March 31, 2012

Headed to the poorhouse

“... He was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once — a parish child — the orphan of a workhouse — the humble, half-starved drudge — to be cuffed and buffeted through the world, despised by all, and pitied by none."  — excerpt from “Oliver Twist”
As I have written on many occasions, the so-called good old days of history many times were not good at all. While we prefer to remember the good of yore, too often we shove the bad and sometimes unconscionable into those many history chapters — as a society — we prefer to forget.

American history trumpets the exploits of George Washington and our Founding Fathers.

 It extols the humble virtues of Abraham Lincoln. It adulates America’s first man on the moon.

My dad used to kid all the time about growing up in southwest Oklahoma during the Great Depression, and of being close to having to go to the poorhouse. I thought it was just an expression.

I was wrong.

Poor farms, poorhouses, workhouses — call them what you will — used to be a staple of many counties and municipalities across the United States. They were common beginning in the 1830s, declining after the Social Security Act took effect in 1935, and completely disappearing by late-1950s America.

The poorhouse on these shores was an offshoot of our brethren from the British Isles. In England, Wales and Ireland, the poorhouse was known as a workhouse. Under the Poor Law of our mother country, poverty was seen as a dishonorable state caused by a lack of moral virtue and personal industry.

Charles Dickens, who made his name by vilifying the workhouse in his novels, depicted a workhouse as a reformatory to house indigent children and families.

In effect, the workhouse of old was supplanted in today’s world by the much kinder, gentler homeless shelter.

In researching this carefully hidden aspect of societal history, I found what early on was called the poor farm many times was situated on grounds where able-bodied residents were required to work to help with the costs of feeding, clothing and sheltering poor folks.

Governments on a local and county level in early U.S. history dealt with the poor in several ways. If a family or individual fell on hard times, and relatives or the church couldn’t provide enough assistance, they could make application to an elected official, called the Overseer of the Poor. With tax money, the overseer could help provide for them — even medical treatment paid from tax funds.

Also, poor folks who couldn’t support themselves could be put up for bid at public auction in some states and communities, as various laws across the country allowed during the 1800s. Paupers could be sold to the lowest bidder, who would provide room and board for the lowest price, and who then would use labor in exchange for food, clothing, health care and other necessities.

In fact, in some cases it was just short of governmentally approved slavery, since the welfare of those bought at auction was entirely subject to the kindness and fairness of the winning bidder.

When the bottom line was tightened, food, shelter and medical treatment could be denied.

The Victorian England concept of the workhouse, which evolved on these shores into poorhouses, was something right out of a Dickens novel.

The British government, terrified of encouraging idlers — lazy people — made sure the populace feared the workhouse, and would do anything to keep from being sent there.

Men, women and children had different living and working areas in the workhouse, splitting families. Individual family members could be punished even for speaking to one another while living there.

The poor had to wear uniforms so everyone outside knew they were poor and lived in a workhouse.

Food was said to be marginal and tasteless, and all — both the youngest and the oldest — were made to do hard, often unpleasant work. Infirmity or illness was not taken into consideration.

Children could be hired out to work in factories and mines.

Everything was done by society of the day, to stigmatize the individual to the point they would starve and be ragged rather than be cast into the Victorian workhouse.

Pregnant women often were turned away from workhouses, simply because babies were considered a big expense.

As with everything, society evolved through the years. People became more valued as time went on, and proper children’s homes were established, along with homeless shelters and modern-day nursing homes for the elderly.

One of my vivid recollections from grade school was visiting what was called the “county home” in Enid, a substantially brick structure if memory serves, located on the far southeast side of town. We sang for the residents, and I believe a photo of the old building still hangs in the Garfield County Court House.

So, as I have written before, the old days of Victorian England and early America were not always the good old days — historically speaking.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle and may be reached at

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