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