Skip to main content

Annals Of Social Work

July 2024
4min read

They were called “friendly visitors” and they indeed visited, but could they really be considered friendly?

The attitude of today’s social workers toward welfare clients is sometimes criticized as callous or patronizing, but compared with their turn-of-the-century counterparts, our current caseworkers are parafions of tact.

Consider, for instance, these comments from case reports of the 1900s: “Woman voted unworthy of help, as she was flashily dressed.” “Man to office for trousers, unappreciative when given shoes.” “A fine, meek family.”

These severe judgments show the attitudes of “friendly visitors,” as the social workers at the beginning of the century were called. The comments come from old casework records of a Connecticut social agency, which was cleaning out its files. The social worker in charge of the job, appalled and amused, asked permission to copy comments from the reports she was reading. These quotations are too old to violate anyone’s privacy, but old enough to reveal attitudes from an alien era.


“Visitor called on girl at the restaurant where she was working but she was rude and refused to discuss her illegitimate baby.”

“Mrs. B is an appreciative person with a good knowledge of how to use canned beef.”

“Woman may have mental defect. For example, she cannot line a coat.”

“Girl has not fallen but is on the brink.”

“Doctor reported woman very ill with TB and should be placed in sanitorium. Worker explained that woman had run gamut of misconduct and if cured would surely return to immoral life. Conference had voted, in view of record, not to recommend treatment.”

“Man signed pledge [not to drink]. Worker flabbergasted to see him entering saloon next day.”

“Man reported living over saloon on Main Street. Main Street very long but went to every saloon but couldn’t locate him.”

“Suggested that Mrs. P make it so uncomfortable for Mr. P at home that he would have to go to work.”


“Mrs. G is always appreciative of the things that are given her but the children would like to be dressed like other children and their attitude is not admirable.”

“Foster mother made [child] beg visitor’s pardon on her knees and then removed pockets on all her bloomers to prevent her stealing again. Next day R stole 10¢ but foster mother was clever enough to find it concealed in the heel of her shoe. Bad traits were born in R.”

“Boy has been unpopular because of his acts but his unpopularity, surprisingly, did not improve his behavior.”

“Boy reported to sleep all day and fool around all night, washing his blue handkerchief over and over and making his bed as many as twenty times. Very queer child or may be bluffing.”

“Doctor advises giving boy sound thrashing, if this doesn’t work have him tested mentally.”

“Child did not cry—probably because he did not know he was leaving permanently.”

“Visitor does not approve of mother’s spending money to telephone hospital after S’s operation. She learned merely that he is all right.”

“No sign of boy being defective, but child will have to lead a very quiet and noble life to ward off inherited tendency of insanity.”


“Found job in service for K. Instructed employer to read all her letters and report to visitor.”

“Visitor absolutely disgusted and tells him for all she cares they can starve if unwilling to follow good advice.”

“Treatment plan—get Mrs. C to be more moral.”

“Rang bell 3 times but Mr. R refused to open door. Walked around and went in back door. Mr. R furious.”

“No one home. Door tied with string, that being only means of locking, but sufficient room for visitor to see awful condition of rooms.”

“Visited Mrs. D very early in the morning to surprise her. She was busy washing but house had not been cleaned. Noticed two cups on the table and over the sink two toothbrushes. Looked in the bedroom and pillows on the bed looked as if two people had slept there, but Mrs. D maintained it was not a man.”

“Interviewed relatives, neighbors, mail man, garbage man and landlord. Reports satisfactory so gave clothes for children.”

“Family reported starving but discovered bread and coffee in house.”

“Conference voted family be threatened with having their children removed—then following up with friendly visit.”

“Woman was entirely without fuel but refused to give information about her relatives. Worker told her that if she got cold enough, she’d do as she was asked and give early history.”

“Family had beans for dinner and all worker could discover in house after thorough search was one half loaf of bread, so sent vegetables for Thanksgiving dinner. Family not appreciative.”

“Threatened Mrs. G that relief would be discontinued if she does not do exactly as she was told. Explained that when she accepted charity, she gave up right to make any decisions.”

“Discovered woman’s plan to marry. She begged worker to make no inquiries about man, as former matrimonial venture nipped in bud by worker’s predecessor. Worker wangled man’s address, talked to his landlady, instructed Mrs. T not to marry him.”

“Visitor out of town so asked her cook to visit family in her absence. Cook reported parents no good.”

“They are a difficult problem because entirely selfsupporting and therefore cannot be forced to follow suggestions made for their own good.”


FROM A LETTER : “I will try to atone for my mistakes. Never until I talked to you have I seen what a despicable being I have been.”

“Following leads from every source, visitor made 17 calls trying to find a suitable room. Woman found her own.”

“Lectured woman for forty minutes. She was not interested in the philosophy of family life.”

“Both Mr. and Mrs. W most uncooperative and unwilling to talk before the neighbors.”

“He was loathe to give names of all his relatives and became extremely upset when worker insisted. Asked why they all had to be visited just because he wanted to work.”

“Worker asked janitor to take Mr. G to station, buy ticket and give it to conductor. Mr. G objected, then said, ‘I suppose I should be grateful but I’m not.’ ”

FROM A LETTER : “The One thing I can’t seem to get through to you—you can think for me, you can make plans for my living because I am dependent on you but you can’t change my personality.”

FROM A LETTER : “Please don’t go around asking where my husband works and how much he gets, that’s for us to know and nobody else. So you people stay away, all we ask in a nice kind way, please don’t come bothering us and asking all the neighbors about us.”

“Found job for R but he did not appear. Went to his house and routed him out of bed, took him to the factory in a blinding rainstorm. As worker stepped into vestibule, the door slammed and she has not seen R since. He must have run very fast because he was out of sight before I could reach the nearest window.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.