Woman's Friend Society - Salem, Massachusetts

Images Courtesy of Salem State University Archives and Special Collections
The Woman’s Friend Society stems from a town meeting proposal made in 1875 by Kate Tannatt Woods, a Salem schoolteacher and representative of the Moral Education Society of Boston, who recognized the importance of promoting the “moral elevation of women.” Woods was backed by Salem’s Marshal, William M. Hill, who also called for a meeting at Salem’s Town Hall in order to raise money to help purify the area. Both were appalled by the lawlessness and lack of etiquette displayed by young women throughout Salem.

On March 22, 1876, the Moral Education Society of Salem was officially formed, a few months later changing its name to Woman’s Friend Society. The group was designed to combat what Woods viewed as the community’s withdrawal from Puritan values, noted by the amount of crime and vulgarity in Downtown Salem at the time. The organization created a Girls Reading Room in the Mayne’s Block building on Essex Street (Across from Derby Square). This room was used as a meeting place, where local displaced youth could learn to read and have access to wholesome books.

Looking to expand the Society’s outreach, they began searching for a home to shelter homeless women and girls. The wife of Joseph Hodges offered her property at the corner of Essex Street and Daniels Street in Salem for three months, rent free. It came to be called “The Daniels Street Home” (Present day, The Daniels House Bed and Breakfast)

In 1876, the Bureau of Employment (Later the Intelligence Office) was added to the Society’s programs. It served to connect woman with stable jobs in the area.

In 1878, outgrowing their current operations, the Society placed an appeal in the local newspaper, requesting a home for their organization that would also serve as a shelter for women. Their appeal was answered by John Bertram, who despite being on his death bed was still practicing his well-known philanthropy. He offered to them half of a house he owned located at 12 Elm Street (Hawthorne Boulevard) for a period of five years. If within those five years, the Society was able to maintain the home and continue their community efforts, the home would be gifted to them. The Society moved in on May 9, 1879 and the building was named the “Working Women’s Bureau.” The success of the Intelligence Office prompted the creation of a Committee on Registry to oversee it. That same year, Mrs. George D. Putnam, an early member and leader of the Society, was officially named President.

In 1880, the Committee on Needle-Work was created. They taught sewing lessons and handed out supplies, enabling woman to sell garments and linens out of their homes, while caring for their children. The following year, Mission to the Sick began, which brought care to those who were bound to their homes by illness. This program would later evolve into the Visiting Nurse Association of Salem.

In 1884, Jennie Bertram Emmerton, gifted the house at 12 Elm Street to the Woman’s Friend Society on behalf of her deceased father, John Bertram. The Society began raising money to purchase the other half of the house but was initially met with resistance by the owners who asked for an unattainable sum. That same year, Esther C. Mack bequeathed money to create an industrial school for woman to learn sewing and cooking skills. In 1906 the Mack Industrial School opened at 17 Pickman Street where it operated until 1920. In 1908 the school recorded having over 500 students. In 1910 these classes were opened to immigrant woman arriving in Salem.

The Woman’s Friend Society continued its community outreach into the 20th century, adding classes for expectant mothers in the 1940’s. In 1977, the Visiting Nurse Association branched off of the Society’s district nurse program but the two organizations continue to work together. In 1971, the Woman’s Friend Society offered the first Christmas in Salem house tour as a fundraiser for the VNA. This event remains an annual tradition in Salem and is now operated by Historic Salem, Inc. In 2008 the Emmerton House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

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