Charity was largely a private affair a century ago left to churches and philanthropic organizations. Large government welfare programs such as Medicaid seemed far beyond the public’s responsibility. Nevertheless there was a growing movement to systematize and professionalize the multitude of private efforts that were under way. Social work was becoming more “scientific.” The millions of immigrants sweeping into the nation quickened the pace of these efforts.
One group in the vanguard was the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (later the National Conference of Social Welfare). The Maine branch of this organization held its third annual conference in Bangor in 1909 at City Hall. The national group’s newly elected president, Jane Addams, the famous founder of Hull House in Chicago, spoke along with a number of other national and state leaders prominent in the crusade to help the poor.
The interests of the Maine Conference of Charities and Corrections were diverse. A list of its committees illustrates its varied interests. There were committees on the care of children, overseers of the poor, care of the sick, delinquents, defectives and families and homes. Playgrounds and jails, tuberculosis treatment and poor houses all fell within the group’s purview.
The convention delegates visited Bangor institutions specializing in helping the unfortunate. These included the Eastern Maine Insane Hospital, the Eastern Maine General Hospital, the Bangor Children’s Home, King’s Daughters’ Home, Good Samaritan Home, YMCA, Home for Aged Women, Penobscot County Jail and the Bangor Poor Farm.
Like most cities in the Progressive Era, Bangor was a hotbed of reform efforts. Among the recent accomplishments were the city’s first public playground, classes for immigrants and a TB clinic. Anti-liquor and -gambling reformers abounded. So did jail reformers, who had recently pressured the Penobscot County Jail into serving meals to prisoners outside their cells in a central dining area. Meanwhile, the Salvation Army was working to create a workingmen’s hotel for transients and other impoverished men.
Mayor John Woodman welcomed the delegates to the convention on Saturday evening, Oct. 16, 1909. “Bangor is a charitable city, but there seems to be a lack of system of correction,” he said as quoted in the Bangor Daily News the following Monday morning. “Committees could do much good work by looking after these corrections in a systematic manner and in co-operation with the police who are kind hearted and considerate men.” Woodman was apparently talking about the lack of coordination between law enforcement and charitable organizations seeking to help juvenile delinquents and adult criminals.
Hastings H. Hart of the Russell Sage Foundation outlined in a talk that Monday evening titled the “Child-Helping Movement” the problems he saw in Maine’s system of charities. He said he had found many effective institutions such as the Good Will Farm working on a small scale to help children in Maine, but he noted a lack of cooperation and communication among these institutions. Maine was doing very little to place children in private homes. Also lacking were institutions “for girls who are not vicious” and for crippled children.
Convention-goers also took an active interest in new laws. Warren C. Philbrook, president of the Maine Conference, outlined new developments in Maine including statutes encouraging jail reform, limiting the work hours of children under 16, and establishing the foundations for a probation system.
Addams spoke twice during the convention, on Oct. 18 and 19. She talked mainly about her work in Chicago, especially among immigrants, a subject of great interest in Maine. In 1910, the U.S. Census recorded that nearly 40 percent of Bangoreans were either immigrants or the offspring of immigrants.
Addams was a celebrity and a pioneer in the reform movement then sweeping the land. Her reputation had preceded her to Bangor. She was a symbol of the spirit of the Progressive Era. Convention-goers gave her a great ovation.
Yet despite this warm feeling toward the efforts of Addams and other social activists, some people were not enamored of the idea of a centralized charity system with state controls. The Maine conference had been trying to get the Legislature to pass a bill creating “a state board of charities and corrections.” Such action would be a mistake, argued the Bangor Daily Commercial in an editorial on Oct. 20. “Friction would be about the only harvest that could be reaped,” said the newspaper. “Bangor, and the same is true of other cities in the state, does not require the advice of residents of other sections in dealing with its organized charities.”
State interference would alienate “local interests,” the very interests, of course, that created such institutions as the Bangor Children’s Home. The result would be that “the state would be called upon more and more to finance all such institutions which would lose their local distinction when placed under the domination of a state board even if such should only be of an advisory nature.” Of course, something close to this is exactly what happened over the course of the century as charity gradually became a public, tax-supported function, rather than the private interest of a few local, rich people.
An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column may be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.