Almshouse Period

History of the Anne Arundel County Almshouse

altIn 1768, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law requiring several counties, including Anne Arundel, to establish almshouses. The purpose of the almshouse was to give shelter and work to the county’s poor. The funds to run the almshouse came from taxes that were levied on the citizens of the county. This was a common method of dealing with the poor, the mentally ill, and those people who needed to be reformed. The county almshouse was located near Annapolis (which burned in 1800) and then on Strawberry Hill (where the Naval Academy is) until 1823 when it moved the property on the South River.

James Larrimore, the owner of the William Brown House at London Town, sold the building and surrounding 10 acres to the county for $2,500 for use as an almshouse. The site of the new almshouse was perfect because it was out in the country away from the “temptations” of the city, yet it was still close enough to Annapolis to get supplies. Also, removing the almshouse to a country location separated it from the growing city of Annapolis. Out of sight, out of mind ring a bell?

The population of the Almshouse was diverse. All men, women, and children lived in the large brick structure (known as the William Brown House). Women lived on the 3rd floor, while the men inhabited the rooms in the basement. In 1830, on the suggestion of the almshouse doctor, a structure was built on the grounds to house the African Americans who lived in the almshouse. The doctor felt that conditions would be healthier if there was more room for the almshouse residents. He stated:

“[There is a] great necessity and importance for additional room. In order to remedy this inconvenience, as well as for the promotion of health, it appears necessary that a house should be erected as soon as practical for the accommodation of the Blacks—a log house with earthen floor will answer every purpose.” (Anne Arundel County Almshouse Minute Books, 10 July 1830)

The new building called the Black Dormitory was constructed of chestnut logs and measured forty by thirty feet. Very quickly, it became apparent that conditions in the Black Dormitory were not adequate. In Lunacy Commission Reports dating from 1887 through 1908, the dormitory is repeatedly called “a disgrace” and “should be condemned.” Finally, the building was torn down in 1910.

altAnother building was built circa1910 to house male residents of the almshouse, and was known as the Men’s Dormitory. It still stands today and serves as the Pavilion and offices for Historic London Town and Gardens.

To support the almshouse, the superintendent along with residents maintained gardens surrounding the building. The secretary of the Maryland State Board of Health reported, “There are 10 acres of land connected with the institution, a part of which is cultivated as a garden spot and yields a supply of vegetables for the house. The principal dietary supply, however, is the fish, oysters, and crabs taken from the South river by such of the inmates as are able to dish and dredge.”

In 1906, a law was passed that changed the name and the purpose of the almshouse. The almshouse became the County Home. This law made it illegal to keep children for more than ninety days. The county institution was no longer a place for the mentally ill and indigent, rather it became a place to house the impoverished elderly population of the county. There were fourteen elderly people still living in the Anne Arundel County Home when it closed in 1965 when Social Security Act Amendments were passed, creating Medicare and Medicaid and homeless shelters as we now know them.

Archaeological Evidence of the Almshouse Period

In 2001, the London Town Foundation and the archaeologists of the Anne Arundel County Lost Town’s Project began to investigate the almshouse. This was the first archaeological excavation conducted at London Town to learn about the almshouse and its residents, both black and white. The first objective of the excavation was to find the foundation of the Black Dormitory (circa 1830 to 1910). A second objective was to learn, through the collection of artifacts, about the residents of the Black Dormitory.

Twelve units, each measuring five feet by five feet, were dug, one layer or strata at a time. This revealed a stratigraphy or layering of deposits. The soil from each strata was screened for artifacts, allowing the archaeologists to assign a time period to each strata. The units also exposed some of the brick and stone foundation of the Black Dormitory. However, much of the foundation was destroyed when the building was torn down in 1910 and the Men’s Dormitory was built nearby. Sherds of ceramics (pearlware and whiteware), bone, and personal artifacts were found in the foundation. A great deal of coal was found as well, indicating the building was heated by coal fired stoves.

Additional artifacts, found outside the borders of the foundations of the Black Dormitory, supported the known practice that people disposed of their trash outside in the nineteenth century. Clothing, suspender pieces, buckles, shoe grommets, two blue beads, buttons, pieces of bone combs used to pull lice from someone’s hair, clay marbles, tobacco pipe fragments, a game token, and fragments of slate pencils were found.

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A large number of buttons were found, made of bone, Prosser porcelain, copper alloy, iron, shell, and glass. Archaeologists wondered why there were so many buttons. One theory was that perhaps the black residents participated in ragpicking, which involved the removal of buttons from pieces of old clothing so that the fabric could be used in paper mills. Archaeologists also wondered why some of the buttons had hand worked holes added to the existing holes; this alteration suggests that the black residents reworked the buttons for other uses. It seems possible that these things were done to earn a bit of money or earn one’s keep. This gives us an idea of how the black residents lived from day to day.

Archaeologists were able to find out what the residents of the Black Dormitory ate and drank. Based on the number of oyster shell and fish bones found, they probably ate oysters and fish from the South River. Turtle, pig, and other animal bones were found, as well. Fragments from cooking pots, eating utensils, square and round bottles, table glass, dishes, crocks, and other pottery were excavated. Vessel reconstruction showed that dishes ranged from basic to very fine porcelain, and there were no matching sets. Indicating that the vessels used by residents were castoffs from the superintendent’s personal collection, or donated to the institution.


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