Age of Reform

Worcester played an innovative leadership role in the Age of Reform. Because of its central location in the Northeast, Worcester was a hub of numerous railroad and stage lines. This made Worcester relatively easy to get to, and its many hotels and meeting halls could accommodate large groups.

As a result, it was a routine stop on lecture circuits and hosted a steady stream of conventions. Noted abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who resided in Worcester in the 1850s, enthusiastically described Worcester as a “seething centre of all the reforms.”

The reform spirit caught a range of social, moral, intellectual, and political issues in its net. The Lyceum movement focused on intellectual stimulation and debate. Hydropathy, or water cures, drew national attention. Sylvester Graham introduced a new diet void of meat and spirits. Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross. Dorothea Lynde Dix improved treatment of the insane. Phrenology-the study of the head to determine a person’s character-gained wide popularity. Some took up the cause of dress reform for women (the fashion of tight corsets to create “wasp” waists actually broke women’s ribs. Citizen’s formed Peace Societies. Missionaries traveled far and wide to save souls in foreign lands. Bronson Alcott and others established utopian communities to escape the commercializing and industrial world around them. Horace Mann initiated major education reform. Young women for the first time gained access to higher education with the founding of Mount Holyoke College in 1837. Everywhere people were working to make a better world.

Of all the reform movements, three stand out either for their large following or for their long-term impact on American society and culture-temperance, abolition, and women’s rights.


Anti-Slavery in Worcester

Worcester’s citizens were, on the whole, vehemently against slavery. The Free Soil (anti-slavery) Party was founded here in 1848. The Butman riot in 1854 is another example of the strong sentiment of the times. Asa O. Butman was a slave hunter, paid to find fugitives in the North. Through deceit he managed to gain custody of two fugitive slaves in Boston and, despite violent mob protest, he was successful. As a participant later related: Crowds assembled from every quarter, the Court House was chained up to keep them out, the United States military guarded the prisoners, and they were sent back to slavery at an expense of about $15,000. Word got out that Butman was coming slave hunting in Worcester. The Massachusetts Spy posted notices that Butman, the kidnapper was in town and citizens formed a vigilance committee to watch the Temperance Hotel where he was staying. In fear of the mounting rage, Butman pulled a pistol out of his pocket, whereupon a warrant was issued and he had to appear in court the next day. By morning the crowd was huge and furious. Fearing for his life, Butman asked for protection. It was granted, after he promised never again to come to Worcester. As anti-slavery men escorted him out of town, he suffered punches, kicks and a lot of well-deserved verbal abuse and assault with eggs and other objects. This was the last attempt to execute the Fugitive Slave Law in Massachusetts.

Moral Reform

Social Welfare

Worcester’s population quadrupled between 1828, when the Blackstone Canal opened, and 1850, increasing from roughly 4,000 to more than 17,000. Beginning with Irish canal workers, successive waves of European immigrants, as well as swarms of young people from the countryside, came to the city in search of opportunity. In the unregulated economy of the times, families often found the line between financial well-being and dislocation thin indeed. In response to instability, insecurity, and increasing levels of poverty, local men and women from the middle and upper ranks established institutions to address social welfare issues (then known as moral reform). Mission Chapel and Worcester Children’s Friend Society were both experiments, the first spearheaded by a man, the second by a woman. Both provided assistance to the poor, but with different underlying philosophies and with dramatically differing results. Mission Chapel was established to”To give to the poor and neglected a place of worship free . . .” and to “furnish the destitute inhabitants of our own country the means of Christian instruction and moral improvement.”  The Chapel was funded and designed by Ichabod Washburn and included facilities for industrial schools. Mission Chapel stands today this day at the corner of Summer and Bridge Streets.  Worcester Children’s Friend Society was established “. . . for the purpose of providing for the support and education of indigent children . . .”  Anstis K. Miles, established the Worcester Children’s Friend Society to provide a safe home for orphaned, abandoned, and neglected children. While they appointed men to serve as advisers and provide financial backing, the Society was entirely managed by women. By virtue of their gender, women were economically, politically, and legally dependent. But together, these women exerted moral influences “bestowed” upon their gender and made a lasting difference. In 1902, its leadership discontinued the orphan’s home, instead placing children in private homes or providing counseling in a family setting. This shift, which aroused controversy at the time, enabled the Society to provide care for many more children. The agency continues to add services as need arises. As in the past, helping to keep families together motivates their work as Children’s Friend, Inc.


Women's Rights

The woman’s rights movement began at Seneca Falls in 1848. That meeting spurred interest in forming a national movement. In May of 1850, women from the Seneca Falls meeting who were attending an anti-slavery convention in Boston got together to plan a National Woman’s Rights Convention. Nine met, with seven of them chosen to do the work. They selected Worcester as the location. Paulina Wright Davis wrote the call to the convention, presided over it, created the first permanent woman’s rights organizations, and founded the first woman’s rights newspaper. The convention, held on October 23 & 24, 1850, attracted approximately 1,000 people. Of this number, 268 “declared themselves” which meant they could vote. Of that number, 84 were from Worcester. In 1851, the second National Woman’s Rights Convention was also held in Worcester. Historians believe it probably had more to do with geography than the political climate of the city. But at the same time, Worcester was, as Reverend Higginson said, a seething centre of all the reforms, a sympathetic place to hold a convention on such a radical topic as equal rights for women. To learn more about the first National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester in 1850, please visit Worcester Women’s History Project.


Temperance Reform in Worcester

In longevity and membership, the crusade against strong drink was by far the largest reform movement of the early 1800s. Calvinist clergy spearheaded the movement, but it soon attracted a diverse collection of supporters, more so than any other reform. They ranged from pious church women to militant feminists, from freethinkers to fundamentalists, from the high and mighty to the lowly and degraded. By 1834 there were roughly 5,000 state and local temperance societies. While the movements was strongest in the usual havens for reform-New England, New York and among transplanted New Englanders in the Midwest-it also made headway in the South and West. Temperance support factionalized and declined by the later 1830s. However, after the financial panic of 1837, it revived under new leadership and with a new agenda. Workingmen had come to associate inebriation with poverty. They formed Washington Temperance Societies, names after the first president of the country, and worked to convert men of their own ranks to abstinence. Temperance had a large following in Worcester, but hardly unanimous support. When industrialist and philanthropist Ichabod Washburn proposed to build a new house in 1829 without supplying the usual barrels of rum, he found it difficult to assemble a work crew. He explained in his autobiography:I went around to see if enough men could be found in the neighborhood for the raising with such fare as I would furnish, namely: lemonade, crackers and cheese, and small beer. Among my own workmen at the shop, I could find only a few willing to help. At a Town Meeting, March 23, 1835, a vote was taken on the motion: That the Town advise the Selectmen to withhold their approbation for License to sell ardent Spirits from all Retailers and Innholders, exdepting for manufacturing and medicinal purposes. It passed, but voters were nearly evenly divided, with 325 yeas and 272 nays. Local hotel proprietors protested by taking down their signs and closing for several days, to the consternation of stage travelers. The temperance issue so polarized citizens that violent public confrontations erupted between respectable gentlemen.

Timeline of Reform

Key Dates in History

1819 – First Worcester County Anti-Slavery Convention held at Court House

1830 – First Worcester County Temperance Society organized at Old South Church

1833State Lunatic Asylum opened on Summer Street, first in the nation

1837Ministers’ Convention Against Slavery held at Town Hall 

1838 – Worcester County Anti-Slavery Society formed, North & South divisions Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Convention held at Brinley Hall, first in Massachusetts

1839 – Worcester Anti-Slavery Sewing Circle formed

1839 – Whigs held first state convention at the Unitarian Church

1844Convention protesting the admission of Texas as a slave state held at Town Hall

1846 – Peace Convention held at Brinley Hall

1848 – Free Soil Party, a new national political party, organized at City Hall

1849 – Children’s Friend Society founded

1850 – First National Woman’s Rights Convention held at Brinley Hall

1851 – Second National Woman’s Rights Convention held at Brinley Hall

1854 – Mass meeting to protest passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill at City Hall 

1855 – Mission Chapel dedicated

1857 – Children’s Temperance Festival held at Mechanics Hall

Worcester in the 19th Century

Visit Us

30 Elm Street
Worcester, MA 01609
» Get Directions

Contact Us
p: (508) 753-8278

Museum Hours

Gallery Hours
Tuesday-Saturday, 10AM-4PM
Every fourth Thursday until 8:30PM

Library Hours
(By appointment only) Wednesday-Saturday

Salisbury Mansion
Thursday-Saturday, 1-4PM

Closed: New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, Patriot’s Day, Memorial Day, Juneteenth Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day


SIGN UP for the FREE WHM eNewsletter