The Fragment Society Turns 200

The Fragment Society, Nantucket, a painting by Janet L. Munro, who was inspired to paint this image of charitable women by her own family's history in Massachusetts. The original painting hangs in her gallery in Osterville, on Cape CodThe Fragment Society, Nantucket, a painting by Janet L. Munro, who was inspired to paint this image of charitable women by her own family's history in Massachusetts. The original painting hangs in her gallery in Osterville, on Cape Cod
By Anne Engelhart, Head, Collection Services

The Schlesinger Library salutes the Fragment Society of Boston, which celebrated its 200th anniversary this fall. Since 1981 the library has been honored to house the society’s records, which are open for research. Founded on October 19, 1812, the society took its name from the New Testament story of the loaves and the fishes, in which Jesus, after feeding 5,000 people, enjoined his disciples “to gather up the fragments that remained, that nothing be lost.” The original purpose of the society was “to assist in clothing the destitute, more especially destitute children.”

The society was one among numerous women’s charitable societies begun in the early decades of the 19th century in growing cities, where disparities between rich and poor became obvious, and prosperous women felt an obligation to reach out to women who were suffering. These charitable efforts were directed toward women without male supporters, who found it almost impossible to earn a decent wage themselves if they had children. The Boston Female Asylum, for example, was founded in 1800 for the “relief” of poor women and children. Joining a wave of similar efforts, the Fragment Society quickly gathered adherents—growing from its 14 founders to 584 members within one year.

This was an era of home knitting and sewing of garments. The records of the society’s first year show not only the group’s intention to help clothe “worthy destitute people” but also its members’ astonishing output. In that one year, 506 families were assisted with a total of 3,706 articles, including blankets, sheets, pillowcases, gowns, petticoats, skirts, shifts, coats, trousers, waistcoats, shirts, stockings, socks, and bonnets for children and adults, and also shirts, caps, petticoats, gowns, and diapers for infants.

Like other women’s associations of the period, the Fragment Society was incorporated (in 1816) to allow it to hold and dispose of property, and its treasurer was to be “a single woman of twenty-one years, or upward.” The “business of benevolence” (as the historian Lori Ginzberg has called it) carried on by these women’s charitable groups caused them to incorporate in order to sidestep the economic constraints imposed on married women, who typically composed the majority of their leaders and members. A married woman could not act as an individual economic agent; her property belonged to her husband, and she had no right on her own to make contracts, sue, collect debts, or appear in court. But a corporation formed of women could do all these things.

The Fragment Society mixed elite women with those of the “middling” classes. The first board included Mary Francis, wife of a printer; Phebe Hurd, wife of a bookbinder; and Mary Bowers, wife of a shopkeeper. The names of prominent Boston families were also always sprinkled through the list of members. Susan Bulfinch, daughter of the Boston State House architect Charles Bulfinch, was one; Ruth Gibbs Channing, wife of the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing and one of the wealthiest women in the country, another. In later decades, Julia Ward Howe, a noted abolitionist who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” joined.

Members of the Fragment Society of Boston dressed in 19th-century costumes at a celebration in 1916 of the 100th anniversary of the society's incorporation. Fragment Society Records.Members of the Fragment Society of Boston dressed in 19th-century costumes at a celebration in 1916 of the 100th anniversary of the society's incorporation. Fragment Society Records.It soon became clear to the women of the Fragment Society that their needles would not be able to keep pace with the demand for aid—nor could they make everything needed by the poor. As early as 1826, they voted to purchase some “ready-made” articles; the society awarded gift slips to those they thought worthy, to be presented, for example, at the William H. Learnard Boots, Shoes, and Rubbers establishment on Marshall Street, in exchange for new shoes.

Discussion of social and economic conditions did not, as a rule, come into play during society meetings, but the annual reports for 1819 and 1838 (both years of economic depression) alluded to the fragility of prosperity. An early record voiced a sentiment that would echo for many decades in subsequent women’s efforts to address poverty: “To give education to the children, and lucrative employment to the parents, is undoubtedly the best charity. . . . So soon as those poor women whose families depend for support on their needle, shall receive a just price for their work, a large class of poor will be taken off our hands.”


The Fragment Society at Christmastime

The Fragment Society of Boston continues to thrive. A few years ago, Kathryn Allamong Jacob, the Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts at the Schlesinger Library, spoke at the society’s annual meeting shortly before Christmas. Approximately 75 women were gathered at the Chilton Club, on Dartmouth Street. One of them asked Jacob whether she would mind if they knitted while she spoke, and Jacob said she had no objection. “I spoke above the soft click-click-click of their needles,” she said later. “They had already brought their knitted pieces to be distributed to children for Christmas. It was just astonishing how much there was. A huge banquet table was piled high—and I mean high—with mittens, hats, scarves, sweaters, blankets, and booties.”

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