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The Philosopher’s Wife And The Wolf At The Door
“Mr. Alcott,” wrote his patient, loving wife, “cannot bring himself to work for gain; but we have not yet learned to live without money.” And in earning it herself Mrs. Bronson Alcott helped invent modern social work
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
Despite the fact that she had never worked outside her home, Abba at 49 slipped into her new job with ease. The family, then consisting of a husband and their four children ranging in age from nine to eighteen, relied almost entirely upon her efforts. As she told the members of the Friendly Society “the only sad feature of my present position is the necessity I am under of accepting compensation. But years have multiplied upon me. My family, though not numerous are somewhat dependent. I am a Wife, Mother and native citizen of Boston. My services shall be conscienciously performed—your wages shall be fully earned. Make me no substitute for your own private charities, but give me the honor of being your Pioneer to die worthy sufferer, to the destitute, the despairing and hopeless.”
A leaflet, inserted in Mr. Alcott’s diary for 1849, describes the nature of her work: “The Subscriber earnestly solicits your aid to her Mission, by sending to this room, contributions however small of Clothing, Shoes, Sacks, Bonnets, Hoods, Hats, Old Flannels and Linens. Also Patches of any Material and Linings; Orders for Groceries, small parcels of Soap and other Family necessaries.” Connected with the office was an employment agency and a hand drawn at the bottom of the sheet called attention to “Best German, American and well recommended Irish help procured at the shortest notice.” It was signed “Abby Alcott, Missionary, No. 12 Groton Street.”
Her first suggestion to her employers was to establish a Relief Room where a basket filled with clothes and a purse with money, constantly replenished by the members, would assist the “paupers.” As to her “Compensation,” she wrote the chairman, “I cannot support my family in the city for less than $500 per annum and to be free from care and anxiety … I ought to have $600. …” She closed by asking, “Shall our Relief Ship ride the winter ocean swift and joyous, or shall we take in our sail, moor our hulk in some haven of Selfish Safety , wrap our mantle of Comfort about our bosoms and close eye and ear to the stark Misery which everywhere assails us?”
The waves of the Irish famine then washing the Atlantic coast deposited thousands of its victims upon the shores of Massachusetts. As Mrs. Alcott viewed the situation, “The Irish should be encouraged by the assurance if they are only steady and careful of their wages, they will have fine opportunities in this country for educating their children, and laying by a little for sickness or old age; opportunities which they could not have in Ireland with its ‘land-monopoly’ and ‘priestcraft.’”
As ever larger numbers huddled in loathsome tenements with primitive sanitation, Mrs. Alcott soon perceived that Boston was rapidly changing from a healthy law-abiding community to one plagued with disease and crime.
She warned that it would take half a century to make the newcomers healthy, and she doubted that they could ever be Americanized. Accordingly she urged “that different and more hospitable arrangements should be made not only for them but as a protection for ourselves, our institutions.” She proposed that immigration societies supported by labor and capital as well as those administered by philanthropists should send the Irish to the interior, facilitating their passage, and that labor and industrial associations be organized to give the newcomer land, tools, and money and to educate, civilize, and “Christianize” him.
In addition to reciting her detailed activities, her reports incorporated her philosophy of the broader issues and problems of society. She criticized the customary attitude toward charity: “We should beware of that sophistry which leads us all to believe we have satisfied all the demands of charity, when we have made an inventory of the external necessities, so easily relieved by a garment, a loaf or an asylum. There is a necessity still more touching and far more difficult to relieve, penetrate the secret of that anxious heart, communicate hope and energy to do and to bear, displace brooding by working, despair by hope and comfort.” In her view “it is more frequent that despair paralyzes the heart than hunger starves the body.”
She thought deeply about the underlying reasons for poverty, talked with many people, and concluded that “incompetent wages for labor is the cause of much of the destitution and despair I find among one class. Want of employment, and enormous rents for comfortless places another cause, and the third and by far the largest part is a shiftless, hopeless poverty; which needs better habits, more occupations, more light thrown into its dark cabin, more love in its cold prospect. Incompetent wages for labor performed, is the cruel tyranny of capitalist power over the laborer’s necessities.” Doubting the competence of the government in this field, she contended that “Politicians in their wisest economy fail to solve the mighty problem of Pauperism” and held that “We may legislate in wisdom, we may multiply our charity schemes but never until society looks upon poverty as an incident of man’s condition, not as a crime of his nature, shall we have any permanent or beautiful results from our laws or our almsgiving.”