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Why is poorhouse history important?
By Linda Crannell
July 29, 2002

Linda Crannell is the self-described Poorhouse Lady. She found her great-great-grandmother on a poorhouse roster in New York. Crannell runs a Web site called the Poorhouse Story.
(Photo courtesy of )

Why is poorhouse history important?

Because if we know only the history of the rich and famous, we don't know our history.

Our current knowledge of local history relies heavily on "subscription histories" written in the last half of the 19th century. They were financed by donations from people who were able to underwrite their publication. Obviously, the poor were not as well represented in those old county histories as were the families of subscribers.

It was astonishingly easy to fall into poverty during the 1800s, before we had any kind of social safety net. And those who were poor all their lives left little or no paper trail.

Often unable to vote or serve on juries, and unlikely to own property or have their wills probated, if they were overlooked in the census reports in an era before compulsory recording of vital statistics (births, marriages, and deaths), there may be little to help us find records of the lives of such ancestors.

Additionally, what many have called our "national antipathy toward poverty" has resulted in some communities today showing disdain for their old poorhouses. This conceit may cost us dearly in terms of lost history. Without the records of such institutions, we may lose track of the lives of many people who were never rich or famous, but whom we nevertheless cherish and would like to honor. My great-great-grandmother was one of those.

But the most important reason for preserving poorhouse history is the message we send to our children. When we teach only the history of the rich and famous, we teach them that if they are poor they are not "us" - a marginalization we can ill afford, in a world which needs to become much more inclusive and respectful of all people.