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Historian explains cultural shift that created Harvard’s poor house

Historian explains cultural shift that created Harvard’s poor house

HARVARD — “Shall the swine run at large?”

The results of that Town Meeting question, posed in Harvard throughout the 19th century, reveal a telling shift in the town’s history.

Before a packed house at the Harvard Historical Society, author Mary Fuhrer described how the changing results of this question reflected a shift from pluralism to individualism in early 19th-century New England.

Her lecture, “Paths to the Harvard Poor House,” described how this attitude shift throughout New England changed how towns took care of their poor.

Wiping away the notion of peace and serenity in early 19th-century New England, author Mary Fuhrer described a “wild and woolly” time when things were changing quickly.

The previous way of thinking, Fuhrer explained, closely related to Thomas Hobbes’ idea of a collective society, or a body composed of many individuals.

“They thought of themselves as belonging to families, as belonging to church, as belonging to their town,” she said.

In fact, in describing where a person was from, people would say “he belongs to Harvard.”

“Belonging implied you had certain responsibilities, certain obligations, but it would also imply that you had certain protections,” she said.

These protections included care for the destitute, a responsibility of the whole body of people.

Some look back on this time and romanticize it as a wonderful age of cooperation, Fuhrer said, but working as a group was a matter of survival, not choice.

“This was required, and there was a great deal of enforced behavioral norms and strong thoughts, and it was not a time that celebrated diversity or differences,” she said. “But it was useful, it was very useful in protecting the body of the people in a time when they were subject to all sorts of uncontrollable things.”

Towns had three ways of taking care of their poor, one of which was “outdoor relief” in which residents would bring firewood or a temporary supply of food or clothing.

“Indoor relief” looked after the “unworthy poor” — drunkards, idlers and unmarried mothers — in an almshouse, Fuhrer said. This way, it would be easier for townspeople to watch over them and make them work.

The third option was “vendue,” likened to slavery, in which the poor were auctioned off to the person who charged the town the lowest price to take care of them.

Families were sometimes torn apart, and it was common for children to become apprentices apart from their families.

“They were no longer self-mastered, they were dependent and they had to obey the master of the family in the household,” Fuhrer said of those who were sold off.

An 1816 transcription from one Harvard Town Meeting shows the amount the poor were auctioned off for — the Jonathan Reeds family at $32.27, Lucinda Patterson at $84.40, Edward Cotton at $113.59.

But the notion of working collectively, as one body taking care of itself, began to change. People started thinking of themselves not just as an organic member of a body, but as individuals pursuing their own best interest, Fuhrer said.

And here is when the pigs come in.

Fuhrer found Town Meeting records that show that from 1795 to 1803, Harvard residents voted “yes” to letting the swine run at large, allowing them to roam freely. But from 1804 to 1810, Town Meeting voted against it.

“Some of the people were saying, ‘I don’t want those pigs running at large, they’re getting in my garden and I’m working hard on improving my garden,'” Fuhrer said. Individual interests thus began to supersede the idea of the town as one body.

“I’m successful because I’ve worked at it,” Fuhrer described the new outlook beginning to take over. “If he’s not, it must be because he’s not working at it.”

People began to think that the best way to take care of the poor was to put them in an institution to watch over them and make sure they were doing what they needed to do, she said.

Thus, Harvard’s poor house — and many others statewide — came into existence.

“Most of them are established with this same idea in mind, that the poor are poor by their own fault,” Fuhrer said.

Today, the town’s municipal affordable housing trust is eyeing the area of the poor house at 166 Littleton Road as a potential affordable-housing site.

Fuhrer’s new book, “A Crisis of Community: The Trials and Transformation of a New England Town, 1815-1848,” focuses on the town of Boylston.

The whole era “was not an age of homespun,” she concluded, “but a really heady age of nation-making.”

Follow Amelia on Twitter and Tout @AmeliaPakHarvey.