I sat down with Architectural historian Heli Meltsner to discusses her recent book, The Poorhouses of Massachusetts: A Cultural and Architectural History. Many of us of a certain age remember our mother or grandmother warn us about the evils of overspending with the phrase, “If your not careful, you’ll end up in the poor house”. For generations in the not too distant past, that phrase was not just an old saying, but it was a very real threat. Remember all those Victorian novels with plots about women finding a good marriage? The Poor House was a very real possibility for anyone who was financially vulnerable in a time not that distant, before social security.
Massachusetts’s towns and cities used Poor Houses to shelter their destitute, elderly, medically indigent, orphans and mentally ill residents. In 1860, two thirds of our municipalities delivered needed support in a poorhouse or town farm. As late as 1945, one quarter retained one. The state only took over the job of delivering welfare in 1968. Meltsner has identified 46 of these surviving buildings built by municipalities, two of them in Cambridge, and 52 old houses recycled for the purpose. Her book discusses the development of the institutions, the life within their walls and their architecture. Meltsner has also documented five still extant tramp houses erected to segregate the huge number of vagrants that flooded the roads in search of work or a meager meal and hard bed.