, Salem, MA

February 25, 2013

McAllister: The story of the Woman's Friend Society

Essex County Chronicles
Jim McAllister

---- — On Saturday, two of Salem’s oldest residential facilities for single women, the Brookhouse Home for Aged Women and the Woman’s Friend Society, are co-sponsoring “The Art of Dressing,” a cocktail soiree and fashion show, at the Nathaniel Silsbee House (Knights of Columbus).

Ironically, the Brookhouse Home for Aged Women on Derby Street was supposed to be a home for men. Its founder, Robert Brookhouse, had made his fortune in the maritime trade and had set out to create a residence for retired mariners who had fallen on hard times. That plan did not work out, however, and the beneficiaries were a handful of older, single women in need of a safe and comfortable place to live out their remaining years.

In 1860, Brookhouse, fellow merchant-philanthropist John Bertram and others formed what was originally called the Association for the Relief of Aged and Destitute Women in Salem. After politely rejecting Robert Brookhouse’s offer of homes on Sewall and Derby streets, Mary-Ellen Smiley says in her brief history of the institution, the board jumped at the chance to take over the eastern half of the former Benjamin Crowninshield mansion just west of the Custom House on Derby Street.

According to John Frayler, former historian at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Brookhouse had paid $5,000 for the property. The magnificent brick Federal home had pedigree; it had been designed by Samuel McIntire for Crowninshield, who had served as secretary of the U.S. Navy under Presidents James Madison and James Monroe. A later resident, James Miller, a former collector at the Salem Custom House, had been a hero in the War of 1812.

In its early years, the Brookhouse served 12 “inmates.” The acquisition of the western half of the house in 1877 and subsequent additions and alterations eventually tripled that number. In the early years, women paid, or had paid for them by benefactors if destitute, an entry fee of $65.

An article in the Salem Observer in 1890 described life at the Brookhouse. “This is a home, and every old lady in it is at home,” George Davenport wrote. “The daily life of the inmates of the Brookhouse Home is very nicely adapted to the habits and necessities of age.” Davenport praised the concern and attentiveness of the respectful staff; the cozy, ordered environment; and the array of activities offered the residents.

To further enhance the living experience for the residents, the organization even bought two properties across Derby Street and razed the existing buildings to provide a view of Salem Harbor.

The Brookhouse’s neighbor, the Woman’s Friend Society, while it also provides housing for single women, has its roots in a community effort to address the problem of “lawless characters” of the female persuasion who exhibited a penchant for “vulgarity and crime.” After a pair of community meetings at Old Town Hall called by activist-publisher Kate Tannatt Woods and Marshal William Hill, respectively, a Salem version of the Moral Education Association in Boston was organized in 1876.

To get young problem girls off the street, the society opened a reading room in a donated building on the corner of Essex and Daniels streets. Shortly after, an “intelligence office” was added for the purpose of finding employment for young women for whom idle time was indeed “the Devil’s workshop.” In fact, by 1879, when the organization moved into larger quarters on what is now Hawthorne Boulevard, provided conditionally by John Bertram, it was called the “Working Women’s Bureau.”

The establishment of a Needlework Committee, which provided needy women with an opportunity to earn money by sewing; a “Mission to the Sick” program; and cooking classes over the next few years helped generate financial support from the community. In 1882, the organization committed itself to providing housing for single women in need.

Happily, when the five-year probation period set by John Bertram ended, the organization was given the portion of the building it occupied by his daughter, Jennie Emmerton. It was later able to acquire the other half of the house and build an addition, and rooms were made available for single women to rent.

Other successes followed. A kindergarten class started by the organization, now known as the Woman’s Friend Society, in 1888 was so successful that the city of Salem took it over in 1894, and its sewing and cooking classes led to the establishment of the Mack Industrial School on Pickman Street in 1889. But the organization’s most lasting contribution to the community was the District Nurse Committee, which was established in 1897 and run by the Woman’s Friend Society until 1976 when, according to Woman’s Friend Society historian Dr. Gloria Bowens, it was spun off as a separate entity known as the Visiting Nurse Association of Greater Salem.

Today, the Woman’s Friend Society’s houses 19 single women in its Emmerton Hall and engages in a variety of activities to help others in need.


Salem historian Jim McAllister writes a regular column for The Salem News.