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Living in Poverty

Samuel Abbot Collection
Mss 761 1754-1819 A129
The papers of an eighteenth-century merchant and Overseer of the Poor in Boston, Massachusetts, include letters from women requesting aid, accounts of payments to teachers, and records of female domestic laborers in his employ.

Boston Town Records--Records of the Overseer of the Poor
Vertical file, Mss 1404
Records of Boston's Overseer of the Poor made between 1702 and 1704.

House of Industry (South Boston, Massachusetts) Collection
Mss 9353 1839-1846 H848
Accounts of a South Boston, Massachusetts, poorhouse.

William Lamb Collection
Mss:9353 1836-1841 L218
Diaries of an inmate at the House of Industry in South Boston, Massachusetts, 1836-1841.

Paxton, Massachusetts, Town Records Collection
Mss 926 1827-1852 P342
Town accounts of Paxton, Massachusetts, include payments to support the town's poor, as well as payments to teachers.

Northfield, Vermont, Public Institutions Collection
Mss 930 1825-1855 N873
Town records of Northfield, Vermont, including the accounts of the Overseer of the Poor.



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Letter from Rebecca Hill to Samuel Abbot, ca. 1760s.

In this letter to Samuel Abbot, Bostonís Overseer of the Poor, Rebecca Hill tries to persuade him to not send a young girl to a workhouse:

Sir, there may to you appear an impropriety in my addressing you in this manner on the following subject. After the conversation I had with you last night, I do not desire to appear in the thing. But as I accidentally met you and discovered a willing[ness] in you to save the girl from the disgrace of the workhouse if any signs of penitence could be discovered, I take the liberty to inform you that s[he] has sent for me and seems to be sorry for her c[on]duct, desires I would beg of you to save her from the workhouse, and that you be so kind as to endeavor to get a place in the country and bind her. She says if she goes there she never shall care for herself anymore.

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An illustration of an ideal workhouse, ca. 1830s.

This engraving, probably made in the 1830s, shows an ideal workhouse. The inmates are working in the garden and selling the vegetables they have grown. Children are being cared for by their mothers and are being taught in a school. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the poor were often housed in this type of institution, where, if they were healthy, they could work for their keep.

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