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The Magdalen Society of Philadelphia was a private charitable organization founded in 1800 to redeem prostitutes and other "fallen" women. This was the first association in the United Statesmarker that sought to rescue and reform wayward women. A number of local clergymen and citizens affiliated with Quaker, Episcopal and Presbyterian denominations met to form the Society. Bishop William White, the nation's highest-ranking Episcopal bishop, was the first president of the Society, which officially incorporated in 1802. The organization was based on Magdalen hospitals in England and Ireland, which were named for Mary Magdalene. Similarly-designated groups were soon started in other American cities in the early 19th century.


The stated purpose of Philadelphiamarker's Magdalen Society was "restoring to the paths of virtue those unhappy females who in unguarded hours have been robbed of their innocence." In other words, to save women "who have been seduced from the paths of virtue and are desirous of returning to a life of rectitude." To accomplish its mission, the Society in 1808 opened a refuge to house about a dozen prostitutes and other errant women. Operated by an all-male Board of Managers, this was the "Home for Magdalens," once located at the northeast corner of Race and 21st Streets. (The Franklin Institutemarker's Futures Center addition now stands on the site.)


The women that the asylum admitted were called magdalens and were assigned a number in the order they entered the facility. They were mostly young immigrant women between the ages of 17 and 23 who were aimless, family-less, unsupported and in need of help. They generally did not share the Magdalen Society's image of their "guilt and wretchedness," but instead simply sought a sanctuary from disease, the prison or almshouse, unhappy family situations, abusive men, and dire economic circumstances.

A much larger Magdalen Home was erected at the same locality in the 1840s. This building separated the inmates ("magdalens") from the staff, and recalcitrant inmates from new arrivals. Fences and eventually a 13-foot wall were built around the property to keep the magdalens from seeing or otherwise interacting with the encroaching city.

The Philadelphia Magdalen Society aided 2,726 women in all, attempting to change them into domestic servants, factory workers, seamstresses or laundresses—and sometimes even returning the inmates to their families, hopefully with a more "proper" mindset. Still, even the Board of Managers conceded that few magdalens were converted to lives of virtue. So the Society began to focus on preventing waywardness and providing education to unruly girls.

The Home for Magdalens moved to Montgomery County, Pennsylvaniamarker, in 1915, about the time that it was becoming clear that the refuge had outlived its usefulness. Other private organizations and state institutions had become concerned with the treatment of "delinquent" girls, and the asylum's functions had been taken over by city courts, which placed youthful offenders on probation rather than committing them to institutions.

White-Williams Foundation for Girls

The Society began to seek a new direction for its work. It wanted to find ways to prevent the delinquency it had worked to treat for over a hundred years. The Board of Managers voted to address the heart of the problem by providing direction and assistance to steer children away from trouble. Accordingly, the Magdalen Society changed its name to White-Williams Foundation for Girls in 1918. (The name honored Bishop William White and George Williams, a Quaker philanthropist and former Board chairman.) White-Williams began the service that it continues today: providing stipends to needy Philadelphia students. Now known as White-Williams Scholars, the organization currently serves both male and female pupils in Philadelphia public high schools.

See also


  • Lu Ann De Cunzo, Reform, Respite, Ritual: An Archaeology of Institutions; The Magdalen Society of Philadelphia, 1800-1850, published in Historical Archeology, volume 29, no. 3 (1995).

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