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From Charity to Reform:

Social Work's Formative Years

by Dan Huff


This project was sponsored by the Social Welfare Archives and Boise State University. 

A CSWE Millennium project adapted from the Social Work History Station


The Beginning


   The social work profession was forged in the cauldron of change that was a hallmark of the 19th century. At the beginning of the century, Americans possessed a world view that saw God and religion as both the purpose and cause of most life events. Gradually this view changed, and by the end of the century most Americans had a more secular and humanistic view of the world. Religion was still important but the belief that society could be shaped and even improved through the new discoveries of science and technology was widely accepted. The emergence of social work is a piece of this larger story.

Missionaries & Volunteers

   At the beginning of the century "visitors" practiced a rudimentary form of social work that endeavored to lessen the burdens of the poor through direct relief and prayer. The urban missionary movement and other similar philanthropies relied heavily on the use of the visitor in their work. This early form of visiting was very sectarian, bearing more a resemblance to missionary work than social work. Conversion was a common goal and prayer a typical treatment approach.

   A more advanced form of proto-social work was practiced by volunteers working with the Sanitation Commission and the Freedman's Bureau. The Sanitation Commission was a Civil War volunteer organization that developed services associated today with Public Health and the Red Cross.

   After the war, the Freedman's Bureau worked with newly emancipated slaves. Agents of the bureau delivered a wide range of social services to ease the assimilation of newly emancipated slaves. Activities in both of these agencies were heavily laced with the evangelical missionary spirit that was such a hallmark of the period, particularly among Protestant Americans.

The State Boards

   In the 1860s a new movement appeared that we now associate more directly with the evolution of early social work. Tagged with a variety of names: State Board of Charities, Board of Public Charities, Board of Charities and Corrections; the state board movement sought to bring some order to the management of state institutions. Many states experienced an institutional building boom, in part the direct result of Dorthea Dix’s reform campaign before the Civil War.

   In the 1850s and 1860s many Eastern states joined this public construction boom. They erected reformatories, prisons, mental asylums, poor-houses and orphanages. It soon became apparent that these institutions not only did not solve the problems that created them, but presented new problems in institutional management. Beginning in Massachusetts in 1863, states began appointing boards to oversee and manage the operations of their institutional structures.

The idea quickly captured the imagination of early charity workers. In 1865, a convention to establish a national association was called. More than three hundred delegates attended.

   The leaders of the boards turned to the then popular philosophy of science to create a new type of charity management: "scientific charity". This approach melded some of the new ideas about science with the principles of efficiency, which were being so impressively applied to business activities. In the words of historian James Leiby Scientific charity was to be:

..secular, rational and empirical as opposed to sectarian, sentimental, and dogmatic.

   More interested in studying social problems and management difficulties than in developing new techniques and skills, the state board movement’s direct influence was relatively brief. It was quickly eclipsed by similar advancements among private charities. However, the pioneers in the state board movement were the first charity leaders who tried to develop a more systematic and rational approach to their work and to push it away from its traditional association with religion. The state boards took the first steps in developing charity work into a distinct activity.

PROGRESS: Trains, the telegraph, and industry

A Sanitation Commission Office somewhere behind the Union lines

Freedman's Bureau 1866

Workers relaxing in front of a Bureau School

Dorthea Dix in her Early Years

A typical asylum

Adapted from

Special thanks to the late Professor Dan Huff and Boise State University School of Social Work

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