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[Reprinted from the Quarterly Publications of the American Statistical Association,
A STUDY OF TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY-EIGHT WOMEN IN THE CITY
AND COUNTY ALMSHOUSE OF SAN FRANCISCO.
MARY ROBERTS SMITH,1VLS.
Assistant Pbofessor of Social Science in the Leland Stanford Junior
W. J. Schofield, Printer, 105 Summer St.
LIBRARY OF **&
LELAND STANFORD JR. UNIVERSITY,
OCT 1. 1900
A STUDY OP TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY-EIGHT WOMEN IN THE CITY
AND COUNTY ALMSHOUSE OF SAN FRANCISCO.
By Mary Roberts Smith, M.S.
Assistant Professor of Social Science in the Leland Stanford Junior
I. The Method op Investigation.
This study of almshouse women was begun in the fall of
1892 and completed at Christmas, 1894, — a period of more
than two years. For tabulating the inquiries in systematic
form, cards of uniform size (7£x9£ inches) were used, on
which was printed the following : —
1. Number (on almshouse records).
3. Date (of inquiry).
6. Place of birth.
7. Disease or defect.
10. Conjugal condition.
11. Admitted (a), how.
" (5), when last.
" (c), number of times.
2 Almshouse Women.
12. When discharged.
13. Relief elsewhere.
15. Cause of pauperism.
16. Contributory causes.
The answers to Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14
were copied from the almshouserecords ; in the nature of the
case, these were the perfunctory questions to which replies
could most easily be obtained. Nos. 10 and 14 were often
found to have been answered falsely. The rest of the infor-
mation was obtained by repeated personal conversations with
the women themselves. Finally, the whole was submitted in
detail to the matron, without whose active and intelligent
cooperation the work could not have been done at all. Her
minute personal knowledge of every inmate often filled out,
' modified, corrected, and sometimes utterly disproved, the
inmate's story of herself. Frequently the nurses were en-
listed to obtain, in a casual way, some special point.
By the courtesy of the superintendent and matron, not
only were the records and accounts of the institution always
at the disposal of the investigator, but for several days at a
time, on various occasions, she was enabled to live in the
institution and see its entire administration. The greatest
obstacle to the carrying on of the work was the want of trained
medical assistance. From the physician in charge no help
could be obtained.
If the results seem meagre, it must be remembered that
the character of these women presents special difficulties.
The majority are more or less feeble-minded, deficient, or
erratic in memory ; all are prolix in thought and speech ;
many lie with facility. The keener-witted set down any
person who shows an interest in their history, unjustified by
a charitable donation, as a newspaper reporter.
Almshouse Women. 8
To overcome prejudice and suspicion, and merely to make
the acquaintance of the more approachable, was the work of
several visits, while throughout the whole time it was not
possible to use even a note-book and pencil. The fragments
of several stories at one time had, therefore, to be carried in
the memory until they could be noted on paper in a private
room. A woman rarely if ever gave a connected account of
her life, so that repeated conversations, guided with a view
to securing some one or more missing points, had to be man-
With so many sources of error, and only 228 cases in all,
the usefulness of the work and its results may naturally be
questioned. Doubtless its greatest value lies in the training
of the student herself in patience, tact, judgment of human
nature, accuracy of detail, and methods of work. But this
being true, a published account of methods and results has
value in the first instance as a guide to other students con-
ducting the same or similar investigations. It may serve to
show them in advance what it is possible and what it is not
possible to ascertain by given methods. As to the statistical
importance of the work itself, it may be said that it has a
certain corroborative value in relation to other statistics
bearing upon the same subject. While alone it has not great
cumulative force, yet the very smallness of the number of
cases studied renders possible a minuteness of personal in-
quiry and acquaintance on the part of the writer herself
which would be out of the question where large numbers of
cases were considered. The inquiry stands midway between
the great masses of facts collected through many agents and
worked up by a statistician who takes all his material at
second hand and the minute studies of the life histories of
individual dependents or of dependent families. This middle
position gives it value in the interpretation of both the
extensive and the intensive studies. Further, it has an
intangible though not less real usefulness as a picture of
conditions; piteous, vulgar, tedious, perhaps, but real and
4 Almshouse Women.
inevitable, — conditions that, with variations, are common to
all our American cities. Finally, less has always been known
v of women than of men ; in fact, they have seldom been
studied apart from men, and this contribution may serve to
point out special variations and conditions, without a knowl-
edge of which intelligent treatment is impossible.
The San Francisco City and County Almshouse was
founded by acts of the California Legislature passed in 1863
and 1866, and was opened in 1867. Until 1890 it was under
the superintendence of Mr. and Mrs. M. J. Keating; since
then Mr. and Mrs. P. L. Weaver have been in charge. Such
statistics, therefore, as are founded on the records of the
institution have a certain uniformity.
The institution is under the control of the San Francisco
' Board of Health, consisting of the Mayor and four physicians *
of good standing, appointed by the Governor and holding
office for four years. The offices of superintendent, matron,
and physician are a part of the political perquisites of the
board. Formerly all subordinate positions were filled in the
same way. If the present superintendent were not a man of
some political influence he would not have been able to avoid
having incompetent and worthless employes forced upon him,
for whom certain members of the board desired to obtain
comfortable places in payment of political services. In other
ways the spoils system operates to the detriment of such in-
stitutions. Members of the board might attempt to induce
;, the superintendent to let the supply contracts to tradesmen
who are their own partisan adherents. On the other hand,
if provisions and materials do not prove to be up to the con-
tract standard, the board sometimes protects the contractor
against the superintendent.
Every naturalized mal6 inmate of the institution has a vote
somewhere ; legally, no man gains or loses a residence by
being an inmate of the almshouse. It is evident, however,
Almshouse Women. 5
that he may and frequently does vote in violation of the law.
It is the custom of competing parties to send lines of car-
riages to the gates of the grounds, and to induce the inmates ^
to go to the polls by offers of money and whiskey.
By an act of 1883 the State Legislature of California ap-«/
propriated the sum of $100 yearly for the support of every
indigent person over 60 years of age. As a consequence of
this law many counties found it cheaper and more conve-
nient to send aged paupers to an almshouse already estab- •
lished than to maintain a local county institution. The
inmates of this almshouse, therefore, represent the residuum/
of pauperism in central California.
Since the number has become large, and the expense per^
inmate per annum has fallen below $,100, it has been advan-
tageous for the almshouse to receive and maintain as many
as possible over 60 years of age. On the other hand, the
mere existence of such a comprehensive provision, upon
which there has been no check in the way of investigation,
has spread an impression, especially among the foreign popu^
lation, that this was a sort of an old-age pension. Self-respect
and independence have thus been discouraged among those
who most needed it as an incentive to thrift. The indigent
law has been repealed by the present Legislature (1894-95).
During the last five years the number of inmates has ranged
from 800 to 900, of whom about one-fifth are women.
Legally, no person may be admitted except by a permit ^
from the Mayor, the resident physician, or the chairman of
the Hospital Committee. But as the almshouse is looked
upon as the suitable catch-all for all those incompetent, help-
less, and vicious persons whom other institutions cannot or
will not keep, the superintendent must admit any who corner
or run the risk of a fusillade from the newspapers. Of the
228 women observed, 138 were admitted by permit from the
Mayor ; 13 by the Health Officer ; 46 were sent from the City
6 Almshouse Women.
and County Hospital ; 26 were sent from the police station,
2 were admitted by a supervisor, 1 by a private person, and 1
unknown. At the Mayor's office no attempt has been made
to investigate the worthiness of the applicant ; usually the
permit has been given after a few perfunctory questions by
y the Mayor's secretary, and in one case by the janitor.
°^Tlie City and County Hospital habitually sends to the
almshouse convalescents, consumptives, and incurables in all
stages, partly to reduce expenses, partly to lower the death
rate, and chiefly, it must be said, because there is nowhere
else for them to go. As early as 1885 the Board of Health
appropriated money to build a new almshouse building,
" with a view of relieving the City and County Hospital of
its incurables and convalescents." In the report of the next
year the superintendent states that " most of these people
(transferred from the hospital) are paralytics, cripples, or
consumptives, . . . unable to do any kind of work." In
1891-92 the report says : " The number of inmates is slowly
but surely increasing from year to year, and are of a more
helpless character, owing to the large number of incurables
sent from the City and County Hospital." In 1893 a small
^hospital for women was built in the almshouse grounds, but
none has yet been provided for men. From the police station
come feeble, demented, wandering, and vicious persons who
cannot be sent to a jail or to an insane asylum.
f' Inmates are discharged at their own request or at the
request of relatives. When the almshouse routine becomes
too monotonous, any perfectly irresponsible inmate may de-
mand a permit, which cannot legally be refused, to go into
the city for a certain number of days or to be permanently
discharged. The intemperate, prostitute, and begging make
use of this liberty periodically, and return, usually in the
J police van, in a condition too filthy and degraded to be de-
scribed, having pawned the clothes provided by the State.
They mast be re-admitted, and may then recuperate until the
next restless impulse seizes them.
If the superintendent and matron did not use all possible
personal influence, in persuasion and command, to influence
these erratic creatures, the results would be far more serious
than they are. It is evident that there is the same necessity
here as in the system of repeated commitments* to county
jails for some form of cumulative sentence to prevent the
depredations of these incapables upon the community. Table
I, complied from recent reports, will serve to show the extent
to which freedom is abused.
Number of Times Admitted and Re-admitted after Discharge.
(From Municipal Reports of San Francisco, 1889-95.)
The class of " ins and outs " among the women consists
chiefly of those who, while spending most of their time in the
almshouse, are in the habit of constantly revisiting their ac-
quaintances; or who, having secured a little money from
some benevolent person, go out to spend it in drink ; or who
* A man brought into the San Francisco City and County Jail, No. 3, on being asked
how many times he had been up, replied : " Well, Captain, I guess it's about a hundred."
8 Almshouse Women.
beg upon the streets to vary the monotony of life ; or, finally,
who, under stress of want, occasionally come back. Fortu-
nately, most of them are beyond the child-bearing age, so that
the results are not so disastrous as in some well-known
In former years inmates were bribed to work by special
privileges, — tobacco and whiskey. Under the present man-
agement the resident physician decides whether an inmate is
/ capable of any kind of labor. All who can do anything what-
ever are given regular tasks, and are compelled to do them
or leave the house. For this compulsion the law makes no
provision, but if not strictly enforced the institution would
be overrun with repeaters and tramps. Superintendent
Keating says in the almshouse report f for 1881-82 : " It
requires the most vigilant supervision to get the necessary
work of the place performed without resort to harsh meas-
ly ures. ... It must be borne in mind that one-half of the peo-
ple who find their way to the almshouse are sick, crippled,
or infirm, and consequently incapable of physical exertion ;
while one-half of the balance are mentally deficient or con-
stitutionally lazy, and have lost all ambition. Taking into
account the number of children, the working force is reduced
to less than one-fifth the inmates, and many of these are poor
workers at best."
Mr. A. O. Wright % says on this point : " The labor test is
the best practical test that has ever been devised to sift out
the really needy, and therefore deserving, from those who can
but will not earn their own living. The labor test is the one
thing dreaded by tramps. It is the best method of reducing
unnecessary out-door relief, and it is the best method of driv-
ing the drones out of a poorhouse." Mr. S. C. Hoyt says :
" The absence of employment in poorhouses tends to make
• Report of a Special Committee Appointed by the Mayor of Boston to Inspect Public
Institutions, June, 1892 ; pp. 28-9, 157, 158.
t Municipal report of San Francisco, 1881-82.
X Employment in Poorhouses, National Conference of Charities, 1889.
Almshouse Women. 9
those who are temporarily dependent, chronic, and incurable S
Tlie amount of patience, ingenuity, and energy necessary
to make such labor somewhat profitable, and to fit such ~
laborers — who for the most part have failed to fit anywhere
else in the industrial world — into the task which each can
do, requires a degree of executive ability and moral fibre
rarely to be found. Under the present matfdh the women
of this almshouse have reached a high degree of industrial
efficiency, considering their capacities. A prostitute nurses /
a bed-ridden girl to whom she has become attached ; a deaf
and difficult old woman washes, dresses, and feeds as a baby
a deaf, dumb, and blind girl ; a woman, nearly blind and
knotted with rheumatism, braids rag rugs ; a feeble-minded
Swedish woman makes fine lace ; a well-educated woman
does fine sewing and reads the daily paper aloud to the
others. All the sewing and mending for the 900 inmates,^
and all the cleaning of the women's apartments, is done by
Although it is usually quite impossible to make a clear
distinction between the worthy and unworthy poor, it is
essential that some line should be drawn between the decent
and the indecent, the capable and the incapable. Some
classification by character is here attempted. One corridor
is known, even among the women themselves, as " pauper
alley," while to be assigned to a room on another is a reward ^
of merit. The device of placing deaf women in the same hall
with snorers is only one illustration of the infinite ingenuity
expended in adjusting these misfits to each other. All are
made to feel that even in this last stage there may be an
advantage in being decent, industrious, and honest. Small
responsibilities are placed on those who try to keep their self-
respect, and inducements, such as would commonly be found
useful only with children, often produce excellent effects.
• Tenth Report New York State Board of Charities, p. 290.
10 Almshouse Women.
For sociological purposes it has not seemed desirable to
dwell further on administration. The institution is managed
with rare economy of labor and materials, while the inmates
are well fed, decently clothed, and treated with good judg-
ment and kindness. Such reforms as are necessary will be
suggested in Part IV.
III. Statistics and Comment.
It must be clearly understood that the writer recognizes
the impossibility of drawing definite conclusions from 228
cases. In commenting upon tables the greatest care has been
taken to distinguish between fact and opinion, and to com-
pare both with the statements of accepted authorities. Num-
bers have been translated into percentages only when they
were large enough to have some significance.
The most surprising feature of Table II is the uniform
proportion which the representatives of certain nationalities
bear throughout twenty-five years to the whole number of
inmates in each year, — as, for instance, Ireland from 33 to
43 per cent, United States from 19 to 21 per cent, etc. In
Table III, showing the distribution of population in Califor-
. nia among the same nationalities, there appears to be a very
uniform proportion through the census of 1870, 1880, and
1890 ; but in Table IV, where the two preceding tables are
compared with each other, there appear certain startling varia-
tions. , Canada, Italy, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, and Swit-
zerland are represented by nearly the same per cent in the
almshouse and the total population of California. The Chi-
nese, although constituting 7 per cent of the population, are
practically unknown in the almshouse, probably owing to the
fact that they always care for their own poor, and have the
strongest objection to being buried in a foreign country.
J Native Californians average one-third of the total popula-
tion of the State, but only 6 per cent of ,the almshouse in-
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Population of California by Selected Nationalities.
(From United States Census, 1870, 1880, and 1890.)