with non-profits to provide basic social needs.

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.

Conflicting views on voluntary associations
The Revolution and the founding of a democratic government based on popular consent initially led to ambivalent feelings towards associations among the American citizenry. On the one hand, the Revolution instilled a sense of resolve and confidence in human agency among the citizens of the new country, thereby imbuing a sense a republican duty in participating in voluntary associations. On the other hand, both conservatives and liberals of the fledgling government were wary of associations (which could accumulate unlimited political power) and corporations (which could accumulate unlimited economic power), thereby undermining the democratic foundation of the new republic. This tension can ultimately be traced to the equality guaranteed by the Constitution, with its simultaneous commitments to majority decision making and to unalienable individual rights.

A group of bankers and demonic figures seek to scale the citadel of "Zion." Private companies were seen by many as a threat to the fledgling republic.

Upon the citadel of Zion (an allegory for the 1776 Constitution of Pennsylvania) defenders wave the flag of "Franklin & Liberty."

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.

Female Society of Philadelphia for the Relief and Employment of the Poor
In 1795, a group of Quaker woman formed the Female Society of Philadelphia for the Relief and Employment of the Poor, which was the first female charitable society in the United States.

The organization offered aid to both women and orphans of any faith, ethnicity, and race. Women who lived in the society were taught how to sew and weave, and children were given a basic education.

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.

Magdalen Society
The Magdalen Society of Philadelphia was founded in 1800 by men with affiliations with Episcopal or Presbyterian churches and was formed to aid and reform prostitutes and other “fallen” women. This private association was the first devoted to the reform of prostitutes in America. By isolating these women from their former contexts and committing them to a strict regimen of prayer and piecework, the reformers hoped “to be instrumental in recovering to honest rank in life those unhappy females, who, in an unguarded hour, have been robbed of their innocence, and sunk into wretchedness and guilt.”

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 Indigent Widows and Single Women’s Society
The Indigent Widows and Single Women’s Society was founded in 1817 by Sarah Ralston, and was the first charitable organization in Philadelphia devoted entirely to the needs of the elderly. The mission of the almshouse was to provide a home to those of the middle or upper classes who found themselves in an economically disadvantaged position towards the end of their lives. Applicants with severe mental or physical illness were barred from admittance. The asylum and its management was a model for subsequent institutions that were founded in Philadelphia, and by 1900 there were more than sixty-four similar organizations in the city.
Female Anti-Slavery Society
The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (PFASS) was created in 1833 by eighteen women in response to the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which was restricted to men only. The society was racially integrated and was led by and composed of both white and free black women. Most of the members were of a middle class background: the white women of the society were Quakers and the black women represented Philadelphia’s black elite. The group’s greatest significance lay in the ways it challenged norms of gender and race, and its influence on early feminist movements.

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.

While the society dissolved after the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments, the PFASS (of which Lucretia Mott was a member) had a direct influence on the subsequent women’s rights movement.

Children’s Aid Society of Philadelphia
Children’s Aid Society of Philadelphia (CAS) was founded in 1882 by concerned Philadelphia citizens to be an alternative to asylums and jails for homeless or wayward children. The Society’s charter states its purposes are “to provide for the welfare of any destitute children who may come under its control; to establish and maintain for the public a Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania Bureau of Information concerning charities; and to aid and co-operate in the protection of children from cruelty.” The CAS proved to be a pioneer in child welfare and took the lead in promoting reforms to improve the lives of children in Pennsylvania.

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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Historical Society of Pennsylvania
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Friedman, Lawrence J., and Mark D. McGarvie. Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Pendleton, O. A. "Poor Relief in Philadelphia, 1790-1840." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 70, no. 2 (1946): 161-72.

Ruggles, Steven. "Fallen Women: The Inmates of the Magdalen Society Asylum of Philadelphia, 1836-1908." Journal of Social History 16, no. 4 (1983): 65-82.

Soderlund, Jean R. “Priorities and Power: The Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society.” In The Abolitionist Sisterhood: Women's Political Culture in Antebellum America, edited by Jean Fagan Yellin and John C. Van Horne, 67-88. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Teeters, Negley K. "The Early Days of the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia." Social Service Review 30, no. 2 (1956): 158-67.

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