The Home for Friendless Women

by Kelly Morris, University of Louisville Commonwealth Center for Humanities and Society Intern

Susan Speed Davis, from the Speed Family Portrait, Filson Photograph Collection.

Susan Speed Davis, from the Speed Family Portrait, Filson Historical Society Photograph Collection.

I stumbled across the charity the Home for Friendless Women while interning at the Filson this semester. It’s hard to imagine this would be a go-to name for an organization nowadays, but there was a time this was a common name for a charity designed to help poor, unmarried, pregnant women. The Home for Friendless Women in Louisville began at 512 West Kentucky St. (later the site of the Salvation Army Susan Speed Davis Home and Hospital, and currently the Crimes Against Children Unit of the Louisville Metro Police)  and it opened May 19, 1876 with the help of Susan Speed Davis. It operated until 1919.

The admission logs, minutes from the Board meetings, newspaper clippings, and letters addressed to the women who ran the home (referred to, rather unfortunately, as “Madames” in one letter) offer a unique insight into Victorian society, and vocabulary, from the time. Many women came to the Home from “houses of ill fame.” In fact, in one letter the charity was referred to as ‘The Home for Fallen Women.” Once admitted into the home, the women were often referred to as “inmates” and needed permission to leave the house. (It’s important to note that the word “inmate” used to refer to people who lived together in a house.) Visitors to the home were also heavily monitored. In one memorable entry, a woman asked if her fiancé might visit her in the home and the Board decided “it is best for the interests of the Home that no such visitors be received.”

Home for Friendless Women Ledger Books.

Home for Friendless Women Ledger Books. Home For Friendless Women Records, The Filson Historical Society.

Religious activity, including prayer meetings and devotional exercises, was a daily part of the women’s lives once admitted into the Home for Friendless Women. There are several references in the admission logs to a woman expressing a desire to become a Christian. The women were also expected to work during their time in the house. As one newspaper reported: “The Work Committee finds that work has been done cheerfully and satisfactorily as follows: 2,617 pairs of lace curtains have been laundered; 800 garments, 65 quilts and comforts have been made, and 853 garments repaired.”

One goal of the Home was to help the women find “respectable homes” to work in after their child was born. Of course, this was not always what happened. In one entry from the admission logs, a woman is reported to have “gone back to a life of sin.” Another woman was expelled from the Home for profane language and yet another, it was feared, had returned to “evil causes instead of going out to work as she promised.”

And what about all the babies who were born in the home? It seems there was not a “one size fits all” approach. Some women left their children at the home when they went to work and sent for them later. Others took their children with them, still others chose adoption. In one entry from 1880, for example, it’s reported that a Baptist man and his wife adopted one of a set of twins and this was “quite providential as the mother cannot take care of two children.”

A perusal of the Bylaws shows that the women on the Board of the Home for Friendless Women took their responsibilities for maintaining and running the home quite seriously. They met monthly to discuss the home’s finances, which were often at a critical point – a few times it’s mentioned the accounts are overdrawn. The Board members also enforced rules such as a 25 cent fine for any unexcused absence from a meeting as well as forced resignation from the Board if a member accrued more than four unexcused absences. In other words, this was not simply a social group who met once a month to gossip – the Board members actively raised funds for the home, solicited donations, and wrote letters to potential employers.

What’s been especially fascinating about researching the Home for Friendless Women has been peering into a very specific period of time. By reading the admission logs and correspondence of the time, you get a sense of Victorian morals, ideas, and habits.

Home for Friendless Women article

Home for Friendless Women newspaper article from 1896. Home for Friendless Women Records, The Filson Historical Society.

Filson Historical

12 comments on “The Home for Friendless Women

  1. Carrie Pierce

    I really appreciate your article. My great-grandma was born at the Home for Friendless Women, and I am trying to find information about her and her mother. I found your article very interesting and helpful! Thank you.
    Carrie Pierce
    Lynchburg, VA

    Reply
    1. Jennie Cole

      Dear Ms. Pierce,
      Thank you for your comment! I shared it with our former intern, who wrote this post. If you have questions about the collection, please email research@filsonhistorical.org.
      Best wishes,
      Jennie

      Reply
  2. Mary A. Delaney

    I am searching for information regarding my great aunt, Mary Delaney, who may have been a resident at the Home in the period 1876-1890. She had a son “James” who was born circa 1875. It is possible they may both have gone by the name “Whitenham,” rather than Delaney. Is there an index of the residents of the Home? Thank you for your help.

    Reply
    1. Jennie Cole

      Hi Mary! We are working on your inquiry and will be in touch with you here on the blog and via email shortly! Jennie

      Reply
    2. Jana Meyer

      Hello Mary! One of our interns checked vol. 12 of our Home for Friendless Women records, which contains admissions and discharges from the home, 1876-1892. Unfortunately, she did not find any listings for Mary or James Delaney or Whitenham. I am sending you an email message with some other research suggestions. -Jana

      Reply
  3. Jordan Yost

    Hi,

    I have just sent an email to you. I’m trying to find information on a Sallie (Sally) Jewel Bewley. She would have been there around 1915-1918. She bore two children while there. Clide S. b. 1915 and Hilda A. b. 1918.

    Reply
  4. Alta Barnes Godwin

    I just discovered this and i’m very interested in the records. I will call The Filson Library, tomorrow. My Grandmother was taken care of, in this home. I don’t think she was pregnant, but she was ill. She put her son (my father) in ‘The Home of the Innocents.’ She died there in 1899 of Chronic Morphinism per the Pearson Mortuary, in Louisville. However, the notice of death in Geneva, NY says she died of consumption. Her name was Rena Barnes, but the death record says Clara Barnes. I know she was separated from her husband, but that is all I know about her. I believe she was deserted. I do have a copy of some of her records the day she died, but I would like to know more.

    Reply
  5. Alta Barnes Godwin

    My Grandmother was in this home under the name of Clara Barnes (real name Rena Barnes.) I don’t think she was pregnant but she was ill. She had placed her son, (my father) in The Home of the Innocents. I have the record of her in the home the day she died, and Pearson Mortuary cause of death differs than that of her hometown, Geneva, NY. She died in 1899 when my dad was 10. This is all I know. I believe my Grandfather deserted her and my father. I will request the book of records. I’m excited about this website. It took years to find my father’s family, and longer to find his mother.

    Reply
  6. Pat Layer

    I am trying to find information on Dorothy Richardson. She had a son there in 1935 and another there in 1936. Did she list a father for the children? My husband was born there in 1935 and doesn’t know his father nor does he know anything about Dorothy’s family of origin.

    Reply
    1. Jennie Cole

      Hi Pat, I believe you called in today and spoke with one of my colleagues. Our records on the Home for Friendless Women that mention specific women, which include admission and discharge records and minute books only run from 1876-1911, so I am afraid we will not be able to provide you with information on your husband’s mother. You might try contacting the Salvation Army, as I believe the home eventually became a Salvation Army hospital when it was the Susan Speed Davis Home. You might also want to contact the state of Kentucky to see if they hold any later records. Best of luck with your search for this family history!
      Jennie

      Reply
  7. Alta Barnes Godwin

    I just want to thank you for your help. There isn’t much from ‘The Friendless Women’ on my Grandmother, Rena Barnes, just a note from the day she died which was in your records and sent to me, but it’s amazing and i’m Very happy to have it. I just have a question. I am wondering why she isn’t listed in admissions. It was suggested to me that she just went there for help the day she died and wasn’t really admitted. She was married and probably not pregnant, just I’ll and penniless, probably. Are you aware of any situation like that? Thank you, again.

    Reply
    1. Jennie Cole

      Hi again, Alta. The admissions records that the Filson holds for the Home for Friendless Women only run from 1876 through 1892. It is possible that Clara/Rena was admitted, but we do not hold the admissions record book from her time of death, which you previously stated was 15 February 1899. I hope this helps to explain!
      Best,
      Jennie

      Reply

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