Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Massachusetts Infant Asylum

Richards, L.J. 1899 (copyright © 2000 by Cartography Associates.)
David Rumsey Collection

Note: I believe that the orange line cutting through the map from left to right is the old Roxbury/West Roxbury border.

Maps like the one shown in part above were made for the fire insurance industry. They show each building in its surroundings with great detail. Yellow building are wood, and pink are brick. The names of the property owners are listed on each property, and if you expand the picture and look closely, you'll see the address of each property written in.

My interest was drawn to this particular segment because of the presence of the Mass. Infant Asylum. It sits at the corner of Chestnut avenue and Wyman street, in what is otherwise a residential neighborhood. So what was this place, and why is it at this particular site in Jamaica Plain? Was it the original home of the institution, or did it have a history elsewhere?

A Google search came up with some hits, but most are passing mentions. Then, I found what I was looking for. On the WGBH web site, a podcast of Martha N. Gardner, professor, history, MA College of Pharmacy, speaking on Lucy Ellen Sewall and the Mass. Infant Asylum.

The following is based on Ms Gardner's lecture. The Infant Asylum had its origin in efforts of Lucy Ellen Sewell and others at
the New England Hospital for Women and Children, on Dimock street and Columbus avenue nearby, to improve the conditions of infants left, for various reasons, without a mothers' care. The typical destination for such children was the Alms House, which few survived. In the days before infant formula, a lack of wet-nursing would kill most children. Sanitary conditions and care in such institutions was very poor, and an effort was made to provide a clean, well ventilated facility with clean water and wet nurses. After several years of using houses, a building was erected on Chestnut avenue in 1876.

So there you have it. With the good work of Ms Gardner and the power of high-speed internet access, the mystery was cleared up within an hour. For more information about the New England Hospital for Women and Children, read the linked article at the Jamaica Plain Historical Society web site.

And for Mark Twain's contribution to the institution:

The New York Times, December 9, 1875


A book of autographs offered for sale at the Massachusetts Infant Asylum Fair, in Boston, contains a letter from Mark Twain, which reads:

HARTFORD, Oct. 5, 1875.

DEAR MADAM: I beg to wish the best success and a long career of usefulness to the Infant Asylum Fair. But words are empty, deeds are what show the earnest spirit. Therefore I am willing to be one of a thousand citizens who shall agree to contribute two or more of their children to this enterprise. I do not make this offer in order that I may appear gaudy or lavish in the eyes of the world, but only to help a worthy cause to the best of my ability.

Very truly yours,

SAMUEL L. CLEMENS. (Mark Twain.)

Addendum: for more about the Infant Asylum, read what I learned here.

1 comment:

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