Historical Markers
The Salvation Army Historical Marker
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The Salvation Army

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
4th and Oxford Sts., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
June 19, 1998

Behind the Marker

The corner of Fourth and Oxford Streets in Philadelphia.
Fourth and Oxford Streets in Philadelphia, circa 1915.
During the Great Depression, the Salvation Army seemed to be everywhere. In January, 1932, it fed and clothed 12,000 unemployed marchers after President Herbert Hoover had turned them away during a jobless demonstration in Washington, D.C. Back in Pennsylvania, thousands of others were lining up outside one of the dozens of missions located across the Commonwealth, including in Philadelphia, site of the Army's first American-based mission in 1880. Most lines extended around the block.

An elderly lady sits holding a cup, a seated, young boy, takes a bite of food. A salvation army worker stands between them with outstretched arms, her hands touching a shoulder of each. All are inside of a booth that has two signs. One sign reads: Keep her on the Job and the other reads: Give to the Salvation Army, April 3rd 30th .
Salvation Army launch of a new fundraising campaign, Philadelphia's Bellevue...
In the early years of the crisis, government relief was either non existent or severely limited, so the burden for caring for the first wave of the down-and-out fell to private charitable organizations. But this was no ordinary economic adjustment, and the economic crisis precipitated by the stock market crash in 1929 soon pushed private charities to the brink. The Salvation Army, however, was in a better position to provide help than most, for it operated one of the largest and best organized charity operations in the United States.

The Salvation Army already had a long history in America. In 1860, Methodist minister William Booth had founded the "Christian Mission" to spread the Gospel to the "unchurched" in London's impoverished East End. In 1870, Booth renamed his organization the "Salvation Army" to better reflect its dedication to battling both worldly and spiritual poverty.

Booth's spiritual "army" assumed an explicitly military-style organization to complement its fervor. Taking its cue from the British Army, it assigned staff military rank and referred to its clientele as "recruits." Staff also wore military uniforms, a feature that clearly distinguished them from other religious and charitable organizations.

Booth's strategy was to use food and shelter to draw in the most dissipated, marginalized members of society and then preach salvation. During the 1870s, the Army spread to Great Britain's other industrialized cities. In 1879, the Army chose Philadelphia for its first stateside mission in response to a call by Eliza Shirley, a recruit who had moved from England to the City of Brotherly Love.

Booth was initially reluctant to send more "troops" to establish the mission, but Shirley convinced him of the pressing need for the Salvation Army there. Like Britian's large, industrialized cities, Philadelphia had its share of unchurched poor in need of both spiritual and material salvation.
Red Cross worker hands a jar of food to a man. A woman holding a cross sign sits in a car.
Red Cross workers preparing to dispense food, Philadelphia, PA, circa 1932.

Soon, the Salvation Army blossomed in cities and towns across the United States. Simple, store-front missions remained its stock in trade, but as donations grew, the Army expanded to include more extensive social welfare programs and large homeless hotels and rural retreats capable of ministering to hundreds at a time. By 1925, the Salvation Army was the largest charitable organization in the country, and perhaps the world.

During the first three years of the Great Depression, the Salvation Army's emergency relief expenses increased by 700 percent at the same time that donations remained flat or declined. (The Salvation Army's main source of financial support - members of the working class - were among the Depression's most hard-hit victims.) Many cities relied upon Salvation Army officials and their considerable organizational skills to help draw up the first emergency relief efforts. In Philadelphia, for instance, the city commandeered firehouses to coordinate relief at the suggestion of local Salvationists who deemed them the most efficient way to reach the city's neighborhoods.

This photo shows the interior of its food distribution service and workers at the 103rd Engineer's Armory at Broad and Callowhill Streets.
Salvation Army workers preparing for the distribution of 3,000 food baskets...
More disconcerting to Salvation Army leadership was the impact of the Depression on the organization's spiritual mission, which was forced to take a back seat to basic relief work. Some in the organization envisioned the Great Depression as an opportunity to secure more recruits. "We believe that the economic situation of the last two years has caused many to consider their spiritual condition," commander in chief Evangeline Booth announced in 1932. But many "recruits" tended to view the Salvation Army solely as a charity and ignored its calls to conversion.

Many of the nation's itinerant unemployed - "tramps" in the language of the day - perfected the art of receiving Sally benefits (they called Salvation Army missions "Sallys") while playing lip service to the religious message. Criminals viewed Sallys as easy targets for extortion, sometimes organizing gangs of homeless to purloin food and clothes from the missions to be later sold on the street.

By 1932, private charities in Philadelphia and across the Commonwealth were tapped out. Drives for funds in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the state's two largest cities and where the needs were greatest, came up considerably short. The influx of federal money after 1933 slowly began to relieve the pressure on private charities. The reprieve allowed the Salvation Army to rekindle its evangelization efforts. But federal assistance also initiated permanent changes in the ways the state and nation provided for those in need.

In 1935, General Hugh S. Johnson, a former New Deal official and ardent supporter of the Salvation Army, bemoaned the replacement of private charity with "scientific relief." He spoke for many when he criticized New Deal relief programs as "expensive and inefficient." By contrast, he argued, the Army's method of "getting down in the trenches" with the poor was "the truest and simplest formula to help those less fortunate." By the end of the decade, however, even the most ardent supporters of private charity were forced to admit that the scale of the emergency required a new formula for relief.
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