In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Social Work and Social Welfare, pre-1900

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Journals and Conference Proceedings
  • Bibliographies
  • Document Collections
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies

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Social Work History of Social Work and Social Welfare, pre-1900
Paul H. Stuart
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0250


Although the terms “social work” and “social welfare” did not come into common use until the 20th century, European national and local governments provided for poor relief beginning in at least the 16th century. The growth of social provision for the poor often accompanied population growth, urbanization, and industrialization, which tended to complicate more traditional means of caring for dependents through kinship groups and the church. As the costs of poor relief waxed, concerns were raised about the effects of poor relief on the economy, both on the supply of labor and as a drain on tax revenues. Concerns also were raised about the effects of poor relief on the poor themselves. These concerns gave rise to movements to reform both government-provided poor relief and voluntary efforts to assist the poor. This long history of developing government programs and changing ideas about how to structure efforts to assist the poor was variously described using terms such as charity, poor relief, philanthropy, and, by the late 19th century, the social question. This article will list sources that describe and analyze the development of what would become known as social welfare and social work after 1900. Since many of the programs were religiously inspired, particularly before the 19th century, much of the literature discusses the Christian motivations for public and private charitable aid to the poor. However, other faith traditions, notably Judaism and Islam, had vigorous traditions of charity and developed particular organizational styles to carry out assistance to the poor. Since the terms “social work” and “social welfare” were not used before 1900, the title of this article is a bit misleading. However, many countries were involved in activities in the areas that would be considered part of social welfare in the early 21st century, and the origins of the contemporary profession of social work can be identified as early as the 1820s in Thomas Chalmers’s experiment in parochial poor relief. Although other terms, such as charities and corrections, philanthropy, benevolence, etc., were used to refer to the activities now subsumed by the terms social welfare and social work, the title, “History of Social Work and Social Welfare,” has been used in this article to emphasize continuity with other titles in this series.

General Overviews

Included here are works that provide general, cross-national overviews of the development of public social spending and efforts to aid the poor before 1900. This section is divided into sections on Public Policy, Islam, Judaism, and Social Work.

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