200 years of caring for Philadelphia’s elderly

In 1817, one woman set out to solve a problem vexing Philadelphia then as now: how to compassionately care for the city’s aged population. The result, today’s Ralston Center, was the first nondenominational organization of its kind in the city.

First some background. In an era predating Medicare and other national social insurances, women facing the vagaries of old age had few places to turn. For those poor and sick, it was often the almshouse or the asylum that awaited.

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Photographic copy of a painting of Sarah Clarkson Ralston. From the Leach Philadelphia Portrait Collection [V77]

Sarah Clarkson Ralston – daughter of Matthew Clarkson, a supporter of the Revolution and early Philadelphia mayor – dedicated her life to remedying this. Beginning in 1817 from small quarters on Market Street, the then-Indigent Widows and Single Women’s Society pledged to secure “the relief of aged and indigent women.”

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Constitution of the Indigent Widows’ and Single Women’s Society of Philadelphia ca. 1828. From the Indigent Widows’ and Single Women’s Society records [1400]

Like the majority of nonprofits today, Ralston relied upon the generosity of private individuals. Leveraging connections afforded by her privileged pedigree, she raised $10,000 – more than $150,000 in today’s money – to launch her initiative.

But the support of everyday citizens is also reflected in Ralston’s records, as the organization subsisted on donations for even basic supplies. Meeting minutes document gifts ranging from a “keg of herring, a pound and a half of thread,” to “two ounces laudanum” and “six chairs and a tea table.”
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Compilation of admission certificates of the Indigent Widows’ and Single Women’s Society ca. 1889-1893. From the Indigent Widows’ and Single Women’s Society records [1400]

The organization grew from 30 tenants in 1817 to more than 100 upon the completion of its Wilson Brothers-designed building on Chestnut Street between 36th and 37th.

With an emphasis on quality-of-life care, however, Ralston struggled to meet the city’s needs as the sole provider of elderly support. Unable to treat those with dementia and Alzheimer’s, or those requiring daily medical care, she refused many of the city’s aged women as tenants.

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A cake celebrating Ralston’s sesquicentennial in 1967. From the Indigent Widows’ and Single Women’s Society records [1400]

Fortunately for those suffering from such afflictions, Ralston’s success led to the creation of more than 60 care homes in the city by the turn of the 20th century.

Following its merger with the Tilden Home for Aged Couples, Ralston began addressing the needs of both men and women, and shifted from a residential care facility to a community health center. On the eve of its bicentennial, however, addressing the vital needs of Philadelphia’s elderly citizens remains as fundamental to Ralston’s mission as it did two centuries ago.

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View of the Ralston Center from across Chestnut Street ca. 1958. From the  Indigent Widows’ and Single Women’s Society records [1400]

The 63 boxes of Ralston’s archival materials represent perhaps the most comprehensive record of a benevolent institution founded in the United States’ early years, and is available for research at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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A filled dining hall ca. 1958. From the  Indigent Widows’ and Single Women’s Society records [1400]


During this year’s Women’s History Month, celebrate the Ralston Center’s 200th anniversary with a free lecture on Tuesday, March 28 at 6:00 p.m.

Terry Snyder (Librarian of the College and Visiting Associate Professor of History at Haverford College)  and Neville Strumpf (President of the Ralston Center Board of Managers and Emeritus Professor of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania) will offer an historical overview of care for older persons in Philadelphia, using the history of the Ralston Center as a prism of such efforts in the city and the nation.

Sarah Weatherwax (The Library Company of Philadelphia’s Curator of Prints and Photographs) will also present an illustrated overview of the portrayal of elderly women throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries based on the Library Comapny’s graphics collections. From trade cards to comic valentines to family photographs, Ms. Weatherwax will explore how the graphic depiction of older women reflects the public’s view of their place in society.

Act 48/CEU credit is available for educators.

To learn more about Ralston’s 200th anniversary, visit ralstoncenter.org.

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