by Roseanna M. White
Who should be responsible for the poor? For the needy? Whose job is it to feed the hungry and clothe the naked?
And if one takes that responsibility...how should one go about it?
To the Quakers of Colonial Philadelphia, the answer to both was simple: this was a task that ought to fall to them, not to the government, and they were not going to feed mouths without feeding souls. More often than not, they felt, people arrived at low circumstances because of their own choices--often bad ones, morally speaking. And so, they needed to be taught. They needed to bettered.
|A Quaker almshouse|
Quakers ruled the merchant class of Pennsylvania, and they had come up with an idea on how to at once raise the impoverished of Philadelphia from the murk and put them on a path of hope. The Bettering House was run by these merchants, with the goal to improve them in both body and spirit. Families moved into the House, where they were separated by gender. Once there, they received food, clothes, sermons, and gainful employment in the form of spinning, weaving, and dyeing cloth.
Up until this time, the city had been responsible for the poor, but their efforts were small--they provided a bit of food, what firewood they could. The Bettering House took this burden off the city's shoulders.
But by the mid-1760s, unemployment was on the rise, and the weaknesses of the Bettering House became glaring. Families were separated, the work was hard, the pay was little, and the residents often resented getting "preached to."
In 1775, a new idea formed, not by Quakers, but by well-educated but monetarily bereft men who shared a passion for bettering the plight of working men in general. With the ultimate goal of earning the common laborer a voice and a vote, James Cannon helped found a rival to the Bettering House--the United Company of Philadelphia for Promoting American Manufacturers...also known as the American Manufactory.
The Manufactory employed a radical new method--since British imports had been banned and the need for domestic-made cloth was on the rise, they saw a new way to provide fair, steady income to families without taking them from their homes and each other. Women could now work from home under the Manufactory's authority, spinning and weaving at their own levels, and then delivering the cloth to the Manufactory for dyeing. The overhead for the company was low, so profits were high for all involved in the process. Families remained intact.
Though the Bettering House had a fine and noble goal, it's no great surprise that its numbers started tapering off while the American Manufactory boomed. I love the idea of bettering the soul while tending the physical needs, but perhaps the elite misunderstood what those souls really needed--the love of their families, and the assurance that their voice was heard.
Roseanna M. White pens her novels under the Betsy Ross flag hanging above her desk, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When she isn’t homeschooling her small kids and writing fiction, she’s editing it for WhiteFire Publishing or reviewing it for the Christian Review of Books, both of which she co-founded with her husband.