On an afternoon in 1802, Kezia Norris invited a group of friends for tea and sewing at her South Gay Street home. As they sipped and stitched, the women got to talking about those ladies less fortunate than themselves. They decided to do something for "the relief of poor widows and deserted wives."
In those Dickensian days when almshouses and debtor's prisons were realities, women who had lost or were left by husbands had few options. Some sought refuge with family members; others were forced to rely upon the generosity of friends.
The women meeting in Norris' parlor saw a need and intended to do something about it. They envisioned an association that would feed, house and provide work for women left on their own. They also wanted vouchers for the women's children to attend schools.
The organization founded in 1802 by eight women as the Impartial Female and Humane Society and Male Free School is the forbear of today's Pickersgill Retirement Community. For two centuries, benevolent care has been the driving force behind Pickersgill, which will celebrate its bicentennial Sunday with an anniversary party on Chestnut Avenue in Towson. The celebration kicks off a year-long series of events.
An early report stated that "a group of ladies formed themselves into an association for furnishing work to poor women, many of whom ... have been reduced to penury, not by crime, but by misfortune, and all of whom, it was felt, if compelled to seek work publicly, would have to submit to a renumeration wholly inadequate and perhaps be exposed to insult and temptation."
In their soon to be published history of Pickersgill, authors Pat and Ron Pilling, once Union Square residents who now live in Bishopville, wrote, "When they got down to business, the first order was to decide on a name for their group. They quickly determined `That this assembly assume the name of the Impartial Female Humane Society.' Impartial because the Society would serve people from all denominations (as long as they were Christians). Female because it would be run, on a day-to-day basis, exclusively by women. Humane because their motives were purely charitable."
At the monthly meetings, members contributed 50 cents to a fund for the relief of their charges.
The Pillings point out the fee may seem a paltry sum today, but a rowhouse in Fells Point then could be rented for $6 a month. It is "easy to see how a couple of extra pennies a month could make a difference to a single mother in Old Town," the couple notes.
The only thing the society demanded was that women who received their charity be of good morals.
"It was only too easy for a desperate woman to resort to less-than honorable means of earning a living. The ladies had seen countless such cases loitering outside the noisy taverns and sailors' flophouses up and down Broadway," write the Pillings.
In 1811, the society was incorporated as the Humane Impartial Society of the City of Baltimore, and a day's wages was paid to "needy needlewomen" who sewed suits and shirts in the Society's Depository. This avenue of employment continued until the invention of the sewing machine in the 1840s, which made mass production of clothing practicable.
As the women aged, they were given a home into which they could comfortably live out their remaining years with respectability.
Following the death of Norris in 1828, Mary Pickersgill, whose hand-sewn flag flew over Fort McHenry during the British invasion of Baltimore in 1814, became president of the society's board.
She was all-too-familiar with the difficulties a woman faced with the death or desertion of a spouse. She was 2 years old when her father died in 1778. And she was widowed at age 29, following the death of her husband John in 1805.
It was during her administration that the society built its home for aged women at the corner of Lexington and Calhoun streets in West Baltimore.
Construction began in 1849 on the three-story house, designed by noted architects Thomas and James M. Dixon. They had designed the twin buildings at the Shepard and Enoch Pratt Hospital and Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church. In 1864, a home for male residents was built nearby.
When the Gothic Tudor revival building opened in 1851, the residents were confronted with an unexpected lavishness.
"Each `inmate,' as they were called in 1851 [for the word had different connotations in the mid-19th century] had his or her own chamber on the second floor. The rooms were 9-feet-by 15-feet, each opening into a grand view of the hall. A rocking chair sat outside each door, and an early matron recalled that one of her favorite activities was gently rocking while watching the comings and goings in the vast hall below," wrote the Pillings.
"It must have been mind-boggling to those who only just saw their new home. No doubt the elderly ladies who each claimed a second floor room for her own had previously lived amidst the squalor of Fells Point, Old Town, or South Baltimore ... "