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  • Writer's pictureDebora Ellen Blodgett

Weekly Bathing Required – A Rural Massachusetts Almshouse in 1910

Updated: Dec 11, 2023


Excerpt from Charlton MA Map

A curious entry appeared in the 1910 census for Charlton, Massachusetts.[1]


Wardens? Inmates? Was there a prison in this small rural town?


No…not a prison – it was an almshouse.


1910 Census Image Charlton MA Almshouse


What is an almshouse? A 1910 law dictionary defines alms as "charitable donations" or "that which is given by pubic authority for the relief of the poor."[2] So, an almshouse may also be thought of as a house for the poor, a poorhouse. Often, in rural areas, the poorhouse is located on a farm. Thus, sometimes referred to as poor farm or town farm. Residents of an almshouse appear as inmates in both the census record and the annual report to be discussed.


In Massachusetts, the almshouse was a charitable organization and, as such, was annually inspected by the State Board of Charity, as required by Massachusetts law.[3] Fortunately, there is extant a copy of the 1911 annual report, which includes, in part, a description of the almshouse at Charlton as of the date of visitation in 1910. This report presents a unique insight to the living conditions at almshouses in the state.


During the course of the year each almshouse in the state was visited at least once with larger facilities being visited several times. After the visits, inspectors prepared comprehensive reports that contained information about the overall condition, cleanliness, and management of each facility as well as recommendations for improvements.[4]


Able-bodied individuals were expected to work.[5] Many of the state’s almshouses were located on farms which produced products such as milk, vegetables, berries, poultry, and meat for market.[6] Almshouses most often housed only adults because children were provided for elsewhere.[7] However, an almshouse not only housed aged or poor individuals but also individuals having ailments such as consumption, feeble-mindedness, blindness, deafness, or other physical disabilities.[8] Inspectors reported on which almshouses were meeting the requirement of each inmate bathing weekly. In many towns, the requirement was not met due to insufficient bathing facilities. Luckily, Charlton was not listed in the towns unable to meet the requirement.[9]


The management structure of an almshouse typically consisted of a warden and a matron, their salaries paid by the almshouse.[10] Depending on the size of the institution, other staff may be employed such as housemaids, laborers, or nurses. In addition to paid staff, almshouses relied on the assistance of volunteers called visitors who were local residents appointed by the board.[11] Limited training may be given to visitors depending on their role. Once such training pamphlet was “Feeble-Minded Woman in Almshouses.”[12]


Charlton is a town in Worcester County, Massachusetts. In 1910, the population was 2,032.[13] The almshouse serving Charlton and surrounding towns was managed by the Charlton Almshouse Association. This almshouse served the towns of Auburn, Charlton, Holden, Hubbardston, Leicester, Paxton, Phillipson, Princeton, Westminster, and Oakham.[14] Day to day operations were overseen by the warden, Orrin L. Potter and the matron, Mrs. Potter. Mrs. Potter, most likely, was in charge of the household duties such as managing the assistants, which consisted of one man and two women.[15] This almshouse was described as containing two sitting rooms, 15 sleeping rooms, one dormitory with 27 beds, two bathrooms (with both hot and cold water), and three water closets. Likely, there was no electricity, as the lighting was described as being provided by oil. The facility was heated by hot water and steam. There was no hospital or smoking room on the premises. The warden had six rooms; however, it was not clear if these rooms were separate from those listed above.[16] The house was located on a farm consisting of two hundred acres of land, upon which the products produced were milk and vegetables.[17]


And what about the residents, the inmates? On June 14, 1910, the date of the inspection visit, twenty-three individuals were counted, as follows:[18]

1910 Charlton MA Almshouse Stats

For the historian, the 1911 annual inspection report gives many details about the condition of the state’s almshouses and a glimpse to how individuals’ ailments were cared for and categorized.

For the genealogist, the document is rich in data pertaining to the occupations, living arrangements, salaries, and residences of individuals associated with the operation of almshouses.


The 1911 report is but a snapshot in time. The history of the almshouse in Charlton is long, as Charlton had an almshouse in some form from 1836 until 1961. The almshouse building, likely dating to 1874, still exists, on Town Farm Road, and is currently a privately-owned rest home.[19]



Sources

[1] 1910 U.S. census, Worcester Co., Massachusetts, population schedule, Charlton, enumeration district 1709, p. 10A, dwelling 191, family 206, Orrin L. Potter household [Charlton Almshouse]; National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm publication; Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 20 January 2021), image 19. [2] Henry Campbell Black, A Law Dictionary containing Definitions of the Terms and Phrases of American and English Jurisprudence, Ancient and Modern, 2nd edition. (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1910); Archive.org (http://www.archive.org : accessed 20 January 2021), 62. [3] Thirty-Second Annual Report of the State Board of Charity of Massachusetts, 1911 (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co., 1911); Google Books (http://books.google.com : viewed 12 January 2021), I: 7. [4] Annual Report of the State Board of Charity, 1911, I: 8, III: iv, v. [5] Annual Report of the State Board of Charity, 1911, III: iii. [6] Annual Report of the State Board of Charity, 1911, III: xiv. [7] Annual Report of the State Board of Charity, 1911, III: iii. [8] Annual Report of the State Board of Charity, 1911, III: xii. [9]Annual Report of the State Board of Charity, 1911, III: xiii. [10] Annual Report of the State Board of Charity, 1911, III: ix. [11] Annual Report of the State Board of Charity, 1911, III: xiv. [12] Annual Report of the State Board of Charity, 1911, III: xv- xvi. [13] Annual Report of the State Board of Charity, 1911, III: 20. [14] Annual Report of the State Board of Charity, 1911, III: 20. [15] Annual Report of the State Board of Charity, 1911, III: 20. [16] Annual Report of the State Board of Charity, 1911, III: 20. [17] Annual Report of the State Board of Charity, 1911, III: 21. [18] Annual Report of the State Board of Charity, 1911, III: 20-21. [19] Heli Meltsner. The Poorhouses of Massachusetts: A Cultural and Architectural History, Kindle edition (Jefferson, North Carolina : McFarland & Co., 2012), locations 2484-2487.


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