RCC Honors History Project

“Relief for the Unemployed in American Cities”

Posted by nrohr on April 15, 2009

“Relief for the Unemployed in American Cities”

The Panic of 1893 was caused partly by the failure of the British bank, Baring Brothers, a major investor in the U.S. railroad industry, and partly by the Sherman Silver Purchase Act (1890), which drastically reduced the U.S. Treasury’s gold supply. Almost 50 percent of U.S. businesses failed as a result of the panic, leading to unemployment as high as 20 percent. This excerpt from “Relief for the Unemployed in American Cities,” published in the January 1888 Review of Reviews, compares relief plans instituted in three U.S. cities—Chicago, Denver, and Lynn, Massachusetts— following the panic.

“Relief for the Unemployed in American Cities” (1894)

Albert Shaw

From: Review of Reviews, IX (January 1894), 32–33.


The situation in Chicago is so exceptional, owing to the presence of some thousands of men who may be termed “stranded strangers,” that various measures otherwise objectionable may find temporary justification. The soup houses and other agencies for distribution of food to able-bodied men are simply evidences of a lack of the complete organization that ought to find some way of providing these men with means for earning food and lodging. Meanwhile, for the sake of a system and a supervision, there has been organized a great central relief and charitable clearinghouse association, with a managing committee of fifty men and women. The committee of fifty includes the mayor, several aldermen and other officials; a number of prominent citizens of the character of Mr. Lyman J. Gage and Mr. Cyrus McCormick; representatives of leading charitable organizations; leading members of labor unions, and others having special qualifications. The principles of this central organization are stated as follows:

The theory and object of this association are to bring into close contact every charitable organization in Chicago through the Central Bureau, and thus there will be gathered into one place specific information from all quarters of the city as the causes of want and the methods inaugurated for the relief of the suffering. It is not the object of this organization to dispense charity directly to individuals and families, but to inaugurate such methods as will secure a dispensation of aid to the suffering by organizations now existing the most economic and effective. If it accomplishes the objects at which it aims there will be brought to one central bureau full and complete information so that each charitable organization will know just what every other charitable organization is doing and the field covered by each. If it be discovered, as it probably will be, that the whole city is not adequately covered by existing organizations, it will be the purpose of the Central Bureau to encourage and develop such auxiliary organizations as may be needed to cover such districts as may be unprovided for. It is further proposed by the central organization to secure from the public such contributions of money, food and clothing as it may prefer to intrust to the Central Bureau rather than to other organizations of whose needs, purposes or methods the donors may be inadequately informed. It is not proposed to interfere with the private gifts of any persons to any one of these organizations should they desire to so make them instead of sending to the central organization, it being contemplated that all such organizations will report to the Central Bureau the items of their receipts and disbursements and the general wants of the association and work to which they stand related. In dispensing food and lodging through any agencies now existing or that may hereafter be created, the money furnished by the Central Bureau will not be used except under the condition that able-bodied men receiving food and lodging shall render the equivalent for it in work, and with that end in view work for those who are willing and able to perform it will be provided by the street cleaning bureaus in cleaning the streets and other agencies indicating a desire to furnish employment through this bureau.
One of the problems Chicago has had to meet is the rapid influx of tramps and incorrigible idlers attracted by the large dimensions of the free soup dispensatories and the apparent prospects of an indiscriminate support of everybody asking relief. Such people, however, will be doomed to early disappointment. The municipal authorities are using strong measures to keep out of the city all such undesirable visitors, and method is being rapidly infused into the relief work. One of the greatest needs has been the provision of decent shelter for honest and respectable but unfortunate men, and the enforcement in the clearest way of distinctions between tramps, criminals and idlers on the one hand, and honest people eager for employment on the other hand.

Out of what seemed at first a profitless clamor of voices rather than a businesslike programme in Chicago, there is at length visible a settling down to legitimate relief work along lines approved by experience, and under direction of those best fitted to cope with the problem in its local phases. On the drainage works, in the parks, on the streets and in other ways, the municipal government is doing what it can to provide work at $1 per day. The churches have awakened to a keener sense of responsibility for the masses, and have come into a new and mutually advantageous contact with the labor unions and with thousands of individual workingmen between whom and the ministrations of the church there has been estrangement.


The exceptional distress of 1893 was felt at Denver, Colorado, sooner than at any other large town in the country, owing chiefly to the panic which last summer attended the closing of a great number of silver mines. Denver was flooded with men out of work, and the situation was met temporarily by the maintenance for a few weeks in August of a so-called Labor Camp. The State supplied a quantity of tents, and men out of work to the number of perhaps 2,000 were given food and shelter, in a systematic way, under restrictions which were not especially enjoyed by the “bummers” and the unworthy. The plan answered well for a momentary emergency, but was very properly abandoned as soon as possible. The railroads assisted in helping 1,500 or 2,000 men to return to former homes in States east of Colorado; the municipal authorities were able to find employment for a large number of men, and the various relief agencies and charitable organizations rose to the emergency in their several ways. The associated charities, under the presidency of the Rev. Myron W. Reed, demonstrated the usefulness of their work; and the situation was thus brought under control.

The most striking and interesting feature of relief work in Denver has, however, been that which the Right Rev. A. C. Peck, an Episcopal clergyman, has carried on in connection with the Haymarket Mission. This institution is primarily an inter-denominational gospel mission, among the poorest of Denver’s population; but it has nobly recognized the true spirit of Christianity in giving friendly aid on the practical side of life, quite as eagerly as it gives hymns and prayers and religious admonition. The great feature of Dean Peck’s work this winter is his magnificently conducted wood yard. The institution provides three excellent meals and a comfortable night’s lodging for 25 cents. The charitable people of Denver purchase five-cent meal tickets and ten-cent lodging tickets, and give them in place of money to all applicants. The wood yard turns no man away who is willing to do the required amount of work for lodging and meals. In an average of three hours a man can earn tickets which provide him with his meals and lodging. The rest of his day is at his disposal to seek employment elsewhere. The great problem in conducting a wood yard on this plan is to find a market for the product. Dean Peck has succeeded in convincing the citizens of Denver so thoroughly as to the value of his work, that he no longer experiences any difficulty in selling at a fair price all the kindling wood, and fire wood in other sizes, that his yard is able to prepare with the labor that comes to it. Able-bodied beggars have quite disappeared from the streets of Denver as a result of this system. At the present time the number of men working in the wood yard is about 100 each day. The number of meals served in the five-cent restaurant is perhaps seven or eight hundred each day. The waiters and assistants in the restaurant receive their living and very small wages, their places being filled from the ranks of the unemployed as rapidly as they are able to find more remunerative work elsewhere.

The Tabernacle Helping Hand Institute, conducted by Mr. Thos. Uzzell, is another agency doing a great popular work. In helping the unemployed it has registered six or seven thousand persons in the past few months, and has found work for perhaps half that number. The Tabernacle also serves a useful purpose in assisting the poorest families to buy their coal at a very low price. Dean Peck informs us that with the opening of the new year there will be established under his auspices a plan by which women will be provided with an honorable chance to earn their meals and lodging. Thus the people of Denver, with the co-operation of the municipal authorities and the respectable citizens of all classes, and under the lead of such men as Dean Hart, Myron W. Reed and Thomas Uzzell, are manfully solving for their own community the problem of the unemployed.


Much attention, especially throughout New England, has been attracted to what is known as the Lynn, Mass., plan of relief. The Lynn relief system was put into operation by a citizens’ committee early in October. The following statement explains the lines upon which the work was undertaken:

The Lynn Citizens’ Labor Bureau commenced operations.… [A] meeting of citizens [was] held at the Board of Trade Rooms to consider the increased applications for work from citizens who had hitherto been self-supporting. It was resolved to deal with the situation through the existing organizations, simply adding to the Associated Charities a Department of Labor, the work to be done on the city streets and parks, and to be paid for by a citizens’ subscription. In order to avoid the well-known and serious perils of all attempts at special emergency relief,—such as calling in throngs of the workless from other cities, disturbing the regular lines of labor, encouraging imposition, and stimulating a profuse and chaotic private relief,—it was resolved to proceed under the following rules: 1. No public call for money, and no advertising of the bureau through the papers; subscriptions to be secured by personal solicitation, and the work advertised only through the churches and relief societies, and by the spectacle of the men at work. 2. No work given except to actual citizens of Lynn, in extreme need, and having no other friends, helpers, or resources;—these facts ascertained by thorough domiciliary investigation in every case. No rumors to be heeded, no guesswork to be relied upon, nothing to be done in the dark; actual knowledge to be the only basis of help. The results of investigation to be placed at the service of relief-giving societies and individuals. 3. A half-day’s work for a dollar, and work arranged so as to enable each man to earn an average of three dollars a week,—this wage supplemented in cases of extreme need.
Five or six weeks after the work had been begun the following report was made as to the success of the plan:

So far the system has prevented absolute destitution, the influx of the needy from other cities, the storming of the City Treasury, much misapplication of charity and much loss of self-respect. The thorough investigation has been of the highest value—locating the quarters where the pinch of need is greatest, forestalling the astonishing activity and impudence of the charity impostors, bringing to the notice of the benevolent some cases of pecuniary hardship which a little good management relieves, uncovering many preventable causes of distress, and enabling the relief-giving societies and individuals to intelligently and effectively succor the destitute.
It has been found possible to obtain by subscription a sufficient amount of money; and the thorough organization and sound principles adhered to have given the charitable workers of Lynn a sense of adequate mastery of the situation.


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