The Indigent Widow and Single Women's Society: Elderly Care for the Long Run — The Indigent Widows and Single Women's Society

In 1817 Mrs. Sarah Clarkson Ralston, prominent society figure and daughter of former Philadelphia Mayor Matthew Clarkson, founded an institution to care for the elderly but respectable ladies of Philadelphia. This would become the first institution dedicated to the elderly in the country. Elderly care up until that time was up to the discretion of willing family members, church organizations, and as a last resort, the almshouse for the poor. After observing one such situation in which a family-less widow of means was left to age in an almshouse amongst the poor and destitute, Mrs. Ralston was inspired to provide a better means for caring for such persons. Thus, the Indigent Widows and Single Women’s Society (IWSWS) was born, breaking ground in 1820 with a home for thirty women on Cherry Street. Growth led to a move not 50 years later into the stately manor at 3615 Chestnut Street where it stands today.

The mission of the IWSWS is the unwavering commitment to the relief of aged and indigent women by providing a decent home life for economically disadvantaged ladies of middle-upper class. Despite this undertaking to assist those in need in a comforting and familiar atmosphere, not everyone seemed worthy of their services. Throughout the following century, in order to be admitted as a resident of the prestigious IWSWS, applicants were required to be of at least sixty years of age, in good mental and physical health, pass a medical exam, provide references as to good moral character, procure an entry fee, and lastly, relinquish any and all property to the home.

Women known to drink, keep an untidy home, act immorally, or those just considered too “plain” were rejected from admission. With only a few spots available – and an ever-growing waitlist - entrance into the home was up to the strict discretion of its Board members. Other notable reasons for rejection found amongst admission records were “not very robust,” “fiery temper,” and “an ordinary woman, unsuitable in every way.” One potential resident, Mrs. Matilda Neff, showed early signs of a rebellious nature, being rebuffed with “this woman declines to abide by the rules and decided it is not best for her to enter in which decision we concur.”

The strict nature of the admissions process proved to be a necessity due to the limited space and sheer numbers of elderly women in need, especially with the Civil War increasing the population of vulnerable people. Those affiliated with a religious center were referred to their respective churches for assistance, and family members were contacted whenever possible. Throughout the 1800’s, the IWSWS expanded its numbers of residents, requiring several moves around the city, culminating in the construction of the main branch at 3615 Chestnut St in 1886.

Established during the Industrial Revolution, a period of time when production was king, the IWSWS helped to assist in reframing society’s attitude towards the elderly. In its infancy, the IWSWS had a policy of labor donation from its residents. It was thought that if the patients assisted in bringing in funds for the home through sewing and other creative initiatives, the practice might alleviate any feelings of dependence or uselessness by the ladies. However, after the 1830’s this practice declined with the realization of the physical limits of the elderly. Focus turned towards providing joy and comfort during the decline of life. The IWSWS was dedicated to being seen as a home within a home, where residents were treated as family, meals were taken as a group, and a Matron appointed to keep order and enforce the rules in a mother-hen-like way. The grounds were spacious and lush, a library was made available, and musical entertainment and religious services were provided for the enjoyment of the residents. This treatment marked a separation of the elderly population from the rest of the productive society. No longer were the inhabitants regarded as members of society who have reached their end of usefulness, but a demographic to be cared and provided for.

Every effort seemed to have been made to safeguard the stated mission of the residence. A visiting committee composed of ladies in the community acted as a liaison between the home and the board. They assessed the satisfaction and comfort of the residents as well as ensuring the house rules were being followed. Ledgers are available in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s archives detailing the weekly observances of the visiting committee regarding resident health and the ability of the appointed Matron to rule the roost in an efficient manner. By establishing a home with strict rules and governing Matrons, the IWSWS provided a way for elderly ladies to be cocooned in safety and order away from the harsh realities of the outside world.

Following a dedication to founder Sarah Clarkson Ralston in 1973, the IWSWS changed its name to Ralston House. In more recent decades, there has been a drastic shift in the operations of the home, phasing out residential care and focusing instead on grant funding and project assistance for other geriatric care programs. After merging with U Penn Institute on Aging in the 1980’s, the Ralston House became a center for geriatric medical research and studies. While the Ralston House no longer functions as an elderly home, it is still very much involved in geriatric care for the community through outreach, advocacy, and educational programs.


  • 1. “Ralston Center History, 1817 – Present.” 2006.
  • 2. Haber, Carole. “The Old Folks at Home: The Development of Institutionalized Care for the Aged in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia,”The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 101, no. 2 (Apr. 1977), p. 240.
  • 3. Majewicz, Cary.“Guide to the Indigent Widows' and Single Women's Society/Ralston House Records, 1817-1985.” (Aug. 2007)
  • 4. “Visiting Committee, 1826-1935”.Indigent Widows' and Single Women's Society/Ralston House Records. 3099. Box 26-27.
  • 5. “Applications to the Indigent Widows' and Single Women's Society, 1890s.” Indigent Widows' and Single Women's Society/Ralston House Records. 3099. Box 13. Folder 1-4.
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