Boston Aid Societies Collection

From left to right, “The Boston Floating Hospital, 1905", "“The open air ward", and "How to sterilize, demonstration to the mothers" from <a href=";vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21440182180001021"><i>The Boston Floating Hospital: Organized July 1, 1894</i></a> and <a href=";vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21440155250001021"><i>Twelfth Annual Report of the Boston Floating Hospital</i></a>, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

From left to right, “The Boston Floating Hospital, 1905″, ““The open air ward”, and “How to sterilize, demonstration to the mothers” from The Boston Floating Hospital: Organized July 1, 1894 and Twelfth Annual Report of the Boston Floating Hospital, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In August 2014, the Burns Library  purchased a large collection of almost one hundred pamphlets, flyers and annual reports from many charitable organizations which served the Boston area in the 1800s and early 1900s. This extensive collection provides a window into Boston life and society one hundred years ago. From these reports and pamphlets, we learn about the large variety of organizations serving the Boston area, the men and women who founded these charities and the people they sought to serve. This collection is a wonderful resource for people seeking to learn more about 19th century Boston society.  Did you know that Boston has a floating hospital? Currently the hospital rests on solid ground, but in the 1800s it really did float. In 1894, a ship was requisitioned to become the Boston Floating Hospital, serving the poor children in Boston. In the hot summer months, this ship would cruise Boston Harbor, and instead of being cooped up in the city, the children could enjoy refreshing sea breezes while receiving quality medical care. Mothers could also attend medical classes. This floating hospital was so successful that in 1905 a larger 170-foot ship was purchased. The Boston Floating Hospital continued to grace our portion of the ocean until 1927 when a fire destroyed the ship. But by then Tufts Medical Center had acquired this floating hospital, and after the fire, they rebuilt the organization on solid ground. Today the Boston Floating Hospital still serves the children of Boston with top pediatric care.

Many other charities, still in operation today, began in the 1800s. Today the City Mission Society of Boston seeks to prevent homelessness, support community and fight for social justice. This wonderful organization has its roots in the Society for the Moral and Religious Instruction of the Poor which was founded in 1816. The society sought to provide educational opportunities to underprivileged children. According to the Third Annual Report , “a great proportion [of children], when first introduced to our Schools, were almost as ignorant, as they were born, of every thing necessary or desirable to be known. Not a few were unable to read – some of whom, but for the organization of this Society, would probably have remained to the present time, and perhaps though life, in this deplorable state.” To ameliorate this problem, the society established many “Sabbath Schools” which educated children in the Christian faith and in basic reading, writing and math.

There are also annual reports from more traditional charities such as hospitals. In 1893 Andrew Carney donated $75,000 to establish Carney Hospital in Dorchester. The hospital doctors performed the first abdominal surgery in the USA. And in the hospital’s annual reports, the student of medical history can find many interesting statistics about the hospital patients and the prevalent diseases of that time. Carney Hospital still exists to this day.

But not all of these charities were started by the wealthy patrons of Boston society. The Children’s Mission to the Children of the Destitute was founded by a child. Fannie Merrill, the daughter of a Unitarian Minister, pitied the poor children around her and gathered pennies from her friends to give to less fortunate children. This kind action grew into the Children’s Mission to the Children of the Destitute. And now over a hundred years after Fannie’s charitable act, the Children’s Mission to the Children of the Destitute still exists today as part of the Home for Little Wanderers.

All of these charities needed money to operate, so fundraising was important. New England Deaconess Hospital, which would later merge with Beth Israel Hospital to form Beth Israel Deaconess, was founded in 1896 and cared for many Boston residents. Twenty-five years after its founding, New England Deaconess sent out a pamphlet calling on the citizens of Boston to support the hospital. Although founded by Methodist deaconesses, New England Deaconess did not turn away any patient of any class or religious creed, so they appealed to all the citizens of Boston, no matter religion, for support.

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Annual report of the Needlewoman’s Friend Society, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

If in 1921, the citizens of Boston had not listened to that appeal, perhaps today Boston would not be home to world-class medical centers.  Most of the societies in the Burns Boston Aid Societies Collection provided either medical, educational or monetary help. But others took a different route. The Needle Woman’s Friend Society was organized in 1847 “for the purpose of giving employment in needlework to poor women” (1st Annual Report). They wanted to provide women with employment, not just charity.  This employment helped many older women, who were unable to do more physically taxing jobs, to earn a living.

These examples are only the beginning of the Burns Library’s Boston Aid Societies Collection. This collection is a wonderful resource for the researcher wishing to learn about the history of charitable societies, the needs of Boston society in the 19th century, or the invaluable patrons of Boston who supported these charities.  In a university that encourages “Men and Women for Others”, it is wonderful to have this extensive collection about the many organizations which served the needs of Boston during the past hundred years.

If you have further questions or would like to do research in the Boston Aid Societies Collection, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or

  • Lydia Murdy, Special Collections Cataloging Assistant, Burns Library

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

Located in the original Bapst Library building on Boston College's Chestnut Hill campus, the John J. Burns Library offers students, scholars, and the general public opportunities to engage with rare books, special collections, and archives.
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