While Great Britain made some efforts to address poverty in the colonial era, it was not until 19th-century that Americans came to view poverty as a social problem to be addressed by corrective action. Both governmental and private groups organized to provide aid and services. Of the services provided, education was the primary one, but organizations had a wide range of purposes. Savings fund societies encouraged the poor to save money. Fuel saving societies provided the poor with inexpensively priced fuel in the winter. And volunteer fire companies existed for everyone. Many philanthropic organizations aimed to aid a specific group: orphans, women, the disabled, immigrants, or native Americans. Religious philanthropies provided money, goods, and services in addition to any spiritual aid.

The reformers, as they are often called, created institutions such as orphanages, poor houses, and homes for unwed mothers. The picture of early philanthropy would not be complete without reference to temperance and penology, two major issues of the period. Here, too, the reformers created institutions such as inebriates’ homes and penitentiaries.

Philadelphia in particular had many voluntary projects, notably the Blockley Almshouse (operated by the Philadelphia Guardians for the Relief and Employment of the Poor), the Girard College for Orphans, the Magdalen Society (for aiding unwed mothers), the Indigent Widows’ and Single Women’s Society, and the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. But communities large and small organized myriad initiatives, from Sunday schools to teach basic literacy to the poor to temperance societies to discourage the use of alcoholic beverages.

The collection includes a wide range of material: addresses and annual reports from organizations and institutions, laws related to poverty and punishing criminals, treatises on penology, biographies of reformers, print portraits of reformers and philanthropists, views of charitable institutions, and texts to advise individuals.


Cornelia S. King. American Philanthropy, 1731-1860 (New York, 1984).

Jean Barth Toll and Mildred S. Gillam. Invisible Philadelphia: Community through Voluntary Organizations ( Philadelphia, 1995).