Friends Historical Library (FHL) recently acquired the papers of Mira Sharpless Townsend, a Philadelphia Quaker who advocated for social reform movements of the mid-19th century such as the abolition of slavery and capital punishment and the improvement of prison conditions.
Townsend—not as well-known as Lucretia Mott but “a force unto herself,” per FHL Curator Jordan Landes—also advocated for temperance. But her most extraordinary accomplishment, by far, was leading the establishment of the Rosine Association, which provided a home, work, and education to women on whom society had turned its back.
“She was in the vanguard of a group of 19th-century women who reimagined their roles in bringing positive change to the world outside of their home circle,” Landes says of Townsend, a distant relative of Philip T. Sharples, Class of 1910, for whom Swarthmore's dining hall is named.
Townsend’s collection includes two volumes of her narrative accounts of the “Rosines”—that is, brief biographical sketches of the women who passed through the Rosine House. There are names, addresses, and outcomes included for each case.
But in contrast to other accounts of the time, including 1849’s Guide to the Stranger, Townsend’s notes don’t judge or sensationalize the women, notes Landes.
“Her distinctive voice shines through more than a century after her death,” she adds, “presenting the stories of Philadelphia’s 19th-century female underclass in a matter-of-fact tone, with rich detail.”
The Rosine House residents, many of them prostitutes or women who had lived on the streets, were able to earn money for themselves with their newly gained skills, selling their wares in an adjacent store. Setting the organization apart from the better-known Magdalen Society was that it was run completely by women, for women.
“The reformation of women is particularly the province of women,” the association asserted, “and through their influence alone, can we expect those who have deviated from virtue, to be again restored to a respectable station.”
What most excites Landes about the new collection, she says, are the extensive writings and rich correspondence of Townsend. But even better, Townsend’s approach to economic and justice reform and her views on women in marriage, family, and society remain “quite relatable” to today’s researchers.
“The two casebooks of the Rosine Association are truly significant, detailing the unvarnished lives of the women involved in the association,” Landes says. “Townsend ‘names names’ and circumstances, successes and failures, painting a stark picture of the underside of Philadelphia in the 1840s and 1850s.”
Friends Historical Library was established in 1871 to collect, preserve, and make available archival, manuscript, printed, and visual records concerning the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) from their mid-17th century origins to the present. The Library also maintains the Swarthmore College Archives and the collections of the Swarthmore Historical Society.