The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1983, Volume 29, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Copley Award, San Diego Historical Society 1982 Institute of History

Images from the Article

The Woman’s Home Association of San Diego, together with its successors, provides an excellent case study of voluntary charity organization in action. Born at the height of the Southern California land boom of the 1880s, it has continued since and exists today as The San Diego Center for Children. Many of its early problems and much of its strength stemmed from the voluntarism that was at its heart. In that, it is like many other late nineteenth and early twentieth century charitable organizations.

To fully understand the need for establishing a Woman’s Home in San Diego it is important, perhaps, to realize the conditions in the city as they existed in the late 1880s. The population of San Diego in 1885 was around five thousand, but by 1887 it had soared to thirty-five thousand. The land boom which gave birth to this spectacular increase would reach its peak the next year. As one historian put it:

The two years that began in 1886 and ended in 1888 were the most gaudy, wicked and exciting in San Diego’s history. The boomers and gamblers had followed the speculators to San Diego and now came the entertainers and criminals. It was San Francisco of the Gold Rush all over again.2

During this period San Diego had the dubious distinction of being home to over one hundred saloons and an estimated one hundred twenty brothels.3

The city government was besieged with demands for increased law enforcement to battle the rapidly escalating crime rate. The city was also aware of the urgent need for adequate public services for the unfortunate and the needy, However, the city’s growth outstripped its ability to provide these much needed services in sufficient measure.

The female element of the new population was constantly confronted with sordid living conditions and rough treatment by their male counterparts. Many women were abandoned or widowed soon after their arrival. Others had been lured to the city by grandiose advertisements in the eastern dailies, and came with visions of wealth or marriage to wealthy men. They were soon disillusioned. Penniless, ill or both, many destitute women had nowhere to turn.

It is not difficult to imagine, then, the climate within the Methodist Church South, as women from the newly formed Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) and others concerned over the situation of women within the community met there on February 17, 1887. The purpose of the meeting had been announced as:

to establish, build and maintain a home for indigent, unfortunate, aged or helpless women and for working women in moderate circumstances and for such as we may be able to pay reasonable compensation for board and lodging.4

Toward this end, those in attendance quickly created the Woman’s Home Association under the auspices of the W.C.T.U. In this way, women of the community organized to do for themselves and their less fortunate sisters what the harried city government could not or would not do. To get the Woman’s Home started the W.C.T.U. gave to the Association one thousand dollars and a building at the corner of Seventh and F Streets.5

The women who organized the Woman’s Home Association were a diverse group. Most were wives of prominent San Diego businessmen. Some of these women had gained organizational experience through their involvement with other charity works. A few of these women had their own careers: Mrs. Hazel Waterman was an architect; Kate Sessions was the city’s first horticulturalist and an independent businesswoman; and Charlotte Baker and Bessie Peery were doctors. Whether housewife or professional, the women donated their skills, as well as time and money. Together they formed a very capable nucleus around which the Association was formed.

The group established the Association along conventional lines, with a board of directors to oversee the activities of the Association’s members and the Home. The five director chairs would be open to election each year. The first elected president of the board was Mrs. W. W. Stewart, a member of the W.C.T.U., whose husband was a pioneer wholesaler and shipper in this city. The secretary of the board was Mrs. Anna Lee (George) Marston, wife of the noted local financier and merchant. Another leader was Mrs. Elisha S. Babcock, Jr., the daughter-in-law of the Babcock prominent in the development of Coronado and the famous Hotel del Coronado. It was the younger, not the senior Babcock’s spouse as has sometimes been claimed, who helped found the Woman’s Home. She served as the first treasurer to the board. Also on the board was Mrs. Carl S. Murray, wife of a prominent East County businessman and speculator. The fifth member was Miss E. M. Chapin, an independent businesswoman.6

As one of its first acts, the board filed for incorporation of the Association. The directors had discovered the necessity of incorporation, when they tried to arrange proper insurance on the building and in filing for a boarding license with the state of California. The W.C.T.U., the parent organization, was unincorporated. The directors took it upon themselves to file for incorporation as an organization independent of the W.C.T.U. to facilitate the paperwork necessary to the opening of the home.7

The new members of the Woman’s Home Association must have felt proud. Each had become involved in a worthy cause. They had a building and enough cash to sustain operations until plans could be made for fund-raising events. They were doing something positive for their community and it seemed so easy. But unforeseen difficulties lay just ahead.

Within the month, before the home even had its first resident, disaster struck. The building the W.C.T.U. had given the Association stood on someone else’s land. Perhaps, in view of the land speculation happening at the time, it was inevitable that the landowner sold the property. The new owner had plans for his property. He informed the Association that it would have to move. The Association sold the building to the new landowner, finding in the process that the W.C.T.U. had not paid off the mortgage as had been previously indicated.

The Association leased a building site on Seventh Street, between F and G Streets. With the money from the sale of the old house (after paying off the mortgage) and some contributions, it had enough to begin construction of a new home, but doing so soon emptied the Association’s coffers.8

In debt, the group cast about for ways to raise funds. The Association rented out rooms in their new building, restricting those available for the needy women. It leased most of the first floor to a Mr. Rose for use as a temperance restaurant.

A Mr. John Sherman approached the Association seeking assistance in organizing a public entertainment. After ascertaining that the entertainment would be of a “high order,” the Association agreed to his request in return for twenty percent of the profit. The exact nature or location of the entertainment is not known; however, the Association did provide organization and participants who sang and performed in at least one skit. The Association received forty-two dollars and fifty cents for its effort. The Association must have considered its participation worthwhile because they followed this by arranging other such entertainments, again in return for a percentage of the receipts. Through this means the group paid off a bit more of the debt.9

At the same time, the Association did not neglect its charitable obligations. In August 1887, after moving into its new home, the Association began accepting applications for residence from destitute women. The number of women who could be accepted into the home at one time was limited to four because so much of the space had been taken up by the rentals, but by year’s end the Association had nonetheless managed to assist eleven needy women.10

The Association also sponsored and developed the Woman’s Exchange, an organization that trained women for employment and operated as a placement service. The Exchange was originally to have been an integral facet of the Woman’s Home Association, but the committee authorized to develop the program submitted a report to the Association’s Directors arguing for autonomy. By March 1888, it was able to divorce itself from the home, although the two groups would continue to provide mutual assistance whenever possible.11

The Woman’s Home Association created a Day Care Nursery as a result of discussion in the monthly meeting of March 1888. The motivation behind establishing a day nursery is not clear. Records indicate that the group wished to establish the nursery as a service to working mothers. Oral tradition has it that the Association was approached by a consortium of local businessmen, who were alarmed at the rate of absenteeism among their employees. One cause of absence was determined to be that of child care by widowed workers, a common problem in a day of high death rates for women through childbirth. The businessmen reportedly offered the Association a large sum of money (up to twenty-five thousand dollars) if they would establish a day nursery. Whatever the motivation behind the Day Nursery, the idea met enthusiastic response among the general membership. Mrs. Stewart, the president, appointed a committee headed by Mrs. D. F. Davison to organize the nursery. It opened in September 1888, with a Board of Managers comprised of twenty-four of the community’s women. The nursery, located in a very small house on the corner of First and Cedar Streets, was an instant success.12 This instance of the Association responding to the community’s needs, despite the fact that the need was not related to the purpose for which the Association organized, is a clear example of the flexibility a voluntary charity enjoys.

From the beginning, the Day Nursery functioned as anything but—the very first children were accepted on a weekly and monthly basis. The land bubble had burst and many people were impoverished. People were unable to support their families or unwilling to uproot their families and drag them around the country while looking for new positions. Others were single parents who had to work and could not provide homes for their children. The Day Nursery offered a convenient depository for their children. Although the Association had established the Day Nursery as a service to working mothers, it could not turn these needy people away. Soon even the County was placing children with the Day Nursery on a temporary basis. In 1888 the home was referred to as the Woman’s Home and Day Nursery; but in 1889 the unofficial name became the Women and Children’s Home.13

All of these undertakings caused additional strain on the already burdened finances of the Association. The group’s leaders had hoped to establish a self-perpetuating endowment to meet on-going monetary needs. However, with more and more programs being underwritten by the Association, the endowment program never provided enough money to meet more than a quarter of the expenses. Kate Sessions provided a partial solution to the group’s more pressing financial needs. At her suggestion and under her direction, the Association sponsored the First Annual Flower Festival in the Spring of 1888. The Festival was a huge success, netting $1,450.98. The Association decided upon a three-way division of the proceeds. One share went to the Association, one share went to the Woman’s Exchange, and one share went to the Day Nursery. At last, the Association could pay off the remaining debt on its building.14

The tenacity of the Association in facing its first crisis did not escape the attention of community leaders. Bryant Howard, whose wife was a member of the Association, had watched the group’s struggle to remain solvent. A leading San Diego businessman and philanthropist, he had begun the implementation of his vision of a child-saving institution. The Children’s Industrial Home was to be, Howard hoped, a special organization to serve the needs of the homeless, the abused, and the technically delinquent children in the San Diego area. He envisioned a large complex of housing, traditional schools and technical schools. His object was to return these children to the mainstream of society. The children of the Industrial Home were made available for service and wages, for indenture, or for legal adoption, through carefully supervised programs. Howard established the Industrial Home in 1886, during the land boom. The resultant bust had nullified the demand for this type of institution. Howard had a proposal for the Association.15

In a meeting with the Association’s Board of Directors, Howard proposed the merger of the Children’s Industrial Home and the Women and Children’s Home, as it was now known. The consolidation would then numerically qualify the combined agency for state aid available for the care of orphans and half-orphans.

The proposal was more complex in its implication than would at first appear. To accept it would have meant that the Home would actually become an orphanage. While then qualifying the Home for the state aid, it would also mean complying with many state and county regulations governing the operation of an orphanage and the hiring of a professional staff. A decision to deny the proposal would mean rejecting the community’s need for such an institution, something the group could not countenance. The proposal was finally accepted with the provision that only healthy children and boys under the age of six be accepted. Also, that the Directors not have to work with Mr. Dooly, the administrator of the Children’s Industrial Home. Howard agreed to these terms and the partial consolidation was effected forthwith.16

Howard also urged the Association to take advantage of the new legislation empowering the City Trustees to grant use of portions of Balboa Park for charitable and educational purposes (the Children’s Industrial Home had received a hundred acres). He offered to petition the trustees on the Home’s behalf to gain use of a portion of the land available in the Park.

The Directors quickly agreed to Howard’s offer and authorized him to address the City Trustees on the Home’s behalf. The trustees approved the petition, granting five acres on Sixteenth Street.17.

Behind the scenes, the administration of the Association was beginning to splinter. The Women’s Home program had lost much of its impetus with the drastic population reduction in the community that followed the collapse of the boom. Seventeen thousand or more persons left after the flush years ended. In the process, housing became more affordable and the kinds of positions women traditionally occupied were again plentiful.

The need for a Women’s Home was no longer apparent, but that was not the case for the Children’s Home program. It was an unqualified success, causing the Association to have to turn needy children away. The administration of the children’s program was nominally under the Board of Managers that had originally established the Day Nursery. However, the finances and important decisions on policy had to be approved by the Association. The Board of Managers were jealous of the Association’s control over a program it had developed and many members were agitating for separation from the Association.18

A showdown appeared to be forthcoming when Mrs. Stewart resigned the presidency of the Association in April 1889. The selection of the right person to succeed her could heal the rift between the two factions. It is doubtful the Association could survive another program loss, as had happened when the Woman’s Exchange separated.

The logical successor to the presidency of the Association was Mrs. Marston. Indeed, virtually all of the meetings were now held at her house, and she was always in charge of one key committee or another. Besides, her social prominence as the wife of George Marston and high public visibility would help give the home more publicity than it might otherwise receive. Mr. Marston’s philanthropic propensities were well known and the couple enjoyed a growing reputation among the city’s notable and the public at large. However, it is doubtful that Mrs. Marston would have been able to persevere against the separatist faction had she been elected.

Wisely, the body of the Association elected Mrs. D. F. Davison, the Chairperson of the Board of Managers of the Children’s Program, to the presidency of the Association. Indeed, it appears that she enjoyed Mrs. Marston’s support. In this way, the Association ended the move for separation before it could really gather momentum and thus bridged the gap between the two factions.19

In 1890, the need for funds was once again an urgent matter. Besides on-going projects, a building fund was needed if the group were to erect a structure on the new site in Balboa Park. The Home had been directed by the City Trustees to begin construction by May of that year or risk revocation of the grant. Its biggest fund drive ever was inaugurated. The group encountered many difficulties in fund raising. The members were not experienced at the business of raising money. Many of the group’s efforts resulted in little return for its hard work. Slowly, the Association mastered the process of fund raising.

The Association learned the value of news releases to the San Diego Union. The group submitted notices of meetings and results of same, wrote letters to the editor, publicized charity events and drives, and convinced journalists that the Women and Children’s Home offered good human interest pieces. The group also took advantage of the social standing of many of its members and their husbands to publicize the needs of the Association. During the spring of 1890 notices and articles appeared almost weekly in the Union. The publicity blitz was centered around the upcoming third annual Spring Flower Festival.20.

Then, in early March, the Association received a devastating letter from Mrs. S. W. Switzer, Correspondence Secretary for the First Women’s Christian Temperance Union. It read:

The/st W.C.T.U of San Diego wish to request of the W.H.A. Ass’n. the pirvelege of being represented in the coming Flower Festival and to have a share in the proceeds, together with the Womans Exchange and The Womans Home Ass’n. . They do this the more confidently because as is well known the W.H.A. Ass’n was organized under the auspices of the W.C.T.U. and with the understanding that it was always to remain so. The W.C.T.U. allowed the W.H.A. Ass’n to take charge of their property and use it (or the income derrived there from) in such manner as the W.H.A. Ass’n. saw fit, subject always to the approval of the W.C.T.U. In what manner or by whose authority the two organizations became separate the W.C.T.U. are not able to understand. Certainly the W.H.A. Ass’n. could have noauthority to take the property belonging to the W.C.T.U. under its supreme control without the consent of that organization, and quite as certainly the W.C.T.U. never gave up its property in any such way (all sic).21

Essentially the Association was being accused of misappropriation of funds. It was a very embarrassing situation for the Association. Yet, to be brought back into the circle of the W.C.T.U. could not be tolerated. The Association had moved too far from its primary purpose. Its major function was no longer that of a women’s home, but rather that of child care. The Association felt that to acknowledge the authority of the W.C.T.U. would endanger the child care program.

The Association outlined its position in a confrontation with the W.C.T.U. at a meeting on March 25, 1890. Although the two groups failed to reach an agreement on the issues raised, they did agree to keep the matter from the press in the interest of both groups. What followed was a flurry of letters between the two agencies.22 Finally, the W.C.T.U. threatened to turn the matter over to an attorney if no settlement could be reached. The Association reiterated its position that the Festival could not support a fourth associate and that the two agencies were no longer working toward the same goals.

The W.C.T.U. turned the matter over to an attorney, a Mr. Daniel Cleveland. The Association quickly did the same, hiring the venerable local judge, M. A. Luce. The two men hammered the matter out in the Judge’s office, reaching an agreement on May 28, 1890 that was satisfactory to both the W.C.T.U. and the Association. Ironically, the 1890 Flower Festival that sparked the dispute to begin with, had already taken place.

The agreement that the Association signed required that: A receipt must be signed and given to the W.C.T.U. for one thousand dollars from the Association; and for the next five years, the Association must elect two of its five board members from members having status in both organizations. The understood contingency in case of breech of the agreement was that the W.C.T.U. should receive a share of the revenue from future flower festivals.

One must marvel at the ingenuity of the Directors of the Association in circumventing the agreement. The understood contingency was neatly avoided by discontinuing the festival. The Association also minimized the effect of the second stipulation of electing two board directors from those association members with membership in the W.T.C.U. by enlarging the board of directors from five to seven members. The entire embroglio had been especially awkward because many, such as Dr. Charlotte Baker and Mrs. W. W. Stewart, were members of both organizations.23

Meanwhile, the Association had raised enough money to initiate construction at the park site. It entered into a contract calling for a three-story structure at a cost of $3,290.00. The contractor would or could only proceed as the money became available. Moreover, because of the Association’s fear of debt, he had only been contracted to finish the outside work.

The Association was unsuccessful in its attempt to raise the funds for construction by contribution. Finally, the group turned to the county for help in bringing about the completion of the structure. In an agreement worked out with the county, the county provided one thousand dollars for the interior work in exchange for a ten-year contract allowing the county to place children in the home. This was the beginning of a long association with the county, one which would cause the Association to surrender more and more of its autonomy as the years went by.

The contract that the Association signed with the county allowed the county to place any children in the home without screening and approval of the Association. This unrestricted placement allowed children with criminal backgrounds to be placed with children whose only crime was not having someplace to live. And the age or sex of children placed by the county within the home could not be controlled by the Association any longer. This kind of indiscriminate placement placed a burden on the management of the home. The county also placed requirements on the Association about the kind of staffing, food, clothing, and shelter provided.24 In all, it was a poor and dangerous agreement that the Association made with the county.

On December 3, 1890, fifteen children and their matron moved into the new building. The third floor, which would be the boys’ dormitory, was still unfinished and would remain so until the following year. The Association would not finish paying for the home until 1893. By that time a building fund for additional structures was already underway.25 The park site would be the location of the Women and Children’s Home for the next sixty-eight years.

In 1897, the San Diego Children’s Industrial Home burned down. With it went Bryant Howard’s dream of a children’s complex in Balboa Park. The structures had been insufficiently insured.26 The Association reluctantly absorbed the Industrial Home’s resident population, and became the only children’s home in the San Diego area for a time.

Throughout the 1890s the Association bemoaned the public’s conception that the agency was rich, a view which made it decidedly more difficult to raise contributions in support of its programs. Perhaps the Association’s image as a rich agency arose because of the social strata of the people associated with the home—the Marstons, the Seftons, the Howards, and the Scripps. These people and many more associated with the home were among the most affluent in San Diego society. Or perhaps it was because the children appeared to be anything but institutional children. They were well fed, well clothed, well mannered, and well educated. They appeared happy; they called the agency home and its members family. Whatever the reason, the result was that the nineties were a quiet period for the home and one of slow growth.27

In May 1898, in a change long overdue the Association finally altered the name of the home from the Woman’s Home and Day Nursery to one in keeping with its current programs, the Women and Children’s Home, although the Woman’s Home Association would maintain its original name for another six years.28.

An examination of the Woman’s Home Association and its activities in the late nineteenth century, might, on first observation, seem to be an agreement for voluntarism.

The Association survived the sudden collapse of the land boom because it wasn’t tied to a slow moving bureaucracy or rigid accountability in the manner that it spent the funds it collected. But critics of the kind of free-wheeling charity the Association represented point to the lack of direction and consistency as a shortcoming.

The day nursery is a case in point. The purpose for establishing the institution is clearly recorded. Yet, the day nursery never operated as such. Rather, it operated as a temporary shelter from its opening day. Planning, organization and money were wasted because the Association failed to adhere to the stated purpose. In addition, the Association placed itself in the position of having to create overnight, the additional planning, organizing and money needed to run this vastly more ambitious project.

Slow growth of the original programs would, perhaps, have allowed the Association to establish an endowment large enough to relieve the constant money pressures the group experienced. Instead, the Association was forced to rely on contributions from the public to meet daily expenses. When contributions failed, the group had to bargain from a weak position with the county and state to the detriment of the group’s beneficiaries.

The misunderstandings between the W.C.T.U. and the Association probably would not have occurred if the group had been founded on a more professional level. Nor is it likely that the continual building problems would have plagued a more carefully organized agency.

However, it cannot be dismissed that the Association stepped in where government failed to act. The group brought an awareness of community problems to the people of San Diego. The group demonstrated solutions to these problems and spurred involvement by the residents of San Diego. In the final analysis the worst the Association can be faulted for is inexperience, while its great humanitarian achievements speak for themselves.


1. M. A. Kidder, “The Bright Side” as quoted inside cover Woman’s Home Association, Minutes of Meeting of Board of Directors, San Diego Center for Children Papers (uncatalogued). San Diego History Research Center, San Diego State University (hereafter cited as SDCCP).

2. Richard F. Pourade, The History of San Diego: The Glory Years vol. 4 (San Diego: Union Tribune Publishing Company, 1964), p. 193.

3. Ibid., pp. 167-235; Elizabeth C. MacPhail, When the Red Lights Went Out in San Diego: The Little Known Story of San Diego’s Restricted District (San Diego: San Diego History Center, 1974), p. 4.

4. “Articles of Incorporation” Woman’s Home Association, February 17, 1887, SDCCP, p. 1.

5. “Minutes of Directors’ Meetings, 1887-1990” SDCCP, pp. 1-4; San Diego Union, October, 10, 1886; November 17, 1887.

6. San Diego History Center, San Diego County Pioneer Families: A Collection of Family Histories (San Diego: San Diego History Center, no date); “But the Memories Linger On” Newsletter (San Diego: San Diego Center for Children), vol. 19:4, p. 1; SDCCP.

7. “Minutes, 1887-1900,” SDCCP, pp. 2-3, “Articles of Incorporation,” SDCCP.

8. “Minutes, 1887-1900,” SDCCP, pp. 3-8.

9. Ibid., pp. 16-30. Interview with L. George Horne, San Diego Center for Children, San Diego, California, October 27, 1981; The Union. March 1887-August 1887.

10. “Minutes of 1887 Annual Meeting of Woman’s Home Association,” March 1888, SDCCP.

11. “Minutes, 1887-1900,” SDCCP, pp. 16-30.

12. Ibid., pp. 16-30. Interview George Horne.

13. “Monthly Report Board of Managers, Day Nursery to Woman’s Home Association,” August 1888-April 1889, SDCCP; The Union, August 1888-January 1889.

14. Ibid., pp. 7-10; The Union.

15. “Articles of Incorporation” San Diego Children’s Industrial Home, The Union, December 22, 1888; The Union, January 27, 1889; December 18, 19, 1890; January 1, 1892.

16. “Minutes, 1887-1990,” SDCCP.

17. Ibid., pp. 12-30.

18. Ibid,, pp. 44-47; Interview George Horne.

19. Ibid.

20. The San Diego Union, February 1890-May 1890.

21. Letter, W.C.T.U. to W.H.A., March ?, 1890, SDCCP.

22. “Minutes, 1887-1990,” SDCCP, pp. 59-70.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid., The Union, May 1890-December 1890. “Special Report, Matron to Directors, 1946,” SDCCP.

25. Ibid., pp. 58-72; Union (Scattered dates from April 1890 to December 1890).

26. The Union, May 10, 12, 1897.

27. “Minutes, 1887-1900,” SDCCP, pp. 40-170; The Union, 1888-1898; Interview George Horne.

28. Ibid.

THE ILLUSTRATION on page 42 is from the SDHC Research Archives. The photographs are from the San Diego History Center’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection.