Subject Focus: Poverty and Charity in Turn-of-the-Century Detroit

In the late 19th century Detroit’s industrial base and burgeoning prosperity quickly attracted immigrants from across the country and around the world, increasing the city’s population six-fold between 1860 and 1900. While the strong and industrious were able to find steady work, the city proved to be harsh to ill or injured laborers, the elderly and widowed, and others for whom life had not been kind. Numerous public and private social service organizations and charities formed to serve the needs of the growing number of Detroit residents living in poverty.

In 1878 the Associated Charities of Detroit was created to better serve the city’s impoverished. Caseworkers interviewed those seeking assistance and referred them to the departments or charities that could best fulfill their needs. Associated Charities also would occasionally provide clients with immediate temporary assistance, such as a night’s lodging, meal tickets, or clothing. Each case was detailed in a set of ledgers, which document the difficult lives of Detroit’s poverty-stricken and the social network created to help them in the late 19th century.

The Associated Charities of Detroit ledgers, dating from 1878 through 1897, show how a workplace accident or extended illness could quickly leave a family destitute, and how the elderly struggled to survive when they were no longer able to work. In Case No. 1522, logged on March 6, 1885, a caseworker described the plight of a 72 year-old widow.

Woman is with her married daughter whose husband has been out of work some time. We furnished her a blanket and other help from the "Charity Ball Fund," She is in receipt of regular help from the Poor Commission, and this will be continued for several weeks. Has been on the books since early in the Winter. She is not well, and has not been able to work much during the past four years. Her daughter states that she is willing to care for her, and if her husband was at work, she would not allow her mother to apply for aid. Church to which she belongs is unable to help her. A worthy, honorable woman.

Women were so often left by their husbands that the ledgers specifically included questions relating to the circumstances of their abandonment. Often these women reported that their husbands, unable to find work in Detroit, traveled elsewhere to look for work and hadn’t been heard from since. Others reported that their husbands simply left, leaving them financially insecure. “[Wife] was doing very well in her business of keeping boarders. Had her house full with a good class of man, and was able to pay her bills promptly,” reported the caseworker for Case No. 1525 from August 14, 1885. “Unfortunately, she was taken up with [Husband], who was a good looking fellow almost ten years her junior, and after a courtship they were wedded. He proved to be good for nothing and they lived very unhappily, and as he recently left her, it is improbable that she will ever take him back.”

In addition to detailing familial distress, the ledgers demonstrate the awful conditions in which some Detroiters lived. A caseworker reported in Case No. 1523 that a young Italian couple, “have two rooms in a filthy, vermin filled hovel – rooms are upstairs – the first floor being used as a stable. The air is close and certainly unhealthful. Tenants are usually people of bad repute, mostly low criminals.” The record of another case notes that the white client’s situation was so bad that she was living in the same building as African Americans, reflecting the era’s racial tensions and resulting housing segregation.

While the ledgers demonstrate caseworkers’ care and concern for the people they served, the entries also reflect their judgments and biases as they determined whether those seeking help were “worthy” of help or merely “shiftless” or single mothers of “poor moral character.” The Italian couple was directed to the Labor Bureau and Poor Commission, but offered no direct assistance from the Associated Charities, presumably because the caseworker believed the husband to be “too lazy for work….Does not care to be reminded of his nationality, but will give no good reason.”

A rich source of research and history, the Associated Charities of Detroit ledgers and other organizational records can be found in Series I of the United Community Services collection at the Reuther Library. Some of the materials are unavailable due to the fragility of the documents, and client names may not be used in publication. Those researching charity and social services in Detroit should explore the numerous other United Community Services collections and the Michigan Welfare League, which provide a broad view of the organizations dedicated to serving Detroit’s needy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In addition to the collections above, social services in mid-century Detroit are documented in the records of New Detroit, Inc. and Focus: HOPE, and in the papers of Detroit leaders and social reformers such as Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, James and Grace Lee Boggs and Mel Ravitz. Personal accounts and memories can be found in the Reuther’s oral history collection, particularly in the Charleszetta “Mother” Waddles interview and in the oral history projects documenting numerous Detroit neighborhoods and churches.

Troy Eller is the Archivist for the Society of Women Engineers.