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The Almshouse Collection

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 or day-to-day life available for this period in Almshouse history.


In 1705 and 1706, Officers of Philadelphia’s Corporation were given the power to appoint more Overseers of the Poor who were meant to collect a tax specifically to distribute to the indigent of the city. In 1709, the “Great Frost” hit Europe. This winter caused food shortages all across the continent and paused the War of Spanish Succession. This led to many immigrants arriving in Philadelphia. Then, in 1727, Northern England and parts of Scotland suffered crop famine, sending yet another group of immigrants to America. Meanwhile, in 1730, land at 310 Cypress Street was purchased from Aldred Allen. In 1731-1732 construction and opening of Philadelphia Almshouse took place. This was the first public Almshouse in the city.

In 1749, The end of the War of Austrian Succession correlated with even more migration due to war-torn regions. In 1753-1763, the Seven Years’ War disrupted, trade, supplies, and markets while dumping boatloads of refugees and new immigrants at Philadelphia’s wharves. Poverty within the city was worse after 1762, and attitudes towards the poor and efforts for relief for the poor changed. An unusually cold winter near the end of the war caused an influx of inmates inside the Almshouse. In 1767 the first Almshouse was closed and moved to a larger space between 10th and 11th streets to accommodate the growing number of indigent.

Fast forward more than 200 years, and Ellen and David Miller began finding artifacts while renovating their basement. They brought in Dr. John Cotter of the University of Pennsylvania to excavate the Almshouse privy.

Thirty years later, Temple University was given access to conduct a second excavation of the basement Almshouse Privy. This excavation gave the Anthropology lab the Almshouse Artifacts it currently holds.

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.

Almshouse in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline

American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie in 1847. In this epic, he portrays the life of a fictional Acadian woman forced to leave by the British from her home, Nova Scotia. At the end of her journey, Longfellow lands the woman in Philadelphia during the incredible rise in poverty. She comforts the dying inmates of the Almshouse. Evangeline eventually discovers another Acadian, who turns out to be her lost love, just moments before his death.

Although Longfellow invented the characters in Evangeline and their stories, he grounded the story in the period of the Great Expulsion, beginning in 1755 when Britain forced 15,000 Acadians out of Nova Scotia. Many Acadians sought refuge in American colonies, including a small but notable population in Philadelphia. He crafted an epic that envisioned the hardships of their lives. We are doing the same with the exhibition for Cypress Street in the Anthropology museum. We have no way of knowing how many asylum seekers ended up in the Philadelphia Public Almshouse at 310 Cypress Street between 1732 and 1767, but it’s likely many inmates arrived there after expulsion from their homelands by war or famine. With these artifacts from the almshouse, we imagine the lives of asylum seekers who depended on public assistance.

Although very little is known about the Almshouse, it’s still very important that we tell the stories of those who were unnoticed in their poverty and struggle. The Almshouse is just a look into the lives of thousands of refugees who left their countries, and still do, to struggle their way to living a better life in America. When we think of the Almshouse, we shouldn’t just think of the artifacts. We should think of the people, and remember that although help was needed then, it’s still needed now. Evangeline isn’t just the story of one woman; it’s the story of thousands of people. The Almshouse isn’t just the house of the refugees in Philadelphia, but the symbol for not only what could be done, but what needs to be done. It’s the symbol of the forgotten.

Exhibition and Credit

Several students have been involved in the Cypress Street collection. Sarah Vujasin, a student at a visual anthropology course at Temple University, created a 3D model using sketchfab of one of the artifacts, visualized in a video below this post and with the link to the model in sketchfab below. The artifact is an eyewash cup, found in what is now thought to have been the privy in Almshouse. Cara Tercsac and Amy Blumberg, Practicum students at the Temple Anthropology Lab, helped to create the display and found out much of the information about the Almshouse. They also found the poem and created the immigrant narrative that follows the Almshouse site. The exhibit itself can be viewed below, and soon enough the exhibit should be added into our collections portion of the website.

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