Another connection: the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia and White-Williams Scholars

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Another connection: the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia and White-Williams Scholars

2011-07-20 10:36



The Magdalen Society of Philadelphia was founded in 1800 to help reform “fallen” women.  White-Williams Scholars is a funding organization in Philadelphia provides scholarships to select high school students in need.  What could these seeming unrelated institutions possibly have in common?  Read on to find out.


The Magdalen Society of Philadelphia was founded in 1800 as a charitable organization designed to help “unhappy females who [were] seduced from the paths of virtue and [were] desirous of returning to a life of rectitude.”  From its start, the organization has religious affiliations, since most of the male founders were with either the Episcopal or Presbyterian churches.  William White, the highest-ranking Episcopal bishop in the United States, was the first president of the Magdalen Society.  Robert Wharton, the mayor of Philadelphia, served as the first vice president.  The new asylum was incorporated in 1802 and was first located at Race and Schuylkill Second (now 21st) streets.

In its early years, the society didn't play host to many women, probably due in part to its strict rules.  Most inmates were in their late teens and twenties, and pregnant, ill, or African American women were not admitted.  The girls were not allowed to talk about their lives before entering the asylum.  They were directed to read the Scriptures, avoid profane language, and were not permitted to leave the grounds without the permission.  In 1811 a tall fence was constructed around the house to help the girls adhere to this rule.  Inmates also sewed, made yarn, and made and sold articles of clothing.

The society saw several matrons come and go over the course of its existence, but it was under the tutelage of Matron Elizabeth Freeburger, starting in 1878, that the society began to move its focus towards helping wayward and homeless girls.  Religious education still remained, but it was supplemented by vocational training and secular learning.  The society also became more aware of the need for preventative care rather than rehabilitation.

As the twentieth century rolled around, the Magdalen Society met a number of financial hurdles.  In 1914 their building was condemned by the city and they were forced to find a new home.  Under this strain and the changing tide of social values, the society sought to change its course.  In 1918, it garnered a new name and mission.  The White-Williams Foundation for Girls, named in honor of former president Bishop William White and George Williams, a Quaker philanthropist and former chairman of the Society’s Board of Managers, focused on helping girls who dropped out of school enter into the workforce.  The foundation provided career counseling, advice on choosing school versus work, and, on occasion, stipends to help the girls that chose to stay in school.  Another name change occurred in 1920 when the White-William Foundation began offering stipends to boys in school as well.

This model worked well for the next twenty years until, in 1942, the Philadelphia Board of Public Education assuming counseling duties for all students.  Any counselors that worked for White-Williams became school employees.  So the organization shifted once again, this time to focus on its scholarship program.

The next and last name change was fifty years off.  In 1994, the newly and more accurately-coined White-William Scholars continued (as it continues today) to provide scholarships to high-achieving high school students with demonstrated financial need in the Philadelphia public school system.

At HSP are records for both the Magdalen Society (#2016) and White-Williams Scholars (#3025).  Click the links to get to their respective finding aids.  Student records in White-Williams Scholars records are closed to researchers but their administrative files are open.  The Magdalen Society records are fully open for research. HSP also has many other resources on the history of local social and community service groups.


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