David Wagner, Ph. D.

    Much of my career has been spent studying the lives of poor people in America, both currently and historically. As our own lives change, so we notice more about topics which may not have been primary when we start a career, but become so. The role of poverty and downward mobility in the lives of the elderly has been one of the subjects in my work, though only recently, as I have become older have, I thought more about it. This piece presents portraits of Americans from as far back as a century and a half to a century ago, and suggests the issues of aging today are not entirely different. The first set of examples are from my book Ordinary People: In and Out of Poverty in the Gilded Age (2008, Paradigm Press) based on records of thousands of “inmates” from the State Almshouse in Tewskbury, Massachusetts outside of Lowell, Mass. A second set of cases comes from a more recent study I have done using the admissions of “inmates” to the Los Angeles (California) Poor Farm in the 1919-1923 period. I will then return to speculate how different things are today, and whether the developmental period of old age might be considered a period of downward mobility as well. In fact, while poor and almshouses are no more, metaphorically “going to the poorhouse” dominates the thoughts of most elderly people because poverty is such a common experience.

 Portraits of the Elderly in 19th Century Massachusetts:

“{He was} in (the} coal business (with the) firm of Fowler and Tapley. {He} was one of the first citizens of Lynn (Massachusetts)… “Inmate Biographies 1880 Tewksbury Mass.

   Fowler was born of an old Yankee family, and then married into the wealthy Ingalls family of North Andover, Massachusetts. He had a large amount of money in 1860. His business may have been declining, however, as in the 1870 census record, he is listed as worth $3,000 in real estate and $2,000 in personal property, down from $8,250 and $5,000, respectively, in the previous census. Fowler was 65, and the clerk opines that “he probably has wandered away from home, {he is} a little demented.” Whether this should be taken at face value is open to question, and it begs the question of why he stayed in the almshouse only one month, not years nor did he run away.   His wife Harriet had died in 1876 (at an age eleven years younger than he) and this may have a critical effect. (Wagner, 2008)

      Ruth May, also an 1880 inmate, illustrates how having money was no barrier to ending up in the poorhouse in old age. Ruth and her husband Thomas, a farmer, had property worth $10,000 in 1850 (a considerable sum), and a not insubstantial $6,000 in 1860, along with $1,200 in personal property. Thomas May died in 1863, leaving Ruth a widow. Some parts of the family did well: for example, William, their oldest son, who was a flour dealer with $11,000 in real estate and $2,000 in personal property. His mother is not to be found until 1880 when she found succor (by this time she was seventy) with her sister Joanna and brother-in-law Timothy in Northampton, Massachusetts. While they owned a farm, they had far less wealth than the son still a flour dealer in West Roxbury, Mass. Whether the family could have done any more to prevent Ruth from going to the almshouse is hard to know for sure (Wagner, 2008)

            Family estrangement was clearly at work in the case of another elderly and formerly affluent man, Charles H. Hatfield, an 1895 inmate at Tewksbury. In 1870 his property was the second highest recorded in my sample with $15,000 in real estate and $500 in personal property. Importantly, though the property was listed under his wife Anna Louisa’s name, and the almshouse biography too stressed “Anna Louise owned property in Boston and Medford; [when] she died the property went to (the) children.” Indeed, Charles’ occupation was that of a seaman, usually not a very lucrative occupation. Interestingly, though as the 68-year-old Hatfield ended up in the poorhouse (he would die there), his son Charles Edwin worked as an attorney and in 1910 became a bank president. Since wealth and poverty are distributed through families, winners and losers are clearly visible.  

                          I am not, of course, suggesting all poor people housed in the almshouse were from the middle or upper classes; as would be predicted in nineteenth century New England, the majority of inmates of working age were laborers and domestics, the lowest paid and most immigrant of all labor (Wagner, see 2008, p. 208). However, it does suggest that neither income nor savings were necessarily a great protection against the worst outcomes of aging and poverty.

                                   Moreover, downward mobility is not just a matter of income or savings, since well-being also is woven together with physical ability, health including cognitive and mental, companionship, and other forms of support. The four cases below all illustrate common problems of elderly people from Tewksbury almshouse still common today:

(1866) Fanny Austin, aged 70, was admitted to the Tewskbury almshouse. Fanny had been married to Edward Whiting in Pittsfield, Mass. for eleven years. Whiting died in 1864 in the Great Barrington {Mass} poorhouse, and this apparently led to Fanny’s admission to Tewskbury. She would remain at the almshouse until she died on August 9, 1871.  

(1870) John Gale was a 75-year-old admitted [to Tewksbury] …A landowner and carpenter from New Hampshire, he was said to be “troubled in mind since his family died…including (his) wife (who) died within a few days of his daughter.” He came in “very lousy and feeble and lame” but he was discharged.

(1875) John Lyons was a single inmate age 72 admitted in 1875 (who) appeared to have managed well throughout his life until an illness. He was a cabinet maker and a carver who had owned property in Columbus, Ohio. He had been blind for twenty-five years, but was able to support himself until eight years ago when he started being “supported by friends.”  His brother, Henry, had meanwhile recently committed suicide by taking poison. John was “now blind and infirm…and taken sick in Rutland, Vermont….” The clerks added “he is an inveterate talker, and will tell his story his own way.”

(1876) Dennis Brooks another single man “was nearer ninety than eighty.’ He was African-born, and infirm…he “had no relatives or friends in the world” and already had been an inmate for several months at Tewskbury in 1874 and at Deer Island {Boston} House of Industry for vagrancy for four months in 1872.”

     Despite the fact that almshouses are archaic, the issues that provoked tragedy and hardship as well as poverty including death of a spouse or other close family members, the worsening of a disability by illness, and the simple fact of loneliness and isolation in old age are still prevalent.

Another Half Century Later: Downward Mobility in Los Angeles

                          Almshouses or poorhouses or poor farms were very slow to die, and interestingly they became more and more places for old people. In taking a sample of 200 inmates admitted to the Los Angeles Poor Farm in the 1919-1923 period, the majority of inmates were over 60 (in part this occurred not only because of the poverty of the old, but reforms which moved children out of the almshouses, most mentally disabled to state institutions, and the mothers’ pension movement provided in some states {such as California} for a small benefit to young mothers with children to live outside of institutions).

                        There are, of course, other differences between the Tewksbury of the nineteenth century and the LA Poor Farm in the twentieth century. The Massachusetts almshouse was greatly immigrant as the almshouse was for the “unsettled poor” who were not residents of a town in Massachusetts as required by the old Poor Laws meaning only the state would receive them. In Los Angeles, the population mirrored the huge migration of people both from overseas and across the United States that had since the Gold Rush led people to California. About half were immigrants, many European particularly German, English, Irish, Italian, but also Mexican and Canadian. The other half came from all over the U.S. in particular the Midwest. Like the old poor laws in New England, those who entered the poorhouse had to take a “pauper’s oath” swearing they had no assets or income, and that should any be received, they would owe the County money for room and board and other services at the Poor Farm.

                            Unfortunately for the researcher there was no treasure trove of material from the times to provide a rich background. I had to research each name, and with the help of census data, voting registration forms, city and town directories, and birth, marriage, and death records I was able to find out some historical data about the majority of inmates. I have attached Table I below to show how of the 115-elderly people, I found 63 were downwardly mobile in terms either of their occupational status or ownership of property (or both). This is of considerable interest because again we would suspect a far larger proportion of the lowest, unskilled occupations as compared to higher skilled blue-collar trades, white collar, professional or small business owners. The vast majority of the inmates in Table I were either skilled trades (painters, carpenters, bricklayers, masons, mechanics, etc.) or former farmers who somewhere along the road to migration and old age had either sold or lost their farms. There was a smattering of more professional people (physicians, teachers) and white-collar workers (particularly salesmen, insurance agents, travel agents, even some managers).  Also, in contrast to the middle twentieth-century, few working people owned their own homes, so home ownership by at least a third of the listed inmates is notable.

  •                         TABLE I: Los Angeles Poor Farm Inmates
  •                         With prior occupations and ownership[1]
  • Harry W. Andress hotel manager, owned
  • Charles Anspach- confectioner, railroad car conductor
  • Laura Y Armstrong-husband was a farmer, owned[2]
  • Emily Bassett- farm owned
  • Salena E. Boutella- husband owned
  • James A Billings- engineer steam
  • Duncan Dentha Dallas- proprietor of a bakery owned
  • Cyrus T. Gamble- physician-owned
  • Peter A Graff-painter
  • A. J. Horn- merchant and postmaster
  • George W. Jessett- compositor
  • Horace F. June-machinist and a carpenter
  • Alfred Kelsey- life insurance and then travel agent
  • Clayton Lamb-clerk, electrician
  • Francisco Arabello-carpenter, painter
  • Joseph Arzago-printer
  • Freida Bach-husband a chemist
  • Bernard Barwich-farmer, ranchman
  • Frank C. Borum-carpenter
  • Delight Case-husband a physician-owned
  • Henry F. Clare-bookbinder, owned
  • William J Eade-carpenter
  • Levi Foust- farmer and owned
  • John H. Fricke-salesman of wholesales owned
  • John B Garassino-silver plater
  • Wilbert Gillespie-owned
  • Robert Henry Keef- horseman, owned
  • Milton Hitchcock-superintendent of vineyard, owned
  • Roderick E Landers-farmer, carpenter
  • Gilbert A Lawrence-carpenter, mechanic
  • H. Rowland Lee- botanist, landscape architect
  • Jennie Leatherman husband a glazier
  • Edward W Loomis-farmer, carpenter
  • Martha Marron-owned
  • Edward Marshland travel agent, salesman
  • Pauline Maske-husband a bricklayer
  • Hester Meldrum-married farmer
  • John R. Moody -painter, owned  
  • Edward Murrell – carpenter, cabinet maker
  • Lewis L. McKeen – superintendent of gold mines, owned
  • N.T. News – butcher
  • Charles M. Northrup- music teacher
  • Alfred F. Parshall-clerk, salesman
  •  Adolph Paul    -farmer, owned
  • Oliver B. Peabody -engraver
  • Fanny C. Penny-husband a farmer
  • James Peppel game warden, owned
  • Thomas H Persee-actor, insurance agent
  • Gus Pflume-owned
  • James Pettijohn-owned
  • Henry Poggendorf-carpenter
  • G.B. Poggi-farmer, owned
  • Henry Alfred Pratt-carpenter
  • Sarah D. Radcliffe-married bricklayer
  • Mary R. Ralphs-husband saloon keeper and farmer
  • James Sanderson-salesman of provisions, owned
  • William G. Sapper-carpenter, cabinet maker
  • Annie Shelby -married to farmer, owned
  • Benjamin Shelton-farmer, owned
  • Media Smith-married, painter
  • Issac Snedeker farmer, merchant
  • William Middleworth-farmer
  • James J. Woolsey – farmer and owned

Using U.S. census data, city and town directories, and records of births,

marriages, and deaths, we can find out more about these people, though not to the extent as with the inmates in Massachusetts. Many of the records show a parallel decline in occupation, and also death of a spouse, making the judgement of what caused the almshouse admission difficult (as well as a lack of commentary on their health). Harry W. Andress, the first person listed on Table I, was born in Ohio and married his wife Jessie in 1887. He had migrated to California by the 1890s where he is listed as a San Diego resident and a bar tender. In 1900, Harry and his wife owned a house which they shared with Jessie’s family and he was a manager of a hotel in New York City. We cannot be sure if the job was temporary or ended for other reasons, but in 1910 they were back in Los Angeles in the census with no occupation listed. Harry continued to be listed in the directory, but after 1911 when he was listed as in “real estate” he was then listed as retired (not necessarily strange for a man of sixty then). In 1916, Jessie died at the age of 52, and then several years after Harry ended up at the Poor Farm, and in 1921 died there.

            The physician admitted to the poorhouse, Cyrus T. Gamble, and the wife of a physician admitted to the institution are similarly partly puzzles.  Gamble was born in Canada in 1857 and came to the United States in 1881. His wife Eliza was born in 1862 and she moved in 1890 from Canada, the year they were married (perhaps knowing each other from back home). In 1900, Gamble was a country doctor in a small town in Wyoming and the couple had three children, Blane, Roy, and Irene and owned their home. By 1910, Gamble was a physician in Salt Lake City, Utah, Eliza was working as a milliner, and Blane was the only child living with them. Both of them disappear for a while, though Gamble was admitted to the Poor Farm at least for a while around 1920. In 1930, obviously ill, he is an inmate at the Infirmary in Spokane, Washington, and he died that year. It looks like Eliza passed away back in Ontario, Canada in the mid-1920s. It is most likely here that Cyrus Gamble had some sort of medical problem which may well have led him to the Poor Farm as well as Spokane Infirmary but we do not know for sure. Delight Case, wife of physician Leonard Case, was also admitted to the LA Poor Farm. They were also from Canada, and were found in 1885 living in South Bend, Indiana. Beginning early in the twentieth century, Dr. Case is easily found both in the Santa Monica and Los Angeles, Ca. directories as a physician. We can even find that from their 1914 voting registration, they supported the Progressive Party. What happened that led Delight to the Poor Farm, a surprising choice even in light of an illness, given the doctor’s presumed ability to get this wife into a hospital. In 1920, Dr. Case is still in the census in Los Angeles and owned his house.

                         Two other inmates who had at least brief upward mobility were Milton Wright Hitchcock who was a superintendent of a vineyard in California, and Lewis L McKeen who was a superintendent of a gold mine. Superintendents were not owners of the mines or vineyards, but were presumably the administrator’s day to day of these valuable resources. Hitchcock from New York state was a Civil War Yankee veteran who came west gradually and by 1880 lived with his wife in Reno, Nevada where the census says he was a “nersemen.” With the aid of other information including numerous entries in directories in the 1880s and 1890s, it seems to mean he was a “nursery man” indicating a skill in horticulture. In 1900, he was in Fresno, California as a superintendent where he also had an on-site servant (and no wife). After this year we have no information but his admission to the Poor Farm in 1920 and his death there in 1921. McKeen also had a missing wife; originally from New Brunswick, Canada, in 1880 he lived in northern Maine and was a farmer with a wife and a child. They would never appear again and McKeen lists himself later as single. Beverly Schwartzberg’s (2004) wonderful article about “desertion, bigamy and marital fluidity” in the nineteenth century explains how common it was for men (and sometimes women) to shed partners and marry again without being divorced. Anyway, McKeen headed west to Idaho where in 1900 he was a carpenter living with several miners nearby to his own house. In 1910 he advanced there to being Superintendent of Mines.  Like Hitchcock, he only appears again on admission to the farm at Downey, California, and he too died there in 1918.

            Although it is frustrating to not have all the details, large numbers of Poor Farm inmates came from secure situations into the poorhouse. What effect poor health and lack of supportive families combined with loss of income and jobs is not fully clear a century later.  

    Downward Mobility and Developmental Stages:                      

                     The term “downward mobility” is used by economists and other social scientists often to denote massive macro-level downturns in economic life, such as what happened to millions of people in the Great Depression or to industrial workers during the post 1970s period of “deindustrialization.” Yet upward or downward mobility occurs within the lives of individuals, and here we can look at the development cycles as key factor in how change occurs. Childhood is a period in which the individual derives his or her social class status and other public attributes from his family, and is not expected until some age of maturity (and/or sometimes departure from the nuclear family) to have a different or their own identity.

            With adulthood, we think of these stages as being one of growth, offering different careers, physical and social environments, cultures and identities to new adults. However, at a certain point of maturity, even today with a lack of mandatory retirement in most positions, people are expected to stop earning as much income or to derive as much fulfillment and identity from work. Whether framed positively (“time to enjoy life!”) or negatively (“make room for younger people”) the fact is most people do retire by 66 (by 66 69% retire and by 75 89% (Chen, 2020). As I suggest below, the lack of satisfactory pensions to cover costs for most people combined with lack of personal savings for retirement makes for a rather bleak economic future for many older people. This alone, of course, would make the elderly stage of life downwardly mobile, but even further as even school children will know the elderly years include death of family members and friends, a measure of physical decline and, for many, cognitive decline. The high cost of medicine for the average elderly person means they often bear the brunt of America’s poor health care system despite the existence of Medicare for most seniors.

                       Hence many of the losses presented in America’s past are certainly similar today. Yes, there have been social advances, notably the passage of Social Security which provided most seniors some bare income, Medicare some bare medical coverage, and the abolition of mandatory retirement and at least in theory a prohibition of age discrimination helps. Yet let’s look at a few of fairly depressing economic facts about becoming old:

  • Social Security payments as of 2019 averaged $18, 034 a year, and that is before Medicare Part B is taken out and any taxes
  • Only one in three seniors had private pension-the median $9, 827 a year
  • (pension rights center,
  • The Government Accounting Office says most people have no savings as they approach retirement. Even among the minority who have savings, the savings is less than a $100,000 which frankly can be eaten up in a long medical stay at a hospital or assisted living in very little time. (Gibson, 2019).
  • – As in the days of the poorhouse and the pauper’s oath, many millions of people each year must “spend-down” their savings to get on Medicaid, which is the only American program which covers long term care and many other medical benefits.
  • Although because of Social Security benefits fewer older people are under the official poverty line, this is greatly cosmetic as most benefits are just above the line. Further the NCOA (National Council on Aging) notes that one in three seniors are insecure financially.

As NCOA says:

Over 25 million Americans aged 60+ are economically insecure—living at or below 250% of the federal poverty level (FPL) ($29,425 per year for a single  

person). These older adults struggle with rising housing and health care bills, inadequate nutrition, lack of access to transportation, diminished savings, and job loss. For older adults who are above the poverty level, one major adverse life event can change today’s realities into tomorrow’s troubles. (NCOA, 2020).


Chen, S., Podcast: Dana Anspach- Retirement Income Planning, December 17, 2020

National Council on Aging, “Elderly Poverty Statistics – Economic Security | NCOAElderly Poverty Statistics – Economic Security | NCOA. 2020.

“Fact Sheets,” Pension Rights Center, Pension Rights Center.

“William E. Gibson, Nearly Half of Americans 55+ Have No Retirement Savings” AARP, March Mar 28, 2019.

Schwartzberg, B., “’Lots of Them Did That’ Desertion, Bigamy, and Marital Fluidity in Late-Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of Social History 2004 (4) pp. 573-600.

Wagner, D., Ordinary People: In and Out of Poverty in the Gilded Age. Boulder, Co: Paradigm Press (now Routledge) 2008.

[1]  Occupations are more than one frequently because I viewed multiple years of censuses. Where the early days were of lesser status- for example a 20-year-old on a farm, might be a farm laborer, but at 40 be a property-owning farmer- I took only the higher status. Also, ownership of home or property is available only from census forms which were often unavailable for numerous inmates, so we cannot say for sure any of the ones NOT marked as “owner” did not in fact own.

[2]  Most women did not work at this time if their husband provided a “decent” living. Hence with female inmates, I have added their husband’s employment. Ms. Bassett was somewhat an exception here as she took over her husband’s farm after his death.

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