Sherri Broder’s study of family life among Philadelphia’s Victorian era poor, Tramps, Unfit Mothers, and Neglected Children: Negotiating Family Life in Late Nineteenth Century Philadelphia, provides an insightful exploration into the meaning of family, the definition of family roles, and the variety of narratives used to define family life. For visitors to HSP’s Encounters digital archive, Broder’s work provides rich social context for the client records of charities created to relieve suffering among the poor while rehabilitating the sufferers.
Drawing on records of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC), Broder illuminates language that first situates a client (or family) morally, then builds a condemnatory narrative to undergird charitable intervention. Depictions of the fallen single mother, the absent father, and the working or neglected child are considered from the view points of social and religious reformers such as SPCC, labor leaders, the press, and the poor themselves. Broder asserts that whoever determines the meaning of family, and how social policy is shaped by that meaning, is as vibrant an issue today as in the Gilded Age. An example is the paradox of the working child: in one view a wretched indictment of parental neglect, while in another an heroic contributor to the economy of his or her family.
Broder’s analysis teases apart the language of case workers, clients, and influential others, including the poor themselves, used to articulate the experience of poverty. In revealing the multiple perspectives informing attitudes and actions, it suggests not that we marvel at why the poor carry their burdens, but how they manage to carry them at all. Historians, genealogists, and other users of HSP’s Encounters will find Tramps, Unfit Mothers, and Neglected Children useful in creating context: by complementing, elaborating, and explaining accounts of the characters and experiences of women, men, and children found in the records of charities created for their care.