Wellspring Archives: Early Case Notes from the Friendly Visitors

  • By Deborah Townsend
  • Posted 4/23/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10079
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This People's History is based on the early records of Wellspring Family Services, a private, non-profit organization helping families and children in Seattle and King County overcome life’s challenges. Founded in 1892 as the Bureau of Associated Charities, Wellspring Family Services has operated under a succession of names. This essay examines the organization during its earliest years through the case notes taken by volunteers. The organization's services have changed over the years, but have always centered on a commitment to a stronger, healthier community. These archival records offer glimpses into aspects of Seattle history not well documented elsewhere, examining societal attitudes toward poverty, need, illness, and addiction -- all of which have altered considerably since Wellspring's early days. This is one of a series entitled "Out of the Archives," and appeared in March 2011 in Wellspring's monthly internal newsletter, The Fiddlehead. It was written by Wellspring Family Services executive assistant Deborah Townsend.

Early Case Notes From the "Friendly Visitors"

In the very early days of our organization, our work focused on assessment and referral. The Bureau of Associated Charities of Seattle saw itself as a clearinghouse to arrange for appropriate aid for those who "deserved" help from community resources.

At agencies like ours in major cities around the country, most of what we would now call case work was done by volunteers, who were called "Friendly Visitors." They were typically upper-middle-class or upper-class women who had free time and a sense of civic responsibility. We can assume that they were all white. In the 1890s, married women of any social standing didn’t hold regular jobs, and frequently had cooks and other household help at home. When they had energy to spare and skills to share, they often turned to church and charity work.

The Bureau of Associated Charities of Seattle had a few male Visitors, but the large majority were women. A few were single but most seem to have been married. A core group of our earliest Visitors also served on the altar guild or one of the women’s groups at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (whose rector, David C. Garrett, was our founder). Other Visitors were the wives of Board members or major donors -- though of course we can’t tell whether the wife became a Visitor because of the husband’s interest or vice versa.

When a potential client came to the Bureau office to ask for help, a Visitor would be assigned to go to the home or lodging to interview the individual and family, if any, decide about the applicant’s "worthiness," give advice, and authorize help if it was warranted. Our 1892-93 record books show that the Visitors sometimes met with a client repeatedly over a period of several months -- organizing different types of assistance, helping to contact out-of-town or out-of-state relatives, arranging temporary employment -- before the case could be considered resolved.

The Visitors took their own culture and class with them on the visits. On almost every page we can see judgment calls based on late-Victorian morality and prejudices. Clients who met certain standards of dress, language, and behavior -- who could be described as "decent," "sober," "well-spoken," "ladylike," "of cleanly habits," and so on -- were likely to be considered the "worthy poor" and have aid approved. For example, on November 1, 1892, one Visitor described a client as:

"Stranger in the city; absolutely without the price of a meal; well dressed; exceptionally educated ... and gentlemanly appearing. Evidently suffering from the morphine habit. Wants a meal -- lodging -- empl[oyment] and yet dazed and unable to work. Sent for a few days to Prov[idence] Hosp[ital]."

"Suffering from the morphine habit" is an extraordinarily mild way of describing a drug addict, but the Visitor clearly gave this man the benefit of the doubt based on his speech and appearance. Another man, however, might be noted as having an Irish accent (sometimes the Visitors wrote out client statements phonetically) and described as "coarse" and "wild," all the more so if he appeared to be a drinker. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was a strong force among middle-class  and upper-class Seattle women, and the Bureau’s Friendly Visitors clearly reflect the WCTU assumption that a drinking habit will lead to poverty. The Visitors had no sympathy for alcoholics: we see phrases like "spends every nickel on drink," "soaked in grog," and "has been on a spree, doubtless an old story for him." One man is considered undeserving of help because he "buys his beer by the barrel" even though the neighbors say he sends his children out to beg every day. (The Visitor recorded the father’s answer to this accusation: "My wife, she may send them out. I don’t.").

The Visitors were also vigilant about marriage and sexual morality, ready to put the word husband or wife into quotation marks to show their doubt about the legality of a relationship. Young women who had been seduced and abandoned got consideration and help. Women who had been working the streets to stay alive got very little. In this close-up photo we see intake notes from August 20, 1892. The applicant’s age is given as 30, her birthplace as Italy. She is marked as “M,” including the quotation marks, in the Single or Married? column. Her address is a boardinghouse on Washington Street -- that is, in the rough part of town south of Yesler Way, down by the sawmill, the railroads, and the docks, infamous for its saloons and brothels.

"Is pregnant or badly diseased. ‘Husb[and]’ left more than [a year] ago; no home nor money. Well dressed and to Bureau seems plainly ‘a woman of the town.’ Sent with note to Mr. Gasch [chairman of the Board of County Commissioners and one of the directors of the Bureau] suggesting she be sent to County Farm."

So: the applicant claims to have been deserted and to be homeless and penniless, and she is in visibly poor health, but the Visitor thinks her clothes look too good so assumes she must be a prostitute. She can go to the County work farm -- no further aid authorized.

On the other hand, we can see these middle-class and upper-class Friendly Visitors doing their very best to understand situations which must have been staggering to them. They went into cramped, cold, and filthy shanties to assess injuries and illnesses (both physical and mental), determine who might be able to work if work could be found, give advice and encouragement, and make connections again and again to provide food, warmth, medical care, and the dignity of employment. Faced with appalling living conditions and overwhelming human need, they were energetic and creative problem-solvers. Their essential compassion comes through frequently, especially when they reported about the children they saw. One of the saddest entries in the book states, “Baby died Thursday night (this is Sat. a.m.). Too poor to bury. $6.50 short of lowest undertaker estimate. Bureau saw to burial.”

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