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Feb 27

Christmas Dinner at the Chester County Poorhouse

Posted on February 27, 2019 at 1:42 PM by Chester County Archives

PH37 Album 2 -289
Photograph of the Chester County Poorhouse by Max J. Mueller, 1889. Courtesy of the Chester County Historical Society 

The Chester County Home, or poorhouse, was located in West Bradford. It took in its first residents in 1800; before that the care of poor and infirm Chester Countians was the responsibility of individual townships and boroughs. In 1900 an insane asylum was opened within the Home’s complex of buildings. Residents of the poorhouse and asylum, if physically able, worked on the Home’s farm or in other aspects of the institution’s operations. (1)

Surviving records at the Chester County Archives provide general information on what the residents ate. Even more revealing is a detailed menu book for 1924-1926 recorded by the Directors of the Poor. Residents received three meals daily, with the mid-day dinner the largest. (2) However, not everyone at the Home or Insane Asylum was given the same food. The book lists separate menus for three categories of residents: indigent/non-working, working, and private patients (residents who were charged room and board). According to an April 24, 1924 Daily Local News article, the different menus were designed to provide more calories to working and private patients, who were described as “more active than the other patients.” (3) The article listed the carbohydrate, protein, and fat amounts in a week’s meals. Indigent residents who could not work were fed less and received a greater percentage of their calories from carbohydrates.

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Image of the Chester County Home menu book (1924-1926) accompanied with a 1924 Daily Local News article

For example, here is the menu for December 29, 1925. Notice the omission of scrapple from the indigent non-workers’ breakfast. The private patients received butter for their bread at all three meals, working residents had butter at one meal, and indigent non-workers did not get butter at all that day.


Private Patients
Working Class
Indigent
 Breakfast  Breakfast  Breakfast
  • Oatmeal or [C]orn Flakes
  • Scrapple
  • Bread or Toast, Butter
  • Milk or Coffee
  • Oatmeal or [C]orn Flakes
  • Scrapple
  • Bread
  • Milk or Coffee
  • Oatmeal
  • Bread or Toast
  • Milk or Coffee
 Dinner  Dinner  Dinner
  • Beef
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Bread and Butter
  • Milk or Tea
  • Beef
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Bread
  • Milk or Tea
  • Bread
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Bread
  • Milk or Tea
 Supper  Supper  Supper
  • Cold Meat
  • Fried Potatoes
  • Bread or Toast, Butter
  • Bread Pudding
  • Milk or Cocoa
  • Cold Meat
  • Fried Potatoes
  • Bread and Butter
  • Milk or Cocoa
  • Bread or Toast
  • Bread Pudding
  • Leftovers
  • Milk or Cocoa

But perhaps there’s a more obvious explanation as to why the private patients generally received more food other than their level of activity—they were literally paying to be there and providing necessary funds to the Home. As it is likely that some private patients were unable to work, their additional food, such as more butter, may have been provided simply because they or their families were paying for it.  

Although most days there were notable differences between the meals the different “classes” of residents received, this was not true for Christmas dinner. While the breakfasts were markedly different, dinner was exactly the same. Christmas supper for everyone consisted of many more sweets than usual. 

Private Patients
Working Class
Indigent
 Breakfast  Breakfast Breakfast
  • Oatmeal or [C]orn Flakes
  • Fried Bacon
  • Fried Potatoes
  • Bread or Toast, Butter
  • Milk or Coffee
  • Oatmeal or [C]orn Flakes
  • Fried Bacon
  • Fried Potatoes
  • Bread
  • Milk or Coffee
  • Oatmeal or [C]orn Flakes
  • Bread or Toast
  • Milk or Coffee
 Dinner  Dinner Dinner 
  • Roast Chicken
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • String Beans
  • Celery
  • Cold Slaw
  • Bread and Butter
  • Milk or Tea
  • Roast Chicken
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • String Beans
  • Celery
  • Cold Slaw
  • Bread and Butter
  • Milk or Tea
  • Roast Chicken
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • String Beans
  • Celery
  • Cold Slaw
  • Bread and Butter
  • Milk or Tea
 Supper  Supper Supper 
  • Stewed Prunes
  • Fruit Cake
  • Ice Cream
  • Oranges, Candy
  • Bread or Toast, Butter
  • Milk or Cocoa
  • Stewed Prunes
  • Fruit Cake
  • Ice Cream
  • Oranges, Candy
  • Bread and Butter
  • Milk or Cocoa
  • Stewed Prunes
  • Fruit Cake
  • Ice Cream
  • Oranges, Candy
  • Bread or Toast
  • Milk or Cocoa

Today Americans tend to associate certain foods with certain holidays, but what we view as traditional dishes were not necessarily on the table at the County Home. All three Christmas dinners documented in the menu book (1924-1926) featured roast chicken and mashed potatoes – not turkey, goose, or ham. And while Thanksgiving dinner at the poorhouse was more elaborate than other days, the main dish all three years was roast pork. The 4th of July, now known for picnics, was no different than other days. If you had been there in 1925, your Independence Day dinner would have been beef stew.

While early 20th-century holiday food traditions of more affluent families are well-documented in magazines and cookbooks, the Chester County Home menu book offers a rare glimpse into the meals of those who, whether due to poverty, illness, or disability, could not care or provide for themselves.

Sources:


1) Click here for an overview of the Chester County Home.

2) Menu Book 1924-1926, Chester County Directors of the Poor, Chester County Archives and Records Services, West Chester, PA.

3) "Food of a Week at County Home." (West Chester, PA) Daily Local News, April 24, 1924. Clipping found in Menu Book 1924-1926.

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