Female Humane Society of Cambridge Records, 1814-1914

Administrative Information

Historical Sketch

Related Collections


Scope and Content Note

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Series Description and Folder Listing

1 document box
.625 cubic feet
Processor: Christopher J. Lenney
Date: July 2006

Acquisition: Acquisition records for this collection are lacking; but some items bear a C.H.S. accession stamp dated 1913, suggesting that they were donated just prior to the disbanding of the Society in 1914.

Access: There are no restrictions to items in this collection.

Permission to Publish: Requests for permission to publish from the collection should be made from the Executive Director.

Copyright: The Cambridge Historical Society does not hold copyright on the materials in the collection.


Historical Sketch:

The Female Humane Society was established in 1814 to provide relief and comfort to the female indigent sick of Cambridge, both monetarily, and by furnishing clothing and other necessities. The original impetus for the group’s formation was to complement the work of the recently founded Male Humane Society (1814-1911). Indeed, it appears that the first presidents of the two groups were husband and wife: Abiel and Sarah Holmes. (Mrs. Holmes’s role is known only from local tradition, not official record.) In later years, the women’s group on more than one occasion sustained the men’s group when it was in financial straits.

Such all-women’s charitable associations were not uncommon in the early nineteenth century. Similar female societies, variously describing themselves as “humane,” “charitable,” or “benevolent,” were being formed in nearby Massachusetts towns and elsewhere in the country at about this same time. Local examples include the Concord Female Charitable Society (1814) and the Female Charitable Society of Shrewsbury (1832). The Marblehead Female Humane Society, established in 1816, is one of a few survivals of this charitable movement and continues to provide aid to the elderly of that town (as of 2006). Such groups often had overt ties to the local Congregational or other churches. While the Cambridge group was by all evidence secular, the records indicate some meetings were held in the First Parish vestry and also give a partial list of ministers officiating at annual meetings.

Membership in the Cambridge group is said to have never exceeded two hundred, and the yearly subscription of $1.00 per member remained constant for the hundred-year life of the Society. The monies annually raised were augmented by other funds received in the form of donations and bequests. In the early years, relief in kind took many forms, carefully itemized in the records: bottles of wine, pounds of coffee, tea, honey, castor oil, arrow root, pearl barley, cascarilla bark, cream of tartar, petticoats, diapers, and flannel gowns, to name a few. The Society also maintained an inventory of furniture and other household articles, such as a bedpan and a “patent breast drawer,” to be made available as needed. The uniformly English Yankee surnames of the welfare recipients as listed in the records is striking and indicative of the demographics of Cambridge in the early period of the Society. However, the social picture was soon to change.

Between 1820 and 1860 the population of Cambridge grew almost eightfold (from 3,295 to 26,060). As the city became more stratified and ethnically diverse, the social and cultural distance between the membership and the people they served increased. In 1864, on the occasion of the Society’s fiftieth anniversary, the Secretary reflected that the nature of poverty in the city had changed slowly over the years since its founding. She also unconsciously betrayed the growing social gulf between the women and the poor they ministered to. In the early days of the Society, “Bedding, long gowns, woolen hose etc. were lent. Such a thing would be impossible now, among our Irish population. Until 1846 only one thing was known to be lost or stolen, — a cot bed and bedstead carried off by a poor Canadian woman.” A more explicit avowal of this gulf is found in the Secretary’s report of 1873: “An objection has been made from year to year by some of the Members that our Charities are mostly expended on the Irish; this is in a great measure true…. Charity knows neither race or colour.” For the membership, Old Cambridge is “our own ward,” as opposed to “distant” East Cambridge and the Lower Port. Indeed, one of the Society’s most important bequests, the Möring Fund, was earmarked for the “Protestant poor.”

The new face of poverty in immigrant Cambridge required measures that went beyond traditional out-of-door relief. In 1869 the Industrial Branch of the Society was formed, which opened industrial rooms where cloth was pre-cut by volunteers and distributed to impoverished women to sew into garments. Payment was by the piece, with a woman typically earning sixty or seventy cents a week for fashioning two articles of clothing. These articles would then either be sold by the Society to recover the cost of the materials, or else donated to a suitable charity. In 1907, 106 night-gowns and 17 bed jackets were made and donated to the Cambridge Hospital women’s ward alone. The Industrial Branch was one of the more successful and innovative projects of the Society in its latter years, and it reputedly survived the disbanding of the parent organization in 1914. The annuals reports in places articulate a need for broadened social services in the city that the Society itself was incapable of providing, such as: “a home for the aged;” “a room where children could be left during the day, whilst their parents are absent at work;” and “a diet kitchen where simple food might be obtained at a moderate price.”

The wide variety of articles given in earlier years testified to an intimate knowledge of the individual needs of the poor. However, in the later years, donations became increasingly confined to two of the most common necessities, coal and groceries. The last such aid offered by the Society, in April 1914, was made on the recommendation of the Associated Charities of Cambridge, suggesting that the special relationship which Society members once held with the poor in their community was slipping away. This connection had been one of the stated rationales for founding the Society in 1814: the conviction that it was the women of Cambridge alone who “in frequent instances [could] learn the condition and wants of the female sick.”

Perhaps symptomatic of a stagnant organization, the Society had only two presidents for its last fifty years. The Society barely survived the passing of the first of these, Mrs. Henry W. Paine, who died in 1887. (The interlocking nature of the Male and Female Humane Societies is highlighted by the fact that Mrs. Paine also controlled the charitable purse-strings for the male group from 1866 until her death.) Mrs. J. P. Cooke, who succeeded Paine in the presidency, agreed to take on the office as “a sacred legacy which must be faithfully administered.” Over the course of her tenure, Cooke submitted her resignation once (or possibly twice), but it was refused. Upon her death in 1911, membership and enthusiasm had so far declined that the acknowledged motive to continue the Society was entirely sentimental, “to round out its hundred years,” in anticipation of the centennial of its founding two years away. Less than a dozen members attended the intervening annual meetings in 1912 and 1913. The Society hung on long enough to hold its final meeting on May 14, 1914, when twenty-seven members gathered for tea at the home of Mrs. Richard Henry Dana, to wind up its affairs, to reminisce, to honor the memory of the “many good faithful women” who had given the Society their “time, money and strength,” and to disband. The mission of the Society was handed on to the Associated Charities of Cambridge (established in 1881), a social service agency which had cooperated with the Society in it last years, and whose organization better reflected the changing nature of urban social work.

Related Collections:

Female Humane Society [of Cambridge], Records, 1814-1888 (inclusive). Collection consists of constitution, minutes, financial records, and membership lists in 2 folders. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Cambridge, Mass.

[Male] Humane Society of Cambridge, Records, 1814-1911. Collection consists of minutes, correspondence, publications, and financial reports. Includes a copy of the Address of the Cambridge Humane Society to the Ladies of Cambridge (1814), which resulted in the formation of the Female Humane Society. Cambridge Historical Society, Cambridge, Mass.

Associated Charities of Cambridge (Family Welfare Society), Annual reports, 1882-1939.
Charities Collection, Simmons College Archives, Boston, Mass.

Selected collections of similar societies:

Concord Female Charitable Society. Records, 1814-1943, (2.8 linear ft.). Special Collections, Concord Free Public Library, Concord, Mass.

Marblehead Female Humane Society. Records, 1816-1987. (2.5 linear ft.). Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.

Providence Female Charitable Society. Records, 1799-1952, (1.5 linear ft.). Research Library, Rhode Island Historical Society, Providence, R.I.

Shrewsbury Female Charitable Society. Record Book, 1832-1842. Old Sturbridge Village Research Library, Sturbridge, Mass.


Dana, Richard Henry, Mrs. [Sarah Watson Dana], The Female Humane Society. Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society, 9: 62-70, 1914

Hall, Edward H., The Cambridge Humane Society. Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society, 6: 27-32, 1911

Scope and Content Note:

The Records of the Female Humane Society of Cambridge document the charitable activities of the organization from 1814 to 1914. The bulk of the records consist of three manuscript volumes, which cover all years of the Society’s existence except 1849-1863. The first volume (1814-1845) contains two separate sets of record, the first entered in the customary manner from front to back, the second made back-to-front with the volume inverted. The front of the volume is essentially a cash book, recording receipts (usually annual subscription fees) and expenditures (generally charitable outlays); so it doubles as a membership list and a terse account of the Society’s activities. The back of the volume itemizes articles donated to the Society, offers of service to the Society, and articles given away. It also includes inventories taken at irregular intervals of the furniture, nourishment, and medicines owned by the Society.

The second and third volumes (1864-1909 and 1910-1914) include membership lists, annual secretaries’ (or presidents’) reports, treasurers’ reports, minutes of quarterly committee meetings, and reports of the Industrial Branch. Occasionally printed versions of these reports were clipped from newspapers and pasted in. (These are the easiest to read). The secretaries’ and presidents’ reports, while omitting names of beneficiaries, give the most detailed look at the actual charitable works that the Society engaged in. The memorial tribute to Mrs. Henry W. Paine found in the second volume (1887) is of note.

In addition to the bound record books, several miscellaneous loose items shed light on the early and last days of the Society. The two earliest are highly fragile and have been photocopied, with the originals placed in plastic sleeves. These are a printed copy of the Society’s constitution, Rules and Regulations (n.d), and a printed leaflet entitled The Report of the Female Humane Society in Cambridge (1816). Three other loose items, dating to the years 1913-1914, were removed from the third record book and relate to the dissolution of the Society: a receipted bill from the Metropolitan Coal Company; correspondence concerning the last charitable payment made by the Society and legal advice on the disposition of the Möring Fund; and two copies of the postcard notice of the final meeting.

While extensive, the C.H.S. holdings are not now as complete as they once were. For reasons no longer clear, the Cambridge Historical Society authorized the transfer of two folders of Female Humane Society records in 1982 to Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. These folders, consisting of “constitution, minutes, financial records, and membership lists,” pertain to the years 1814-1888. This transfer may account for the notable gap (1849-1863) in the present C.H.S. holdings, despite Mrs. Richard Henry Dana’s assertion in 1914 that there had been “no break [in record-keeping] in a hundred years.” The spine of the record book for 1910-1914 bears the gilt initials H.C.S. (Harvard Cooperative Society?) and the number four. If custom-stamped, then it would suggest that records for the years 1849-1863 were kept in a missing volume number two.

Also conspicuously absent from the C.H.S. holdings (and perhaps at Schlesinger) is “the smaller book kept by the treasurer,” mentioned in the records for 1828.

Loose material from the record books was removed and placed in separate folders as indicated in the box list. An unrelated bound volume, misidentified in an earlier inventory as part of the collection, was removed. This was in fact an 1871 handwritten literary magazine called the Nunnery Gazette, written by young ladies of Cambridge and edited by Lilly Swan.


Library of Congress Subject Headings:

  • Women—Massachusetts—Societies and clubs.
  • Women—Charities.
  • Charities—Massachusetts.
  • Poor women—Services for— Massachusetts —Cambridge.
  • Massachusetts—Societies, etc.—Women.
  • Massachusetts—Societies, etc.—Charitable and social work.
  • Cambridge (Mass.)—Societies, etc. —Women.
  • Cambridge (Mass.)—Societies, etc. —Charitable and social work.
  • Cambridge (Mass.) —Social life and customs.


Female Humane Society of Cambridge
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||Series I. Records (1814-1914)

1|1|Record Book, 1814-1845

1|2|Record Book, 1864-1909

1|3|Record Book, 1910-1914

1|4|Printed Leaflets, ca. 1814-1816

1|5|Loose Material from Record Book, 1864-1909

1|6|Loose Material from Record Book, 1910-1914