Richmond, Mary E. (1861–1928)

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Richmond, Mary E. (1861–1928)

American founder of professional social work who pioneered the casework methodology and helped to establish training programs for social workers. Born Mary Ellen Richmond on August 5, 1861, in Belleville, Illinois; died on September 12, 1928, in New York City; daughter of Henry Richmond (a carriage blacksmith) and Lavinia (Harris) Richmond; never married; no children.

Served as assistant treasurer, Baltimore Charity Organization Society (BCOS, 1889); volunteered as a friendly visitor; promoted to general secretary of BCOS (1891); moved to Philadelphia to become general secretary of the Society for Organizing Charity; named director of the Charity Organization Department of the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City (1909); led Charity Organization Institute, a summer training program for social workers (1910–22); awarded honorary degree from Smith College (1921).

Selected writings:

Friendly Visiting Among the Poor (1899); The Good Neighbor in the Modern City (1907); Social Diagnosis (1917); What is Social Case Work (1922); Child Marriages (1925); Marriage and the State (published posthumously, 1929); The Long View (published posthumously, 1930).

In the last decades of the 19th century, Mary E. Richmond was among a generation of American women whose search for socially meaningful and intellectually rewarding work yielded few options. Richmond would go on to become the founder of social work, in essence creating a new profession. In doing so, she dramatically improved the level of assistance provided to the troubled and poor. Richmond also elevated the status of women's work by transforming what had been only a volunteer activity for women into a legitimate, remunerative career recognized for its societal value.

She was born on August 5, 1861, in Belleville, Illinois, to which her father Henry Richmond, a blacksmith, had moved the family in order to reap high wages by producing gun carriages during the Civil War. The family soon returned to Baltimore, their original home, where Mary spent her youth. She was the only one of four children to survive childhood. Her mother Lavinia Harris Richmond died of tuberculosis when Mary was three. Although her father remarried, she had little to do with his new family, and when she was seven he too died of tuberculosis. Now the charge of her maternal grandmother and two aunts, Mary went to live with them in the inexpensive Baltimore boarding house which was run by her grandmother. While not always lucrative, the boarding house did provide an intellectually eclectic atmosphere for Mary. Her grandmother and one of her aunts frequently advocated what at the time were deemed "radical" causes, and as a result Mary heard lively discussions about antivivisection, woman's suffrage, racial issues, and spiritualism. The boarding house was also the site of séances. At age ten, Richmond would later recall, she was able to discern the fakery involved in these events and was amazed that some of the adult participants could not.

Rather than attend school in her early years, Richmond was taught at home by her grandmother. A precocious child and early reader, she was nine when Dickens died and is said to have wept inconsolably upon hearing the news. She wrote to an aunt: "[L]ast Saturday I heard of Dickens' death but it was good news when I heard that his book was in the hands of the Editor, so I expect to read it." Richmond began to attend grammar school at age 11 and at 13 entered Baltimore's Eastern Female High School, a demanding institution which provided a rigorous course of training. In 1878, at age 16, she graduated as one of the youngest members of her class.

Upon graduation, Richmond relocated to New York City. There she and an aunt lived together in a small, inexpensive one-room apartment, and they worked together for a publishing house which produced works on such controversial topics as agnosticism. As a general clerical worker, Richmond worked 12-hour days. At night, she pursued a course of self-education, teaching herself shorthand. Her occasional attendance at Cooper Union lectures and at Henry Ward Beecher's church in Brooklyn seems to have provided the only bright spots in a bleak existence. When her aunt returned to Baltimore due to illness, Richmond remained alone in a strange city, where her isolation, boredom with her job, and extremely low wages made for what she would later regard as the hardest time of her life. She nonetheless persisted in her work for two years before being forced to return to Baltimore in 1880 to recuperate from a case of malaria.

After her illness, Richmond found employment as a bookkeeper at a Baltimore stationers. She remained there from 1881 until 1888, when she went to work as a bookkeeper and office assistant at a Baltimore hotel. During these years, she joined the Unitarian Church and found companionship with other members of the congregation. Fellow church members introduced her to music, which would become a lifelong love. Through the church, she led a class on Shakespeare for young congregants and for young working-class women. Richmond also became active in a literary club.

Perhaps as a result of this increased intellectual and social activity, she began to look for more rewarding employment. For a late 19th-century American woman, finding socially acceptable, mentally stimulating work was a challenge. Although teaching was considered an acceptable profession for a woman, Richmond lacked the educational qualifications and political influence to secure a teaching post. In late 1888 or early 1889, she responded to an advertisement for an assistant treasurer position with the Baltimore Charity Organization Society (BCOS). She had no training or experience with philanthropic work, and the job paid the same salary as her current bookkeeping position, yet it must have seemed to offer greater rewards, for when it was tendered to Richmond, after some deliberation and arguments with her aunt, she accepted.

Before Richmond assumed her new position, friends from the church helped her to finance a week-long trip to Boston so that she could observe the work of the Associated Charities there and gain some idea of the nature of her new undertaking. This trip exposed her to independent women who through their work for the charitable organization were beginning to create the foundations of social work. The system of charity organizations of which Richmond was to become a part was a relatively new development in the history of charitable giving, and based on a concept imported from England. Charitable groups were widespread in large cities in the United States, but their efficiency was brought into question in the late 19th century. After the depression of 1873 left many citizens unemployed and impoverished, various philanthropic groups had responded to this need. It was feared, however, that the lack of coordination between the charities would allow wealthy donors to be exploited.

Charity organization societies arose to systematize efforts between charities, insure that only the "worthy poor" received assistance, and guarantee that charities did not duplicate each others' efforts and give to the same individuals repeatedly. Not only did these goals require that organizations work together, but they also required that charities come to know the individual circumstances of the needy more intimately. "Friendly visitors"—volunteers affiliated with a charitable society—were recruited to visit with and investigate the lives of the impoverished. They were given the responsibility of determining whether or not individuals were among the "worthy poor" and, if so, what type of assistance would be most useful. Charity organizations reasoned that only careful, efficient, and informed assistance would truly help the needy.

While these organizations were trying to better society and help the poor, their approach was often extremely judgmental. Frequently the poor were personally blamed for their economic situation, despite the fact that their lives were often ruled by economic forces outside their control. Strong distrust of the economically disadvantaged was also evident in the organizations' approach as they constantly searched to uncover swindlers who were out to take advantage of philanthropists' generosity. Meanwhile, friendly visitors were often bitterly resented by those they were trying to help, for some visitors rather than being "friendly" were patronizing, nosy, and intrusive. Modern-day scholars find both much to laud and much to question in the 19th-century charity organization. While Richmond began her career by following the established norms of these organizations, she was to be in large part responsible for their transformation.

Upon joining the BCOS, she embraced the goals and assumptions of the society. Her official duties were fund raising for, and promotion of, the organization. Soon she volunteered to be a friendly visitor in her spare time. In her second annual assistant treasurer report, she discussed some of the work she had done with one family:

As a volunteer visitor in one of our districts, I persuaded an acquaintance to spend about $50 on a family for which I was visitor…. He has the … satisfaction of knowing that he has removed a family to a cheaper and cleaner home, saving them $5.00 a month in rent, has stopped their begging, raised one of their number from a bed of sickness, and sent three of the children to school.

Richmond's work for the BCOS was impressive, and in 1891 she was appointed general secretary, a position of far greater leadership. The appointment was testimony to her unusual capabilities, for in the past the job had been filled by older men with advanced degrees in political economy.

Realizing that friendly visitors needed broader, more standardized training, Richmond offered informal classes to volunteers working with the BCOS, for whom she also put together a manual. She began to believe that paid agents, rather than volunteer "visitors," were most effective in helping the poor. This was an important step towards the development of social work as a profession. Another step was taken in 1897 at a conference in Toronto, when she called for the establishment of a training school for friendly visitors, or, as she began to refer to them, caseworkers. During this time, Richmond started to reconceptualize the role of the visitor. She began to believe that rather than making the detection of fraud and the determination of "worthiness" one of their prime functions, caseworkers should have as their focus the investigation of needy individuals' conditions in order to better help them. And, in order to investigate effectively, caseworkers needed training. This need was met the following year (1898) when the New York Charity Organization Society began to offer a Summer School in Applied Philanthropy. The following year, Richmond was teaching a course there. Also in 1899, her first book, Friendly Visiting Among the Poor, which described effective techniques for friendly visitors, was published and well received.

In 1900, noting that the BCOS seemed to be on stable financial and administrative footing, Richmond accepted an offer to become general secretary of Philadelphia's Charity Organization Society. In a city where the charity system was disorganized and uncoordinated, she worked successfully to centralize the administration of charitable efforts, while also continuing to do casework in addition to her administrative tasks.

This work did not absorb all of Richmond's time, and she involved herself in state and municipal reform politics. She worked to pass wife-desertion and non-support bills as well as state laws regulating child labor, to establish a juvenile court, and to investigate housing conditions. While concerned with passing some legislation to better society, Richmond, unlike many Progressive reformers of the time, believed that oneon-one work with individuals and families was the most important and effective means by which to help people. By interacting with those in need, caseworkers would become familiar with larger problems facing society and could work to better conditions. Meanwhile, caseworkers would be enriched by their personal contact with people from other social and economic classes.

In Philadelphia, Richmond continued to teach and write. She was a frequent teacher at the Summer School of Applied Philanthropy, and when this institution began offering classes year round, she taught during the winter as well. (This institute became the New York School of Social Work and in 1940 became affiliated with Columbia University.) In 1906, she taught a course at the University of Pennsylvania. Thereafter, the Pennsylvania School of Social and Health Work was established, and many of her biographers claim the founding of this institution was an indirect result of Richmond's 1906 course. She also began to offer advice to other cities and their charity organizations. At first, informative materials were exchanged on a monthly basis between different cities. Then in 1905 this exchange was made formal with the establishment of the Field Department of Charities magazine. Richmond served as the editor of this new department, a position which increased her fame and made her a national figure in the developing field of social work. Her second book, The Good Neighbor in the Modern City, appeared in 1907 and was well received, particularly by the charity and socialwork community.

In 1909, Richmond left Philadelphia for a position with New York's influential Russell Sage Foundation, founded in 1907 by Margaret Olivia Sage, where her position was director of the Charity Organization Department. During her years in New York, Richmond's teaching and writings were profoundly influenced by the growing interest in social work and the increase in numbers of social workers. Such developments necessitated the organization of the growing body of knowledge about social problems and their treatments. Her efforts during the 1910s and 1920s to organize and provide knowledge were central to the professionalization of the field. During these years, Richmond produced a methodology and offered a set of standards for social workers.

While at Russell Sage, Richmond began to collect caseworker reports and other background information for a book she had contemplated writing years before in Baltimore. To the case reports and records sent to her by 57 different agencies she added information gained from a study of law and psychology. The resulting work, entitled Social Diagnosis, was published in 1917 and is considered her finest work. As a guide for workers on the best way to investigate the circumstances of the people they were trying to help, Social Diagnosis detailed how and where to find different types of information as well as how to use this information to help clients. Richmond outlined her goals for the work in the opening chapter of the book:

When a human being, whatever his economic status, develops some marked form of social difficulty and social need, what do we have to know about him and about his difficulty … before we can arrive at a way of meeting his need? … The primary purpose of the writer, in attempting an examination of the initial process of social case work, is to make some advance toward a professional standard.

Richmond also worked to set standards for caseworkers through education. From 1910 to 1922, she held the Charity Organization Institute, summer programs for caseworkers and their supervisors. In addition, she taught at a number of schools of social work during these years. In 1920, she became a charter member of the American Association of Social Workers, and in 1921 Smith College recognized her efforts to establish social work on a firm foundation by awarding Richmond an honorary Master of Arts degree, for "establishing the scientific basis of a new profession."

In an effort to popularize the key concepts and goals of the social-work profession and introduce them to a larger lay audience, in 1922 she wrote What is Social Case Work? In this volume, Richmond reaffirmed her belief that social casework, when well practiced, was of profound benefit not only to the client but also to the caseworker; ideally, both should grow as a result of their relationship.

Throughout her life, Richmond was repeatedly bothered by a bronchial condition. Beginning in 1918, her health began to decline, and she gradually reduced her activities. After 1922, she no longer held the summer institute, and she began to spend less time at the Russell Sage Foundation and more time working out of her home near Columbia University.

The issue of most concern to her between 1922 and the time of her death in 1928 was marriage laws. Richmond believed that many family problems originated in unstable marriages. Thus she urged the state to take a more active role in administration of marital laws, led a campaign to make states require physical examinations prior to issuing marriage licenses, and advocated raising the minimum age for marriages. As a result of her interest in this subject, she co-authored two books on the topic: Child Marriages (1925) and Marriage and the State (published posthumously, in 1929).

Early in 1928, Richmond was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Throughout that year, she continued to work on the proofs of Marriage and the State. On September 12, 1928, she died at home in New York. Her many writings and students continued to perpetuate her ideals long after her death. Indeed, modern social work, while it has evolved since Richmond's time, still bears the mark and many of the values of its founder.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Vol III. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971.

Lubove, Roy. The Professional Altruist: The Emergence of Social Work as a Career, 1880–1930. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Pumphrey, Muriel. "Mary E. Richmond—The Practitioner," in Social Casework. Vol XLII, no. 8. October 1961, pp. 375–385.

Rich, Margaret E. "Mary E. Richmond: Social Worker, 1861–1928," in Social Casework. Vol XXXIII, no. 9. November 1952, pp. 363–370.

Richmond, Mary. The Long View: Papers and Addresses. Edited with biographical notes by Joanna C. Colcord. NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 1930.

Woodroofe, Kathleen. From Charity to Social Work—In England and the United States. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.

suggested reading:

McCormick, Mary J. "A Legacy of Values," in Social Casework. Vol XLII, no. 8. October 1961, pp. 404–409.

Pumphrey, Muriel W. "The 'First Step'—Mary Richmond's Earliest Professional Reading, 1889–91," in Social Service Review. Vol XXXI, no. 2. June 1957, pp. 145–163.

——. "Mary Richmond's Process of Conceptualization," in Social Casework. Vol XXXVIII, no. 8. October 1957, pp. 399–406.


Personal scrapbooks, correspondence, and interviews with friends and colleagues are located in the Mary E. Richmond Archives, Library of the Columbia University School of Social Work in New York City.

Susan J. Matt , Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

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Richmond, Mary E. (1861–1928)

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Richmond, Mary E. (1861–1928)