During the Great Panic of 1873, a number of Germantown citizens stepped forward to help those less fortunate than themselves. Just eight years after the end of the Civil War, distress was widespread. Many people felt that the traditional government methods for aid to the poor were not working: the “deserving poor” were not successfully helped and that the “undeserving poor” manipulated the system. Poor houses failed to alleviate the suffering of the multitudes affected by economic hard times.

Influenced by a new philosophy of charitable giving in England, a few Germantown men met on December 4, 1873, at the YMCA on Greene Street to create a program that would provide “necessaries of life” for those citizens of Germantown who needed help. In so doing, they entered a new world of social service. The Germantown Relief Society was soon copied by many others throughout the nation. In fact, its system was the basis for the founding of Family Services of Philadelphia about 10 years later.

The Society incorporated in 1892 with the stated purpose “to relieve the worthy and helpless poor of Germantown and vicinity by contributing to their aid money, clothing, provisions, medicine and other necessaries of life.” The corporation documents list some of the leading names of the German Township: Emlen, Gates, Garrett, Haines, Foulke, Taylor, Schuler, Shoemaker, Cope, Mason, and Spiegel, to name a few. It boasted a headquarters and a superintendent who oversaw the donation of relief supplies to families and individuals found to be in need.

The Society rarely gave money. Rather it gave coal for heat, food for the hungry, and clothing and other basic items that allowed folks to get back on their feet and to help themselves. A core component to the organization’s work was home visits by volunteer women of the community to determine the feasibility of giving relief. Although hardly a professional cadre of workers, the women and the Society succeeded in making a dramatic difference in people’s lives.