Department of Public Welfare of the City of New York

The vertical files in the Municipal Library contain a treasure trove of newspaper clippings, media releases and documents from City agencies. There also are original analyses written by the legendary Rebecca Rankin, the long-time Municipal Librarian and her staff. Written on onion-skin paper, the articles are distinctive and elicit a jolt of anticipation when located. This week’s blog is a history of public welfare in the City, circa 1922 as written by Ms. Rankin and staff. 

The original records of these welfare institutions, the Almshouse Ledger Collection, were processed by the Municipal Archives in 2016 under a grant funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and a digitized selection of ledgers are now online.


Department of Public Welfare of the City of New York

The first Bellevue, a 6-bed infirmary on the present site of City Hall. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The responsibility for the care and treatment of the dependents in the City of New York rests upon the Department of Public Welfare. The history of the Department really begins in 1734 when it became apparent to the Common Council that some means for caring for the poor, the beggars and the dependent sick must be provided; at this time the population of the City was 8,000 and contained 1,400 houses. It was decided to erect a workhouse on the unimproved lands known as the “Vineyard”; this site was the ground on which the City Hall now stands. This “Publick Workhouse and House of Correction” was finished in 1736; by 1746 it was outgrown and required additions.

 Page from Admissions, Discharges and Death Ledger, Almshouse of the City of New York, 1758-1809. Ledger columns include: date admitted, name, age, occupation, where from or born, complaints, by whom sent/by whose order, location/ward no., date of discharge, date of death, remarks. This collection was processed by the Municipal Archives in 2016 under a grant funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and a digitized selection of ledgers are now online.  Almshouse Ledger Collection , NYC Municipal Archives.

Page from Admissions, Discharges and Death Ledger, Almshouse of the City of New York, 1758-1809. Ledger columns include: date admitted, name, age, occupation, where from or born, complaints, by whom sent/by whose order, location/ward no., date of discharge, date of death, remarks. This collection was processed by the Municipal Archives in 2016 under a grant funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and a digitized selection of ledgers are now online. Almshouse Ledger Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Prior to this date, in the early years of the City, the poor had been maintained by the Church. From 1695 on the City appropriated yearly a sum of one hundred pounds or more for the support of the poor, and it appointed Overseers of the Poor who were responsible for policies of management and a Keeper was in charge. But not till 1736 could it be considered as an official part of the city’s activities. The Workhouse was supported by a tax upon the inhabitants. By 1775 this tax amounted to 4,233 pounds or about 95 cents per capita.

View of the "Old Bellevue Establishment" from the East River. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In May 1796 a new Almshouse was finished and used till 1816; this occupied the site where the Courthouse now stands on Chambers Street. About this time the City purchased old Kip’s Bay Farm on the East River at the foot of 26th Street which later became known as Bellevue Hospital. This group comprised two hospitals, an almshouse, a workshop and a school. In 1819 an epidemic of yellow fever forced the addition of a hospital for contagious diseases. In 1828 Blackwell’s Island was bought and a penitentiary built and by 1839 a lunatic asylum added. In 1850 it became apparent that a poor farm was necessary and consequently Ward’s Island was purchased for that purpose. By 1843 a re-organization was demanded and a special committee investigated and a resolution was passed which provided for an almshouse on Blackwell’s Island, a children’s and an adult hospital, the lunatic asylum extended, a workhouse, and nurseries and infants hospital on Randall’s Island.

Blackwell’s Island looking southeast: Penitentiary, Charity Hospital with Superintendent's cottage, Smallpox Hospital, Reception Pavilion, ca. 1900. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In 1846-1849 there was an Almshouse Department with a Commissioner at its head. But in 1849 a new state law put the Almshouse Department under a Board of Governors, ten in number which continued its responsibility until 1860 when the Department of Public Charities and Correction was created. It was in 1850 that the City began the practice of subsidizing private institutions for the care of dependents; in that first year a sum of $9,865 was expended. This policy is still continued successfully; in 1920 there were 196 private charitable institutions which accepted public charges for the City.

Horse-and-buggy ambulance in front of (Old) Coney Island Hospital, ca. 1900. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Sea View Hospital, West New Brighton, Staten Island, 1920. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

About 1883 a feeling became general that the existing system under which the paupers, criminals, lunatics and the sick poor were cared for by one department, (Department of Public Charities and Corrections which was established in 1860) was objectionable so that in 1895 a law providing for the division of the department into two distinct bodies, namely, the Department of Public Charities and the Department of Correction was passed. The hospitals, almshouse, lunatic asylum and all institutions on Blackwell’s Island were placed under the Department of Public Charities, and the Department of Correction managed the penal and reformatory institutions. In 1902 further revision resulted in Bellevue and Allied Hospital having a separate organization. In 1920 the name of the Department was changed to the Department of Public Welfare [in 1938 it was further simplified to Department of Welfare].

City Home for the Aged, Blackwell's Island, ca. 1900. Frederick A. Walter, Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

No allusion has been made to much legislation affecting the administration of this department. There were many and constant changes in the form of administration; sometimes three, sometimes five, sometimes one commissioner of almshouse, or even a Board of Governors. The Department at present administered is under one commissioner appointed by the Mayor.

City Home for the Aged, Blackwell's Island, ca. 1900. Frederick A. Walter, Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

To carry on its diverse activities, the Department in 1920 maintained and operated two reception hospitals, six general hospitals, three special hospitals, two homes for the aged and infirm, cottages for aged couples and women, a preventorium, a convalescent home for women and children, a municipal lodging house, a mortuary, a social service department in connection with the hospitals, four schools of nursing and four training schools for attendants. The combined capacity of the eleven hospitals was 8,796 beds; the daily average of all patients cared for was approximately 5,847. The Department had a staff of 4,200 employees to carry on its work and the appropriation in the 1922 budget for the Department was $7,370,550.

Nurses lined up in front of Cumberland Street Hospital, 1920. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Commissioner Bird S. Coler has set forth in his 1919 Annual Report of the Department a descriptive outline of the Department for the information of the public.

Activities of the Department, Annual Report of the Department of Public Charities of the City of New York for Year 1919. NYC Municipal Library.