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Charity in History

Charities have played a tremendous role in the American history, helping the American poor during the hardest times on their lives. Charity organization societies that had sprung up after 1880 in many of the major cities of the country were the main centers of relief activity for Americans. These societies had grown out of the need for greater efficiency as the problem of relief became more important and perplexing in the nation's rapidly industrializing society. They were rarely charity societies themselves but rather integrating agencies administered by professional social workers and community leaders who directed and unified the work of the separate charities. An examination of certain cities during the winter of 1893-94 when the problem of relief was most acute probably offers the best overview of what was actually done. There was no standard pattern for these cities, but the general organization of relief activity as indicated may be seen in many of them. It is apparent that without charities many Americans at the end of the 19th century, and especially after economic panic of 1983,  would not make it to the next century, as it was the only source of relief during deteriorating economic conditions.

New York, the nation's largest city, was estimated to have had from 80,000 to 85,000 unemployed during the winter of 1893-94, although a census taken by the police in December 1893 registered only 67,280. (Gilder 1981, p. 69) In the fall of 1893 the New York Charity Organization Society issued a statement through the press urging that all gifts be made to established charities rather than in the form of indiscriminate alms, which would "inevitably tend to pauperize the recipient as well as to attract to the city an army of vagrants, in addition to numbers of the unemployed of other places." (Gilder 1981, p. 70) This plea seems not to have been taken too seriously. Although gifts to established charities increased after the panic, it was estimated that at least $3 million was used in various forms of "irresponsible relief." (Gilder 1981, p. 70)

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Increased resources permitted the Charity Organization Society to expand its activities. Besides carrying on its own work, it helped charter the Provident Loan Society, capitalized at $100,000, which made loans to the needy secured by personal property in amounts as large as $100 at the rate of 1 percent per month. This rate was considerably less than that of the pawn shop or the moneylender. (Katz 1996, p. 118) The Charity Organization Society also helped to create the most important of the temporary organizations, the East Side Relief Committee, to function where the need for relief was greatest.

The East Side Relief Committee, formed late in the fall of 1893, was the creation of representatives of social settlements, churches, a conference of St. Vincent de Paul (a Catholic religious order engaged in social work), and a district committee of the Charity Organization Society. Supervised by trained social workers, it functioned with considerable effectiveness. During the winter of 1893 the committee furnished work to the unemployed at such tasks as sweeping the streets for one dollar per day, cleaning and whitewashing tenements, and sewing and making garments. Approximately 5,000 men and women received employment during its existence from the first of December 1893 to the end of April 1894, though rarely were more than 1,000 employed at a time. (Trattner 1999, p. 43)

In addition to organized charity there were other temporary relief agencies. During the winter of 1893 Tammany collected through its district organizations a relief fund of approximately $70,000, raised by the simple expedient of collecting one day's profits from each of hundreds of saloonkeepers. (Jansson 1997, p. 64) Similarly, a fund of like amount was collected from city officials and employees. (Jansson 199, p. 65) It was charged, and possibly truly, that money from these funds went more to the deserving in politics than to those needing relief.

A new feature of relief was the entrance of some daily newspapers into the field. In mid-December 1893 the New York Herald began operating a free clothing fund that provided clothing for some 18,000 applicants during its three months of operation. (DiNitto 2000, p. 90) The New York World gave away 5,000 loaves of bread per day for two months, and the Tribune had a coal and food fund. (DiNitto 2000, p. 90) These efforts were severely criticized. Critics claimed that the newspapers entered the field of charity "more for the sake of advertising themselves than with the modest aim which the Gospels recommend," and that indiscriminate giving weakened the "moral fibre" of the recipient. Such relief, in their judgment, was essentially negative in its effect. (DiNitto 2000, p. 92)

Other sources included a $1 million appropriation that was authorized by the state legislature on February 2, 1894, for public park improvements and roadways in New York City. By the end of March the Park Commission had furnished employment to 1,500 men, but the work proceeded slowly. The Park Commission's president complained of the difficulty of planning suitable work as his excuse for the fact that early in June hardly one-third of the appropriation had been spent.  (Anderson 1978, p. 114)  Like other relief funds in political hands, moreover, this one was also viewed with disapproval by charity workers.

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Several of the stronger trade unions - including the typographical union, the cigar makers' union, and the carpenters' union, which worked among their own members -  as well as church societies also contributed some share to relief. In Boston, where estimates of the number of unemployed ran from 30,000 to 40,000, regular relief was dispensed by the Associated Charities and eighteen other charitable societies. (Gilder 1981, p. 33) More than 3,800 families were also assisted during the winter by the municipal Overseers of the Poor. Male members of these families were required to work seven hours in the municipal woodyard for one dollar in groceries, or two seven-hour days for a quarter-ton of coal. (Gilder 1981, p. 37)

In addition to these regular relief agencies the mayor appointed a special Citizens' Relief Committee in December 1893, which raised and spent $100,000. It employed a total of 2,200 women at such tasks as knitting, quilting, and making rugs and carpets at eighty cents per day, and 5,200 men in laying sewers and in street repairs at $1.50 per day. The city government assisted in the work of laying sewers and of street repair, with the Citizens' Relief Committee paying only the difference in cost of such work between summer and winter. (Trattner 1999, p. 142)

Perhaps the most serious demonstration by unemployed during the winter occurred in Boston. Morrison I. Swift, later a Coxey's Army leader, on two occasions in late February marshaled several hundred Boston unemployed to march to the State House and urge a state public-works program upon the governor. Governor Frederic Greenhalge refused. He explained, typically, that inasmuch as the majority of citizens were able to take care of themselves through thrift or inheritance, there was no reason why they should be burdened by the creation of work for the unemployed that was neither necessary nor beneficial.  (Jansson 1997, p. 91) Though the demonstration was a failure, it may have influenced the legislature to create an investigating commission in April 1894 to "consider the subject of the unemployed and measures for their relief."  (Jansson 1997, p. 92)

In Chicago there was no central charity organization prior to the panic of 1893. Conditiions were made worse by its absence, and also by the fact that the World's Fair had attracted many to Chicago by high wages, only later to leave them stranded. Estimates of the number of unemployed in the winter of 1893 ran as high as 100,000. (DiNitto 2000, p. 135) After December 1893, however, charity work was coordinated through the establishment of the Central Relief Association, a charity organization society. It centralized nearly all charity activity and investigated cases before they were turned over to the operating charities for action. Some direct relief was also administered by the Central Relief Association. It provided work at street cleaning for about 3,750 men. They were paid in scrip exchangeable for food and a bed, for clothing, and, if a man were married, for food and clothing for his family. (DiNitto 2000, p. 139)

Additional relief was furnished by the Chicago Women's Club Emergency Association, which established sewing rooms in which needy women could find employment at fifty cents and lunch per day. During the winter nearly 1,500 were employed, and the clothing made was distributed to hospitals and the poor. (Trattner 1999, p. 80) The Cook County government, through an appropriation of $80,000 in the winter of 1893, also furnished some direct relief. Families who applied were permitted allowances of coarse food and coal. (Trattner 1999, p. 82)

Indianapolis had a system of relief highly pleasing to the charity leaders of that day. The Commercial Club allied with the Workingmen's Union in opening a store that offered food and clothing to bona fide needy citizens upon their promise to pay for what they had received either in money at a later date or in work for the public good at the rate of twelve and one-half cents per hour. Over 5,000 people were carried through the winter of 1893 at little expense to the community and, in the judgment of social workers, with little loss of self-respect to the person receiving relief. (Mink 1998, p. 75)

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In San Francisco temporary relief was already being offered at the time of the panic by the Associated Charities. It had been operating a woodyard since 1891. As a result of the panic, additional measures were taken. The Salvation Army, which was quite strong in San Francisco, opened a soup kitchen capable of feeding 600 unemployed daily. The city government appropriated $3,000 per month to employ 400 men per week sweeping the streets two days each week for which they received food and shelter from the Salvation Army. During the summer and early fall of 1893, however, the city lacked applicants for its relief jobs.  (Mink 1998, p. 77)

During the winter, conditions changed. Mayor Ellert complained perhaps unjustly of "the influx of people from other states where the times were harder than they are here." (Jansson 1997, p. 101) The city's jobs were all taken, and a temporary citizens' relief committee was created to find more work. This organization, to which more than $92,000 was contributed from private sources, was used principally to employ labor in building twelve miles of roads and paths in Golden Gate Park. All the money from the Citizens' Relief Committee went directly for labor at one dollar per person per day. The city government provided for the cost of supervision and tools. No man was permitted more than thirty days of work during the winter. (Mink 1998, p. 86)

In general, it may be said that the problem of relief following the panic of 1893 was met mainly by the established charities. The panic brought expansion of relief activities along traditional lines. Private agencies carried the burden of relief with sufficient efficiency that no departure involving large-scale governmental action was ever seriously considered. Even when local government did take an abnormal role in relief activities, it acted frequently in conjunction with private agencies. Charities played a great role in the American history, and this noble beginning is well continued today

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