Women's Lives in 1790s NYC: Stories from the Almshouse Records

By Mark Boonshoft
March 28, 2017
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

What was it like in New York City for women during the 1790s? We’ve explored this question through the diary of an elite woman named Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker. But as Women’s History Month 2017 comes to an end, I wanted to draw attention to the stories of less privileged women who occupied the same New York City as Bleecker. Stories of poor and marginalized women who otherwise left few, if any, traces in written records, are strewn throughout the Minutes of the Commissioners of the New York City Almshouse and Bridewell (1791-1797). The Commissioners oversaw “poor relief” both inside the Almshouse and Bridewell Prison, as well as “outdoor relief” through the City; they were in charge of what we today call welfare. The women who the Commissioners oversaw were poor, sometimes abandoned, and, by virtue of being “wards” or “objects” of the Almshouse, always dependent on others. Their situation coupled with the prevailing gender norms of the period meant they had limited mobility or opportunities to improve their station. Since the collection has been digitized, it is available in its entirety, but here are a few of their stories.


July 23, 1792, Minutes of the Commissioners of the Almshouse and Bridewell, NYPL

Margaret Lord was “an object of the Almshouse, [who] hath constantly and faithfully exerted herself, in the capacity of an assistant to our school-master, in bringing forward the younger children, Therefore Resolved that” some of the commissioners “furnish her, by way of a gratuity, for her faithfulness, & further encouragement, with such articles of clothing, as she may chuse[sic], over and above what the house ordinarily affords, to the amount of forty shillings.”  Lord’s story is one of a person forging a meaningful life in the most trying of circumstances. She must have known she might reap some reward for her hard work. As the commissioners described: “Whereas among other ordinances and bye laws relating to the good government of the house, it is provided that such persons who behave themselves orderly, and perform their tasks faithfully shall be entitled to some rewards.” The Board’s pride in Margaret Lord’s work is apparent, but the meager “reward” they offered suggests the limits of what she could gain by dint of “hard work.” 


August 20, 1792 (top of page) and August 27, 1792, Minutes of the Commissioners of the Almshouse and Bridewell, NYPL

Sarah Gilmore wife of Robert Gilmore representing to this Board that her Husband had left her and was settled in Marlborough, County of Ulster, and that she was unable to support herself. Alderman Beekman was requested to attend to her case.”  A week later, at the Commissioner’s next meeting, the board noted they had received “a warrant from the Mayor, and Aldm. Beekman, requiring us to deliver her to the overseers of the poor of the County of Ulster, where her husband resides.” A commissioner “was therefore appointed, and directed to take charge of the said Sarah Gilmore, and deliver her accordingly.” A city marshal ended up bring her north. The only time we hear Gilmore’s voice, even second hand, is when she testifies that her husband left her. There is no indication that Gilmore wanted to follow her husband, who abandoned her, north to Ulster County. If she was from New York City, might she have wanted to stay there? The Board does not seem to ask. Here, “the system” clearly operated on Sarah Gilmore, leaving her with minimal power to make decisions about her life. 


September 9, 1793, Minutes of the Commissioners of the Almshouse and Bridewell, NYPL

Jane Green, a poor girl, was bound apprentice to the widow Mary Sword of this City,” which means Green was contracted to labor for Sword for a term of years in exchange for food, shelter, clothes, and often remedial education.  This was not an uncommon arrangement for children from impoverished families. But Green’s “mother having lately enter’d complaints, that the girl was very ill used by her mistress, and a committee having been appointed to enquire into the the matter, now reported, that the complaints of the mother were not well founded--that altho the girl had several times been corrected, she had undoubtedly deserv’d it, for her frequent running away, and other misdemeanors.” The Commissioners responded to Green’s mother’s complaints and looked into her daughter’s situation. Though clearly in a subordinate position, the Greens had recourse to remedy a perceived injustice. The Commissioners, though, ruled against her. They could tolerate more stringent discipline than the Greens thought fair. Jane Green was stuck with Swords, against her will, until the term of the contract finally expired. 


May 19, 1794, Minutes of the Commissioners of the Almshouse and Bridewell, NYPL 

Unnamed daughter of Duncan McMullen: ​​"Duncan McMullen, an object of the Almshouse begging for leave to go to Philadelphia to fetch his daughter, who upwards of 8 years ago we had [inked out] bound to col Alex Hamilton now of that City, and who he is afraid keeps her ignorant in regard to her time being fulfilled, consented that the old man may go for his daughter, and that the clerk furnish him with a certified copy of his indenture; and also write to her late Master signifying our expectations of his delivering the girl to her father in a situation agreeable to his contract.” Yes, that Alexander Hamilton kept a young woman past the expiration of her contract. McMullen’s daugher was taken advantage of even while living in the home of one of the most visible public figures in the United States. Young women bound out to families had little power over their situation. Indeed it took Duncan McMullen, a man who could not even get from New York to Philadelphia without permission and a loan, to seek redress for his daughter. McMullen’s story reminds us that while poverty in early national America was a harsh experience, women, in particular, lacked power. 

Each year, Women’s History Month offers a chance to reflect on the full range of women’s historical experiences in the United States. The digitization of early American manuscript sources is making that increasingly possible for researchers to accomplish.  Recently digitized sources shed light on the historic and often overlooked contributions women made to early American life in spite of strict gender norms that sought to circumscribe their influence. At the same time, these materials help us uncover the equally important stories of less fortunate women who remained constrained by those same forces.

Further Reading

For more on the experiences of poor women in early national America generally, and of their expereinces in Almshouses specifically, see the essays by Gloria L. Main, Ruth Wallis Herndon, Monique Borque, Tim Lockley, Katie M. Hemphill, and John E. Murray in the Fall 2012 special issue of the Journal of the Early Republic.

About the Early American Manuscripts Project

With support from the The Polonsky Foundation, The New York Public Library is currently digitizing upwards of 50,000 pages of historic early American manuscript material. The Early American Manuscripts Project will allow students, researchers, and the general public to revisit major political events of the era from new perspectives and to explore currents of everyday social, cultural, and economic life in the colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods. The project will present on-line for the first time high quality facsimiles of key documents from America’s Founding, including the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Drawing on the full breadth of the Library’s manuscript collections, it will also make widely available less well-known manuscript sources, including business papers of Atlantic merchants, diaries of people ranging from elite New York women to Christian Indian preachers, and organizational records of voluntary associations and philanthropic organizations. Over the next two years, this trove of manuscript sources, previously available only at the Library, will be made freely available through nypl.org.