In 1797, devoted Presbyterian Isabella Graham and future nun Elizabeth Seton founded the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children in order to provide food and financial assistance to needy widows in New York City. It was one of the first private charitable organizations in the country, and its work bore many marks of the faith and devotion of its two founders. Subscribers were recruited to make regular donations. Volunteers provided physical resources like food and coal, plus moral encouragement, to women and children in difficult straits. In its first year, the society assisted 98 widows and 223 children. By 1800, that had increased to 152 widows and 420 children.
A hallmark of the society’s work was caution in the distribution of aid. The volunteers took great pains to determine the special needs and situation of all recipients, and how they might best be lifted up. They looked for alcohol problems, and located relatives who could be helpful. To keep families out of the almshouse the society sought to match women with jobs, started its own program providing sewing work that allowed widows to earn regular income, and distributed spinning wheels and cloth. The society also operated schools for fatherless children, and hired some of the mothers to run schools across the city.