Yesterday on the Folk Art at Cooperstown site, Paul D’Ambrosio wrote about this painting that is in their collection. It is by a late 19th century painter by the name of John Rasmussen and is of the Almshouse inBerks County, Pennsylvania.
This piece has really stuck with me since I saw it, not only because it is such a beautiful piece of work with wonderful color and composition. It’s more because of how it almost lovingly portrays an aspect of society at that time that is largely overlooked– the poorhouse.
The poorhouses of that time were a depository for what was then considered the refuse of society– the mentally ill, the homeless, the disabled, just released prisoners and abandoned children. In fact, the artist of this painting, John Rasmussen, was a resident at this particular poorhouse, having had severe problems with excessive drinking throughout his life.
You can imagine how terrible the conditions might have been at many of these facilities. But many, like this Berks County Almshouse had a mission of self-sufficiency and rehabilitation. It required all physically able residents to work on the farm which supplied all of the food for the resident population. They believed that the ills of many of these people were the result of not understanding the value of hard work.
It actually was a fairly successful system at the time until the demands of a growing general population overwhelmed its capabilities. There came a point where it was no longer economically possible to have this type of institution in very county or town and the poorhouses faded from sight and have remained there, even in our memories of the past. I can’t say whether the system was better or worse than anything we have today or whether the residents of places such as this Almshouse would remember it fondly or with horror. But the loving way this painting is presented doesn’t give one the sense of a dark place but rather a place filled with renewed life. And I think for some, like John Rasmussen, it did represent a refuge and a palce of restoration when he periodically reached his bottom.
The Berks County Almshouse is now completely gone save for a small stone wall. But it is preserved in the paintings of Rasmussen and others, such as this earlier painting of it by painter Charles Hoffman, also a resident at the Almshouse. And writer John Updike fashioned the subject of his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, after this very place.
I’m sure most were not like this beautiful scene but they remain part of our past and deserve to be remembered. There is another site, The Poorhouse Story, that documents the history of American poorhouses. It has a state list with pages devoted to the poorhouses of most counties. It’s an interesting glimpse into a shaded part of our past.