Poor Farm, 1912. Photo courtesy of the Perry Family Residents of the Sheldon Poor Farm gather for a group photograph in 1912. The Sheldon farm was the last of the state's poor farms to close, shutting its doors in 1968.

Disclaimer: It would be unfair to characterize all county poor farms as cruel and uncaring profiteers. Many were staffed by compassionate individuals who did their best for residents. It is not they who should shoulder the blame for a system so flawed and so widespread. 

Just before the Social Security Act of 1935, the United States has 135,000 county or municipal poor farms. Although seen as a progressive at the time, they were little more than a token gesture of good will. It placed poverty’s blame almost entirely on the individual—it was a personal failing, a moral failing, and an EARNED failing. In the late 1800s the public attitude toward that “failing” took on a much darker tone in the form of Social Darwinism.

In America, county governments wanted to keep the indigent and elderly out of sight. These isolated worlds became home to occupants who had little interaction with the communities surrounding them. In his 1903 memoir, ‘The People of the Abyss,” a homeless Jack London describes that attitude:

They are of no good or use to any one, nor to themselves. They clutter the earth with their presence, and are better out of the way. Broken by hardship, ill fed, and worse nourished, they are always the first to be struck down by disease, as they are likewise the quickest to die.

—Jack London, The People of the Abyss

Picnic at Sangamon County Poor House, c. 1900. Credit: Sangamon Valley Collection

These residential buildings were called poor houses, county homes, or almshouses (in England workhouses was commonly used). In some heavily populated counties, these homes would be established by municipalities. Most county poor farms shared a similar organization pattern, although no dedicated agency monitored them. When needed, the county would purchase a fair-sized home from a resident (cheaper than building one from scratch).

Residents were categorized as those willing or able to work and those that would or could not. Those physically able to work were expected to maintain the home and tend to any gardening or farming duties.

Counties kept pace with an increase in residents by adding to the home or constructing additional outbuildings. Residents provided the labor for these constructions.

*I was saddened to see that a frugal Kentucky county was willing to crack open its wallet so that TWO poor houses, one white and one black, would be built.

When needed, counties purchased a larger plot of land, or cleared land it already owned, to expand the county farm. Often they would share farmland with nearby prisons. Communities called these county farms, poor farms, or prison farms. Prisons would work side-by-side in the fields, an obvious reflection of the public attitude toward poverty. If the number of residents increased still further, then another home would be built. Well-funded counties sometimes built facilities that rivaled the sprawling hospitals of the day.

Paupers and Profits

“Infirmary” was a euphemism for a poorhouse. “County Infirmary. Randolph Co., Ind.” Handwritten: “From 1882. History by E. Tucker”

There were no requirements needed to manage a poor farm and the manager received a portion of the farming profits as compensation. This business-like approach to poor farms incentivized cost-cutting measures, even at the expense of the residents’ health. Without any oversight, unscrupulous managers could get away with anything…even murder. Jack London describes his “frugal” breakfast meal at a London poorhouse in 1902. Rather than purchasing food, they collected  trash from a nearby hospital and pawed over it, looking for edible food.

…pieces of bread, chunks of grease and fat pork, the burnt skin from the outside of roasted joints, bones, in short, all the leavings from the fingers and mouths of the sick ones suffering from all manner of diseases. Into this mess the men plunged their hands, digging, pawing, turning over, examining, rejecting, and scrambling for. It wasn’t pretty. Pigs couldn’t have done worse.

—Jack London, The People of the Abyss

Residents of a New York poorhouse, many of them elderly males. 1900.

The healthiest residents were simply hiring them out to local businesses or farmers. Since work was believed to be an essential and direct cure for the “sickness of poverty”, this became a popular option for managers. Victorian and Edwardian society rewarded their profiteering. Children, who were often in better health than the adult occupants of the poor farms, were among the most common hires.

Strict rules managed residents’ lives. A cruel manager was considered a good manager. This extended beyond simple cost-cutting. Medical care and even hygiene suffered as well. Again, Jack London describes his own experience with the “efficient” methods of personal hygiene used at a London poorhouse.

Then, two by two, we entered the bathroom. There were two ordinary tubs, and this I know: the two men preceding had washed in that water, we washed in the same water, and it was not changed for the two men that followed us. This I know; but I am also certain that the twenty-two of us washed in the same water.

—Jack London, The People of the Abyss

By 1911, conditions improved (slightly) for residents of poor farms. A 1911 text—The Almshouse: Construction and Management—outlined the most effective strategies for managing these institutions of charity. My home state of Indiana had endorsed the use of poor farms as far back as the 1820s, so these general guidelines became universal across the Hoosier state. These farms 1.) had to be uncluttered, with plenty of fresh air and sunlight; 2.) must separate men and women; 3.) be located in the center of the town, city, or county served; 4.) provide easy, unimpeded access to the superintendent (this lofty title often meant the owner or manager).

Social Security Killed the Poor House

The last American poor house closed by the early 1960s, 25 years after Congress passed the Social Security Act of 1935, which provided care for America’s indigent and elderly citizens. For the first time, the country would provided the elderly with enough income and healthcare services to live their final years in peace. Giving Social Security the sole credit for ending the use of poor farms in the United States would be an oversimplification, but the legislation certainly had helped. Prior to Social Security, the United States had approximately 135,000 county homes, most which had vanished by 1950.

Americans have relegated county farms and poor houses to the archives of our history, but there is still one remnant lingering in our healthcare system: nursing homes. These facilities function much as poor houses did a century ago, although provide much improved elder care. As common as they are—15,600 in the United States, holding 1.4 million patients—nursing homes remain a controversial part of our healthcare system.

County poor houses were resold and renovated, or simply left derelict. Today, they are a popular destination for paranormal “investigators” or urban explorers. Most were torn down. For these, the only footprint left are the crumbling cemeteries and the only residents are the weathered gravestones.

The Fulton County Poor Farm Cemetery, located in Rochester, Indiana. Photo credit: Janneane Veger

Want to Know More?

I included several passages from Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, because the memoir is, hands down, the finest account of deep failings of the poor house system then-common to the United States, Canada, and England. HERE’S A LINK to a free ebook version, courtesy of The Gutenberg Project.

For the latest articles and assorted oddities, follow the OrangeBean Facebook page. No trolls, no bots, no politics.