Why did people end up at infirmaries? How did those that were considered “deserving poor” end up at an institution? What reasons were considered deserving of help? Previous studies of infirmaries and care for the poor explain that to get aid, the person’s cause of pauperism or of being poor had to be considered a good reason or deserving reason before they were given aid. Poverty is a social position. Within that social position is a hierarchy of various levels of deserving and undeserving poor. 16,23,24 The question being investigated here is: why did those that ended up at the infirmary in Wood County, Ohio end up there? This will allow us to better understand what the people of Wood County, Ohio thought was deserving of aid and what wasn’t.

Some have argued that the infirmary was developed as a way of dividing the poor into two categories: the worthy poor who received outdoor relief (aid given to them at their residence) and the unworthy poor who received aid but lost their freedom in the process by receiving indoor relief (those institutionalized).15

The process of relief was intended to discourage people from living off of aid. Those who were receiving aid were often considered “lesser humans” by society than those who were making it on their own. Thus, relief was to provide the ability to survive, but never to provide a life as comfortable as those not receiving help were living. 13

At other infirmaries, it was found that many of those receiving indoor relief were receiving it due to “poverty,” “sickness,” and insanity. 17,18

Below are word clouds indicating the reasons listed for institutionalization at the Wood County Infirmary. The larger the word the more often the word appeared in the literature as a reason why an individual received relief at the infirmary.

Reasons listed for institutionalization on the 1870 and 1880 Census

Reasons listed for institutionalization on applications for relief

The 1870 and 1880 federal census for the Wood County Infirmary had listed different disabilities and reasons for being in the infirmary. Additional information was available from the applications for relief. From these, it shows that those who were institutionalized in the infirmary were institutionalized for more complex reasons than poverty, sickness, and insanity. In addition to those reasons, there are also disabilities, such as being blind or deaf. Physical handicaps were also reason for institutionalization. Women, who were unwed, were also confined there while pregnant and cared for until they had their child. Reasons for being institutionalized should not be simplified to poverty and sickness. Age is often not addressed, but a common reason on the census and in the applications for relief was old age, or to quote an application, being “old and needy.” While poverty, sickness, and insanity (by historical standards) were major contributors to the infirmary population, there were other reasons as well that need to be addressed. Injury, pregnancy, children who were orphaned, old age, and many other reasons were responsible for the institutionalization of many individuals. It was not just poverty, illness, and “insanity.” 6,7,10