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Overseers of the Poor (Salem, Massachusetts) Records

Overseers of the Poor (Salem, Massachusetts) Records

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Collection Summary

Repository:The Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum 132 Essex Street Salem, MA 01970 Phone: 978-745-9500 Fax: 978-531-1516
Creator:Overseers of the Poor (Salem, Mass.)
Title:Overseers of the Poor (Salem, Massachusetts) Records
Dates:1749, 1769, 1784/1901
Quantity:18.25 linear feet (20 boxes)
Abstract: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.
Collection Number:MSS 652

Series List

SERIES I. Financial Records
SERIES II. Correspondence
SERIES III. Meeting Records
SERIES IV. Alms House Records

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 records.

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.

Historical Sketch

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 Sturbridge Village).

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."

Index Terms

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 (Mass.)
Account books
Corporate minutes
Formulas, recipes, etc.
Humanitarian assistance
Letter writing
Public welfare administration
Public welfare--Massachusetts--Salem
Social classes--Essex County
Social classes--Massachusetts--Salem
Andover (Mass.)--Social conditions
Boston (Mass.)--Social conditions
Danvers (Mass.)--Social conditions
Essex County--Social conditions
Ipswich (Mass.)--Social conditions
Lynn (Mass.)--Social conditions
Marblehead (Mass.)--Social conditions
Portland (Me.)--Social conditions
Salem (Mass.)--Alms house
Salem (Mass.)--Social conditions
Wiscasset (Me.)--Social conditions


Restrictions on Access

This collection is open for research use.

Administrative Information


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 Museum.

Preferred Citation

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.

Processing Information

Collection processed by Hilary Streifer, November 2016.

Related Material

Chandler, Abby. Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England, 1650-1750: Steering Toward England. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group: London, 2015.

Mass Moments. "Town Meeting Auctions Poor Woman to Lowest Bidder." Accessed November 18, 2016.

Old Sturbridge Village. "Historical Background on the Poor and Poor Relief in Early 19th Century New England." Accessed November 18, 2016.


Essex County (Mass.) Poor Collection, 1712-1791. Fam. MSS 295a

Salem Relief Committee Records, 1877-1943. MSS 179

Samaritan Society Records, 1832-1980. MSS 176

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