The Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum 132 Essex Street Salem, MA 01970 Phone: 978-745-9500 Fax: 978-531-1516
Overseers of the Poor (Salem, Mass.)
Overseers of the Poor (Salem,
18.25 linear feet (20 boxes)
The records of the Overseers of
the Poor of Salem, Massachusetts contain financial, meeting, and Alms House records,
as well as correspondence and other records.
SERIES I. Financial Records SERIES II. Correspondence SERIES III. Meeting Records SERIES IV. Alms House Records SERIES V. Other
Scope and Content Note
The records of the Overseers of the Poor of Salem, Massachusetts contain
financial, meeting, and Alms House records, as well as correspondence and other
records. These records provide a look into the day to day operations and decisions
that the Overseers made regarding citizens of Salem and neighboring towns. Persons
with sensitivity to mold should exercise caution when using this collection, as
inactive mold is prevalent throughout the collection.
Series I. Financial Records contain financial
documents such as accounts, bills, receipts, invoices, lists of cash given as aid,
account books, and ledgers. This material has been organized chronologically. It
should be noted that some of the financial records contain detailed information
about individuals and their length of stay at the alms house.
Series II. Correspondence contains correspondence to
and from Salem's Overseers of the Poor, other towns' Overseers, and town residents.
Included in this series are complaints from Salem residents about other residents,
notices to other towns that their residents have received aid in Salem, and copies
of notifications of denials for aid.
Series III. Meeting Records contains records from
meetings held by the Salem Overseers of the Poor.
Series IV. Alms House Records contains records from
the Salem Alms House, which was also referred to as the Poor House and Poor
Department House. This series contains lists of inmates (residents of the Alms
House) with genealogical information, the costs associated with building and running
the House, distributed provisions, rules of the House, and other related
Series V. Other contains other records from the Salem
Overseers of the Poor such as lists of paupers in the Essex County, lists of
supplies given out, an unidentified person's diary about weather and religion, and
some miscellaneous items.
Salem, Massachusetts' Overseers of the Poor was
established in 1692, when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed Acts and Resolves
which ordered that "freeholders and other inhabitants of each town…choose three,
five, seven or nine persona, able and discreet…to be selectmen or townsmen and
overseers of the poor." At its creation, the Overseers were to place poor children
as apprentices until they were old enough to take care of themselves, replicating
the English tradition in which poor children were "bound out." By the turn of the
eighteenth century, the Overseers usually provided "outdoor relief" in the form of
food, housing, and sometimes, money. However, with the increase in poverty levels
and the expense of providing outdoor relief, towns began to look at "indoor relief,"
or institutionalized housing as a cheaper alternative. Salem created an alms house
in 1719, and ordered that all indigent citizens be moved in, in place of providing
outdoor relief by 1749. At the same time, Massachusetts ordered all towns to build
poor houses in 1744, and outdoor relief was used less often (Chandler). Outdoor
relief was still granted to some people; however it was increasingly seen as
expensive, inefficient, and encouraging laziness. Instead, towns such as Salem
placed their poor into a town-owned and-operated alms house, poor farm, or work
house, arguing that this way the poor could contribute to their own care (Old
In August 1815, the town of Salem agreed to build a new poor house. This one was
designed by architect Charles Bulfinch, and was five stories, with two wings.
However, it was not staffed properly, and individuals who entered the house were not
classified in any way except by their gender. This meant that an orphan, a young
mother, an elderly widow, and someone suffering from mental illness might find
themselves in the same room. By 1902, the State Board of Charities assumed full
responsibility for the costs of the alms houses, and by the mid-1900s very few alms
houses remained open ("Town Meeting Auctions…"). Residents of these houses were
often referred to as "inmates."
This collection is indexed under the following headings in Philcat. Researchers desiring materials about related topics, persons,
or places should search the catalog using these headings.
Overseers of the Poor, Salem
Formulas, recipes, etc.
Public welfare administration
Social classes--Essex County
Salem (Mass.)--Alms house
Restrictions on Access
This collection is open for research use.
Requests for permission to publish material from the collection must be submitted in
writing to the Manuscript Librarian in the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex
Overseers of the Poor (Salem, Massachusetts) Records, MSS 652, Phillips Library,
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.
One volume of notices to other towns denying indigents in those towns are residents
of Salem, dated 1870-1893, and one volume of notices to other towns indicating
residents of those towns are being aided in Salem, dated 1882-1888, were donated by
Cate Olson and Nash Robbins in February 1991. One volume of copies of letters, dated
1844-1857, was purchased in August 1993. The rest of the material was found in the
collection. This collection was previously cataloged as Fam.
Mss.880, 881, and 882.
Collection processed by Hilary Streifer, November 2016.
Chandler, Abby. Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England,
1650-1750: Steering Toward England. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group:
Overseers of the Poor (Salem, Massachusetts) Records
One volume of notices to other towns denying indigents in those towns are residents of Salem, dated 1870-1893, and one volume of notices to other towns indicating residents of those towns are being aided in Salem, dated 1882-1888, were donated by Cate Olson and Nash Robbins in February 1991. One volume of copies of letters, dated 1844-1857, was purchased in August 1993. The rest of the material was found in the collection. This collection was previously cataloged as Fam. Mss. 880, 881, and 882.