They lived in workhouses , bare bones facilities designed to make poverty seem even less attractive. In these facilities, poor people ate thrifty, unpalatable food, slept in crowded, often unsanitary conditions, and were put to work breaking stones, crushing bones, spinning cloth or doing domestic labor, among other jobs.
In the United States, the idea emigrated along with English colonists. The vendue system allowed cities to auction off poor individuals to private bidders. The individual who bought the poor person then put them to work in exchange for reimbursement of what it cost to clothe and feed them.
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Sometimes, people had another option—asking the Overseer of the Poor, a town official, for relief. In some cases, the overseer would provide them with town-sponsored food, clothing or firewood. These facilities were designed to punish people for their poverty and, hypothetically, make being poor so horrible that people would continue to work at all costs.
Connecticut Poor Houses, Almshouses, and Town Farms
Being poor began to carry an intense social stigma, and increasingly, poorhouses were placed outside of public view. Often, conditions in poorhouses were alarming. However, life in the poorhouse was not always miserable.
- Poorhouses Were Designed to Punish People for Their Poverty.
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Historians have documented the ways poor people used workhouses and poor farms as places in which to build community during their most vulnerable moments. As historian Ruth Wallis Herndon has noted , many women returned to the Boston Almshouse again and again and maintained connections to the outside world while inside the poorhouse. A London workhouse.
California Once Tried to Ban Black People
Credit: Corbis via Getty Images. For men on the move, there were alternatives to poorhouses: the tramp house.
These tiny, temporary homes were erected for vagrants and itinerant people—often men—passing through communities. Count no man happy til the day he dies, said The Greek writer. What is it all about, this way of treating poor folks? Too many people, not enough stuff? Even we could easily be here, Be knocking at the Poor Farm door. These are not permanent conditions Inscribed in DNA at birth, au contraire They lurk in potens for us all.
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Any one of Us could crawl or could have crawled up to The hateful Poor Farm door. I never made it to the Poor Farm But I might. In the middle of the night, in the Twinkling of an eye lose my money And my reason and my friends and my position And my pride, take a ride, slip and slide Fall Like them all Who had nothing left Who were bereft. There is no God There are no angels Only judges, beasts and strangers.