During the early nineteenth century, counties across the United States created poorhouses to assist financially-challenged residents. Historically, poverty-stricken people in most communities could apply for some assistance from local government officials, but this system proved very expensive. Often, officials would order destitute people from the community, if the people could not change their financial situation quickly.
To still provide but to reduce the cost of government assistance, many counties established poorhouses in the early 1800s. Poorhouses provided destitute people with shelter. They also commonly provided residents with employment opportunities. Women cared for the houses’ upkeep, while men would take classes to learn a trade or work in farm fields to provide food for the poorhouses’ residents. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, other government programs replaced the need for poorhouses. Most former poorhouses became nursing homes for poverty-stricken elderly people, rather than homes for people of all ages.
Every county in Ohio established one or more poorhouses during the nineteenth century. The Ohio General Assembly originally required a board of seven directors to oversee each poorhouse, but in 1831, the legislature reduced the number of directors to three. In 1850, the General Assembly required all county poorhouses to be renamed county infirmaries. The homes were no longer just for the poor. Physically and mentally ill people were now housed in the county infirmaries. In 1884, the Ohio legislature prohibited orphaned children from being housed in the county infirmaries unless they were separated from the adults living in the homes. Illustrating a changing and more progressive view of mental illness, beginning in 1898, it became illegal to confine the mentally ill in the infirmaries. In 1919, county infirmaries became known as county homes.
Some county homes still operate in Ohio, but most closed their doors years ago. In 1919, the Ohio legislature authorized the closure of the county homes if a county did not have a sizable number of people who required assistance. Over the years, thanks to other government programs, most of these homes were able to close.