Asylum Seekers in the Almshouse on Cypress
Immigrants and Refugees in the 1700’s
The concept of a refugee was developed by the League of Nations and the United Nations, but before this there were many who sought asylum from war and famine over the course of human history.
During the 18th century, a series of wars and famines in Europe and Nova Scotia forced people to emigrate to North America. The East Coast, mainly seaport communities, were bombarded by masses of immigrants. Between 1700 and 1760, Philadelphia’s population grew from 5,000 to 23,750, which led to incredibly high poverty levels. Many of those in poverty were these same immigrants, fleeing from crop failure, the Great Frost, the Seven Years’ War, the War of Austrian Succession, and the Great Expulsion of the Acadians.
This coarse ceramic vessel is a chamber pot; a type of bowl used as a toilet. The bowl is blackened from being overly fired, and has an X scratched into its base. Many of the ceramics in this collection have letters scratched into the bases, perhaps the initials of the owners.
First Philadelphia Public Almshouse
In 1732 the first Philadelphia Public Almshouse opened at 310 Cypress Street, commissioned by the Overseers of the Poor. This was the first iteration of the Almshouse and lasted 35 years until overcrowding forced the city to open a larger facility. There is little to no documentation of the inmates day-to-day life available for this period in Almshouse history.
While we cannot know if or how many asylum seekers ended up in the Philadelphia Public Almshouse, some inmates likely arrived there after being forced from their homelands by wars or famine. With these artifacts from the almshouse, we imagine the lives of asylum seekers who ended up depending on public assistance.
American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published Evangeline: A Tale Of Acadie in 1847. In this epic poem, he imagines the life of a fictional Acadian woman expelled by the British from her homeland in French-speaking Nova Scotia. At the end of her tale, Longfellow lands his protagonist in Philadelphia during a period of pestilence, where she comforts the sick and dying inmates of the city's almshouse. Evangeline discovers a fellow Acadian, her long lost love, in the moments before his death.
This molar, excavated from the almshouse shows evidence of decay and drilling prior to being removed or falling out; evidence of one of many health issues an inmate could have suffered from.
Its humble walls seemed to echo softly the words of the Lord:
"The poor ye always have with you"
-Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie
Then it came to pass that a pestilence fell on the city... Wealth had no power to bribe, nor beauty to charm, the oppressor, But all perished alike beneath the scourge of his anger,-Only alas! the poor, who had neither friends nor attendants, Crept away to die in the almshouse, home of the homeless.
-Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie
These scraps of fabric and thread are indicative of the production of clothes. Inmates at the almshouse were put to work producing buttons, shoes, and clothing