Register of the Records of the
SWISS BENEVOLENT SOCIETY OF NEW YORK
The Swiss Benevolent Society of New York, the oldest Swiss benevolent organization in the United States, was founded in 1832 by the Swiss consul, Henri Casimir de Rham. The purposes of the organization were to care for the poor and to organize social events for the Swiss population in New York City. The French Benevolent Society housed the files of the Swiss Benevolent Society and distributed its funds for a fee until 1845.
In 1846, Louis Phillipe de Luze replaced de Rham as Swiss consul and took on the responsibility of disbursing the Swiss society's funds. The Society adopted its first constitution in 1846 and was incorporated by the state of New York in 1851. In the latter year, the Swiss government and sixteen of the cantonal governments of Switzerland agreed to make annual donations to the organization.
Jacques Bertschmann, who replaced de Luze as Swiss consul in 1873, insisted that the Society should separate from the Swiss consul and establish its own independent office. The society rented office space at 63 Bleeker Street and employed an agent to disburse funds for food and lodging from this office.
The membership of the Society increased in the 1870s and so did donations. As the relief program grew, the organization received eviction notices from disgruntled landlords who did not appreciate the crowds of relief seekers frequenting their properties: the offices of the SBSNY moved five times in ten years. Subsequently the society raised $22,000 to purchase and renovate a building at 108 Second Avenue which opened its doors as the Swiss Home on 17 October 1883. This building was equipped with thirty beds for transients and the elderly, a sick bay with four beds, sitting and dining rooms, washing facilities, and a fumigating room for transients' clothing. The residents of the Swiss Home were referred to as "inmates" in the Society's record books for many years. Eventually the Society engaged a doctor and a dentist to care for the sick. A number of nearby hospitals provided beds for the ill from the Swiss Home at little or no cost to the Society, so that increasingly the majority of inhabitants of the Swiss Home were infirm elderly persons.
The Society took an active part in helping incoming Swiss immigrants establish themselves in this country. For many years the Society conducted an employment agency. Beneficiaries of the relief program included persons temporarily out of work and in need of food or clothing to sustain themselves through times of hardship. In the late 1800s, the Society arranged discounts from railroad companies for Swiss who went west and from steamship companies which provided passage for Swiss who wanted to return to Switzerland. A Swiss fair held in 1886 netted over $8,000 for such causes. In 1892, the Society adopted English as its official language.
In 1904, the Society purchased land near Central Park (West 67th Street) and began building a new Swiss Home designed by Swiss architect John Scharsmith and fashioned after the Town Hall of Basel. Opened in 1905, it had fifty beds and could accommodate thirty more on a temporary basis.
Robert J. F. Schwarzenbach, the Society's president from 1911 to 1924, wanted the Society to support the young as well as the elderly. During the prospering early 1920s, the Society bought an old hotel on seven acres of land in Mt. Kisco, Westchester County, New York which opened in the fall of 1923 as the Swiss Home for the Aged. In June 1924, the Society transformed the old Swiss Home on 67th Street into the Swiss Town House, a boarding house for up to 56 Swiss working girls and women and employed a matron to supervise the facility.
During the Great Depression, the Swiss Benevolent Society was actively engaged in social welfare work. The Society rented an apartment on West 73rd Street which housed the Swiss Community Room (where hot meals were provided), a dormitory room for men, and the Swiss Welfare Office. The organization hired Elisabeth Rosenthaler, a professional social worker trained at Hull House, the famous social settlement in Chicago, to coordinate these activities. Relief assistance at the Swiss Welfare Office peaked in 1932, when the organization handled 654 cases. Miss Rosenthaler remained with the Society for the next thirty years.
Another of the Society's Depression era projects was the Swiss Children's Camp conducted in the vicinity of the Swiss Home at Mt. Kisco from 1933-1949. The primary goal of the camp was to promote the physical well-being of the Swiss children of New York City, but not only poor children attended. The camp's daily programs revolved around programs which would instill in Swiss culture and history such as vegetable gardening--evocative of Switzerland's agrarian heritage--and plays which dramatized the life of William Tell. Elisabeth Rosenthaler's name remains prominent in the records of the camp where she served alternately as the camp's secretary, supervisor, social worker, and director.
During the Depression years, the Society's constitution and bylaws were modified. The society discontinued its board of trustees. Activities were structured into various specialized "departments" (such as Social Service, Children's Camp, and Swiss Home for the Aged) chaired by executive board members but staffed increasingly by paid employees.
New goals were identified during the Society's centennial year in 1946. First, the organization resolved to improve its services to convalescents and to the chronically ill. This required a new home--fireproof and adequately equipped. Second, the organization decided to continue to operate the Town House as a boarding house but also wanted the building to accommodate a welfare office, cafeteria, library, and meeting rooms to house the activities which had been conducted at the rented site. Third, the organization resolved to improve the effectiveness of the welfare office.
The Centennial Fund Drive netted $222,000 for these projects. All goals were reached, except for a new Swiss Home for the Aged because the construction costs proved too costly. Therefore the organization decided to renovate the old building and add a two-story fireproof wing. When the wing formally opened in May 1953, more than 1,000 Swiss traveled to Mt. Kisco for the occasion. This pilgrimage of persons of Swiss descent from throughout the New York metropolitan area became an annual Society tradition, known as the Spring Outing.
Three giant bazaars in 1953, 1954, and 1956, sponsored by the Swiss representative in Washington, D.C., paid off the $65,000 loan which the Society had taken to complete the building project at Mt. Kisco. Nonetheless, occupancy of the facility dwindled throughout the 1940s and 1950s, in part because of changes in the immigration law begun in the 1920s which limited the number of Swiss immigrants arriving in the United States, and in part because of the enactment of Social Security legislation begun in 1935 which made the elderly less dependent in their old age.
A Women's Division, established in 1953 to raise money for the Mt. Kisco wing, became an active arm of the Society through its continuing involvement in the fall bazaars, open house parties, penny bank drives, and participation in the annual Spring Outings. Over the years, these funds were used primarily to support the physical upkeep of the Swiss Town House and the Swiss Home. The Society's programs were carried out by an energetic membership whose numbers exceeded 1,000 in three years: 1954, 1957, and 1961.
The focus of the organization changed as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to Sylva Brunner, president of the Society from 1967 to 1969, these were "tough times," for the Swiss Home had to fully comply with often-costly state and federal regulations. Moreover, the organization adopted an open door policy to accept persons of all ethnic backgrounds. This diluted the original Swiss orientation which had attracted clients and funders. Additionally, the town of Mt. Kisco placed a large water tower on Society property near the Swiss Home which became a source of controversy. In 1969, the Society obtained approval to operate the Swiss Home as a Health Related Facility which provided a modified type of senior health care without the stringent requirements demanded of a nursing facility. In 1971, the Swiss Home was incorporated into the New York Department of Health.
Throughout this period, the Society continued to conduct social service programs at the Swiss Town House in Manhattan and to make rooms available to lodgers. Increasingly, the social service cases included elderly persons who could be visited in their homes or at care-giving facilities. By the 1980s, the quarters formerly devoted to Swiss working women had became a hostel for visiting students of all nationalities. The Swiss Town House provided space for Swiss-related cultural events organized by the Swiss Institute, but the space was no longer as fully used as it once had been.
In 1995, the Swiss Benevolent Society relocated to a new headquarters at 608 Fifth Avenue in the building which houses the Swiss Center. The organization employs an administrative staff as well as two fulltime social workers who meet with clients in the organization's office or at clients' homes. The organization hosts a seniors' organization which meets once a month for coffee at the Swiss Inn on 48th Street and 8th Avenue. The Society also administers the Pelligrini Scholarship Fund created in 1979 to grant college scholarships to students who have at least one parent who is of Swiss descent. In 1994 alone, the Fund provided college students with awards totaling more than $38,000.
Brunner, Sylva. "The Swiss Benevolent Society of New York: A Short History." Swiss American Historical Society Review, XXVI (February 1990): 353.
Author's interview with Sylva Brunner, October 1995.
Gilman, Annemarie. Swiss Benevolent Society of New York, Celebrating One Hundred and Fifty Years of Caring. New York: Swiss Benevolent Society, 1996.
The Swiss Benevolent Society of New York donated its records to the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies in 1995. Sylva Brunner, a former president of the society and author of a published history of the organization, collaborated with Karl Niederer, president of the Swiss American Historical Society, to prepare a preliminary box list which proved to be very helpful in the arrangement and description of this collection at the Institute.
SCOPE AND CONTENT NOTE
The records of the Swiss Benevolent Society of New York consist of 60 linear feet of material dating from 1880 to 1982. The collection contains correspondence, board minutes, financial and administrative records, annual and other reports, newspaper clippings, and printed materials pertaining to the Society's activities. The collection also included several hundred photographs which have been transferred to a separate photo group, Photo Group 355.
The records shed light on a wide range of topics of interest to students of the history of social welfare and of Swiss immigrant affairs. Also included are printed items from the Welfare Council of New York and the New York Department of Health.
Most of these records are written in English. Among them are scattered documents written in French and German.
SERIES 1: BOARD OF DIRECTORS RECORDS, c. 1911-1980, Boxes 113.
Boxes 1-5 contain the minutes of the General Board (1911-1975) and reflect the Society's expansion of services and accompanying concerns. Topics include the Swiss Home for the Aged, Swiss Town House, Swiss Welfare Office, Children's Camp, and Women's Division). The first folder in Box 1 holds the "Special Index of Book No. 1" of board minutes from 1846-1917, compiled around 1917; however, the original minutes of the general board are not contained in this collection and do not appear to have survived to the present. Box 6 contains reports of various committees (1961-1967), including the executive committee and the social service committee.
Box 7 contains materials concerning membership drives (1932, 1945-1946). These materials include committee meeting minutes and correspondence. Box 8 includes minutes from board meetings, annual membership meetings, and executive committee meetings (1943-1980). The bulk of Box 9 consists of the minutes from the annual membership meetings (1960-1976). Topics of special interest include Sylva Brunner's role as the Society's first female president and the decision to provide non-Swiss the opportunity to live at the Swiss Home for the Aged. Box 10 includes correspondence (1953-54) concerning nominations, salaries, and the Swiss Bazaar. There are also minutes of the Bazaar coordinating committee, lists of merchandise procured in Switzerland for the Bazaar and proposals for invitations, flyers, and signs. Other records in Box 10, which span the year the years 1967-1978, include bylaws, employment policies, correspondence, and minutes of the social service committee. The 1979 records in Box 10 comprise information about insurance policies (1943-1949), contractors, the Pelligrini Scholarship Fund, tax exemptions, and the U.S. Department of Labor. The contents of Boxes 11-13 are primarily financial records (1914-1975) such as monthly treasurer's reports, general ledgers, contribution records, journals of accounts, and bank deposits.
SERIES 2: PAPERS OF THE PRESIDENTS OF THE BOARD, c. 1935-1971, Boxes 14-19.
H. Ernest Freer's papers (1935) contain correspondence concerning a charter revision. Albert P. Engler's papers (1953-1954, 1958) consist of 1953 minutes of the membership committee, 1954 correspondence concerning contributions, and 1958 correspondence concerning amendments to the Society's bylaws. William Brunner's papers (1956-1959) include correspondence with the editor of a Swiss-American newspaper; the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies Inc.; the Swiss consulate general; and the. Society's nominating committee. There is also correspondence regarding the June Outings, Helvetia Maennerchor concerts, the Father's Group, and appreciations of contributions. These files also include annual reports, treasurer's reports, minutes of the board of directors meetings, and yearly reports of the standing committees (Welfare Office, Town House, Children's Fund, Women's Division, and Swiss Home at Mt. Kisco). There are also 1957 clippings about membership drives and the Father's Group.
The bulk of Henry Pillichody's papers (1960-1962) include correspondence with other Swiss clubs and societies, the Helvetia Maennerchor, the Bibliotheca Helvetica concerning the donation of its library to the Society, printing companies, and the Swiss consulate general. Other correspondence concerns annual reports, contributions, and donations. Also included are letters of sympathy to families of Society members, brochures, invitations and financial summaries for the Society's special events: spring outings, film evenings, and bazaars. The series includes official correspondence between the Society and the New York Department of Social Welfare concerning new rules, regulations, and principles for homes for the aged in the state, the Society's Charter amendment, and its legal establishment as a nonprofit institution. Official correspondence with the Department of Labor is also included concerning the new minimum wage law and workmen's compensation. Pillichody's files also contain a collection of contribution drive materials (1940-1949) compiled by social worker Margret Hodel in 1961. In addition, there are social service reports, minutes of the board of directors, annual reports, membership drives, and notes on the organization of the Society.
Sylva Brunner's papers (1966-1970) contain her correspondence concerning Switzerland's Independence Day, the Society's nominating committee, the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, and manuscripts of her articles which were published in Amerikanische Schweizer and the Echo.
Series 3: ADMINISTRATIVE FILES. c, 1924-1977, Boxes 20-30.
The Swiss Town House records for 1945 to 1966 (Box 20) contain the monthly reports of the Town House Committee to the Board of Directors and the Treasurer. Also included are the minutes of the Town House building committee meetings, specifications for remodeling the Town House, clippings announcing the Town House renovation, and information on fallout shelters. Boxes 21-24 contain the Mt. Kisco records (1918-1968). They contain a broad range of documents concerning the purchase of Mt. Kisco, alterations and furnishings of the Swiss Home at Mt. Kisco (1950-1953), and two issues which confronted administrators: the construction of a water tower near the site and civil rights. Included are minutes of building committee meetings, architect's fees, budget reports, and minutes of Swiss Home committee meetings. There are also progress reports, statistical reports, treasurer's reports, a feasibility study, a civil rights study, monthly activity reports, permits, and deeds to cemetery plots. Personal papers of Mr. Emile Doerflinger, a resident of the home, are also found here. Boxes 25-29 contain general administrative files (1923-1977) which are not fully processed. They include financial records, treasurer's reports, social service records, centennial fund collection (1946), annual reports, and presidents' correspondence (Pierre M. Morgan 1973; Adolf Brandle, 1970-1971; Alphonse A. Kubly, 1969-1970; and Sylva Brunner, 1967-1969). The series also contains an oversize poster in which the board expresses thanks to employee Anna M. Malloy (1933).
Series 4: SOCIAL SERVICE OFFICE, c. 1880-1981, Boxes 31-61.
These records document social services provided by the Swiss Home (1880-1930) and the administrative records of the professional social service office established in 1930. The records for 1880-1929 consist of arrival ledgers, account ledgers of persons receiving social services, case records, and an index to cases. Examples of data provided on recipients listed are date and place of birth, occupation, date of arrival, physical description of the recipient, names of ships on which the individuals traveled to America, marital status, case numbers, and information on services provided by the Society such as dates, type of assistance, and values of the services provided.
The bulk of this series is made up of 157 day books which were daily logs of phone calls and visits to the Social Service Office. The first 74 day books (1930-1960s) were kept exclusively by Elisabeth Rosenthaler. The remaining 83 day books (1930-1957) were kept by Rosenthaler and 16 other social workers listed below. (Four of these social workers can only be identified by their initials.) They included Elisabeth Rosenthaler, 1930-1959; Margret Hodel, 1959-1967; C. B., 1930-1932; A. D., 1933; Y. C., 1942-1943; I. K. [Irma Kaeemg?], 1944-1945; Erma Mann, 1946-1947; Antoinette R. Miller, 1947-1948; Johanna Baraudeau [sp.?], 1950-1952; T. S., 1953-1954; Cleo Nielson, 1953-1954; Marianne Gottlieb, 1954-1955; Adele V. Fischer, 1955-1958; Alma Hawell, 1957; Barbara Keller, 1957; Agnes T. Potter, 1958-1960; H. Z. [Helen Zippinger?].
Additionally, the series includes three boxes of Elisabeth Rosenthaler's papers (Boxes 55-57). These papers includes Miss Rosenthaler's files on the Welfare Council of New York City (1931-1946), the Society's participation in the New York World's Fair (1939), and notes on the Children's Camp (1942).
The financial records of the Social Service Office (Boxes 58-60) contain treasurer's reports, acknowledgments of contributions, and detailed listings of donations from individuals and businesses which indicate where the donation was to be directed: Mt. Kisco, Town House, or Welfare Office. Bank deposits, interest on U.S. Treasury bonds, and workmen's compensation documents, along with information on the Brez Foundation, are also included.
Box 59 contains two handwritten volumes of "Journal: Relief to Applicants" (1933-1943) which records receipts and disbursements associated with Society's social service programs including cash payments to clients, administrative expenses, and donations. Box 61 contains the records of the Social Service Committee (1966-1980) which includes minutes of committee meetings, monthly reports to the treasurer (1976-1980), correspondence (1977-1981) between the social service committee and the Swiss Consulate and with applicants for funds, and records pertaining to Mt. Kisco (1978-1979).
SERIES 5: SWISS HOME, c. 1900-1982, Boxes 62-75.
The minutes of the board of trustees of the Swiss Home cover the period from February 1900 to January 1908. The secretary's reports of the Committee for the Building of a New Swiss Home extend from March 1903 to January 1906. The Journal of Cash Relief and Refunds to Inmates (January 1949-December 1951) is a monthly listing of each individual who received aid and how much the individual received. By 1950, cash relief was divided into 2 sections: Welfare Office cash relief and Swiss Home cash relief.
The Record Book of Inmates (1900-1940) provides detailed information on 44 persons admitted to and discharged from the Swiss Home. It also lists the reasons for the persons' discharge such as transfer to a hospital, death, or left to live with family. The Book of Accounts of the Permanent Residents of the Swiss Home (1909-1933) lists individuals' entire history of care by the Swiss Home. The index on page 200 is helpful, but not alphabetical. The Record Book of Inmates (1916-1920) contains information similar to that given in the Record Book of Inmates (1900-1940), but includes more detailed information about aid to each person. Aid was broken down into four categories: cash, lodging, meals, and "Extra." This last category included groceries, coal, shoes, underwear, and Thanksgiving baskets. The Swiss Home Record Book of Inmates (February 1924-July 1928) is especially useful because it is indexed to Volume VI in the Social Service Office records (Series 4). It is a monthly log of specific aid given to individuals. Among other services, this book records assistance in getting American citizenship papers, supplying gauze and bandages, and providing railway fare. It lists both household and small expenses.
The Journal (January 1930-December 1943) lists monthly and annual financial reports of the Swiss Home at Mt. Kisco. Its detailed expense accounts recorded items such as pharmacy bills, groceries, and building repairs. The Accounts of the Superintendents (1934-1941) list both monthly and annual financial reports of the Swiss Home. Expenses included food, wages, lights, telephone, shoes, Children's camp. Mt. Kisco Forms (1932-1952) include admission forms, revision forms and forms for applications, agreements and wills plus correspondence with other homes for the aged.
The Dreyfus Gift records (October 1950-September 1951) contain correspondence and memoranda concerning Dr. Camille Dreyfus' gift of $10,000 to the Mt. Kisco building project. Dreyfus was the chairman of Celanese Corporation of America. The Baird Fund file (1952-1967) contains correspondence between Society social workers Rosenthaler and Hodel and David G. Baird regarding Baird's financial contributions to the Society. In these letters, there were occasional notes on what the money was spent for: "a radio for an 84 year old widow... She seldom goes out and I feel she needs this diversion as much as she needs money for her food." These records also include a 1956 brochure for a tribute luncheon for David Baird and a 1953 list of how Baird money had been used: for birthdays, Easter, or Christmas scarves.
The Max and Olga Fischer Welfare Fund file (1968-1969) consists of correspondence (four letters) between the Society and the Fischers, concerning securities which the Fischers donated. The Armand Zuercher file (1937-1975) concerns Zuercher's desire to live on the Mt. Kisco property with his wife in a building separate from the Swiss Home. The Zimmerman Fund file (1981-1982) contains information about the fund and fund members. The Guarantee Deposits of Guests files (1954-1974) contain admission agreements, correspondence concerning Guests' bank accounts (often handled by social worker), and acknowledgments; of receipt of security deposits.
The Administrative Records of the Swiss Home (1954-1978) contain correspondence, meeting minutes, official forms, directives, and legal documents which can be broadly described as relating to two main topics: the erection of a water tower on Society land in Mt. Kisco and the implementation of everincreasing government regulations. There is also some presidents' correspondence.
The Former Residents Case Files (1941-1960) include statistics on birth, marriage, and death along with date of admission of persons admitted to the Swiss Home. Medical records and social workers' reports, and correspondence make up the bulk of these files. Official legal documents include citizenship papers, wills, life insurance policies, and transfers of funds from the estates of deceased residents. There are occasional photos of the former residents. Of special note is Conrad Freund's file which includes the diary of a resident of the Swiss Home and some autobiographical notes. The series also includes maps and blueprints of Mt. Kisco (1918-1951).
SERIES 6: SWISS TOWN HOUSE RECORDS, c. 1948-1957, Box 76.
This series consists of three volumes and one folder. The first volume (1949) contains building specifications, bids from contractors, credit references of contractors, contracts and subsequent change orders. The second volume (1948-1949) consists of minutes of the building committee, reports from the Building Committee to the Board of Directors, and letters of releases from guests. The third volume (1949-1950) contains the final accounting from the Building Committee to the Board of Directors and receipted certificates of payments made to contractors. (Please note that the original volumes have been disbound and the contents have been placed in folders). The last folder in this series contains correspondence from Emily Milano, an interior designer. This series also includes 7 blueprints of the Swiss Town House (1949).
SERIES 7: SWISS CHILDREN'S CAMP, c. 1933-1949, Boxes 77-78.
This series deals with the operation and management of the camp at Mt. Kisco, New York, from 1933-1949. The bulk of this series is made up of the correspondence of Elisabeth Rosenthaler who alternately served as camp secretary, supervisor, social worker, and director. Especially of note are such topics as recruitment of camp personnel, camp permits, and reports from the Department of Health of Westchester County regarding bacteriological analysis of water, disposal of garbage, and the storage of milk and other perishable foods. Also of note are a number of camp reports, camp committee meetings, daily programs, expenditures, monthly reports to the treasurer, Society bulletins on the children's camp, and a visitor's register (1936-1946).
SERIES 8: WOMEN'S DIVISION, c. 1959-1975, Boxes 79-80.
This series deals with the Women's Division (1959-1975) of the Society. It consists of financial summaries, receipts and disbursement ledgers, lists of pennybank donors and correspondence with the Society's treasurer and Women's Division members. There are many receipts within this series from both American and Swiss companies. Most of these receipts are found in the Bazaar folders (1970-1974). This series also contains bank statements and checkbooks.
SERIES 9: PRINTED MATTER, c. 1885-1982, Boxes 81-87.
This series contains printed matter published by or collected by the Society. Boxes 81-83 contain the society's annual reports from 1885-1886 and 1890-1979. Some of the earlier reports were written in French, German, and English. These three boxes also bold invitations and news clippings. Box 84 contains copies of the Society's constitutions and by-laws (1906, 1924, 1936), printed records, brochures about the Society. Box 85 contains 7 folders of newsclippings (1929-1982) about the Society. Box 86 contains two scrapbooks of newsclippings from the Amerikanische Schweizer Zeitung (1956-1960). Box 87 contains oversize printed items including several broadsides for the home for working women. Also included in this series is a limited-edition print (1941) depicting the shields of each Swiss canton (Oversize folder #6).
The box list of the register of the records of the Swiss Benevolent Society
of New York is forty-nine pages long.