Containers reveal Americans thinking outside the box about philanthropy

I don't like to dodge questions, but that's what I did when someone asked me which object is my favorite in the museum's new exhibition on the history of philanthropy. I was a little embarrassed to say it was a modest metal box from the early to mid-19th century, and I couldn't say why I liked it so much. As I reflected, I realized I like the timeworn little box because it reveals the way focusing on objects can uncover stories about developments in Americans' giving for the common good.

A beat up gray metal box with a rusting padlock

The alms box sits in the middle of Giving in America alongside the mop bucket used by Jeanette Senerchia in what became the social-media-fueled "Ice Bucket Challenge" to raise awareness and funds for ALS. Both objects show ways many Americans have donated for the common good. Many people can and have dropped a coin in a collection box or, in the summer of 2014, dumped ice-cold water over their heads. The bucket, as many visitors will recognize, also highlights Americans' use of new technologies and communication platforms in mobilizing support for philanthropic causes. Everyday objects in and of themselves, plastic buckets became highly successful fundraising tools because people used them in conjunction with today's communications technology.

Two young girls look through the glass of a museum display to gaze at a blue bucket among other objects like a pair of boots or a bust of a man.

The little metal box tells a similar story about the role of novel technologies in an earlier era's philanthropy. Alms boxes were once an innovative fundraising tool in their own right. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin learned they were too innovative. In 1751 he and others had founded the Pennsylvania Hospital as a public-private partnership. As one of their various fundraising strategies, managers sought to employ collection boxes "in imitation of a good custom practiced in some foreign countries." Each manager placed a tin box, with the words "Charity for the Hospital" written on it in gold letters, in his house, with the idea that people would drop in some money. Alas, Franklin explained, "these boxes among us have produced but little for the Hospital . . . not through want of charity in our people, but from their being unacquainted with the nature and design of them."

Several decades later, collection boxes were still new to some. A writer in the Harrisburg Commonwealth in 1823 commented on the "new" and "genteel invention" for raising money for charity, the missionary box. The one this writer had seen, on the mantelpiece in a local tavern, was "a small pasteboard box beautifully larded over with scriptural quotations," the words "MISSIONARY BOX," and a "small hole" for donations. Commenting favorably on the design, the writer disliked the cause. The needs of widows and orphans at home, the writer believed, should come before those of faraway people.

Folios from a publication laid open. There is a string that holds the pages together that is visible and text on both pages. The paper is discolored. On the right page there is an illustration of a group of people in a room, several children and an adult.

Although the Harrisburg Commonwealth commentator disapproved, Americans increasingly used collection boxes in the 1820s and 1830s to raise funds to support Protestant missionaries overseas and at home. As evangelical organizations burgeoned, groups such as Sunday school unions used media (newspapers and periodicals) to explain and popularize the boxes. By publicizing stories of children who put their Christmas money or hard-earned pennies into missionary boxes, the charities helped educate Americans about this technology and encourage young people's benevolence. Evidence from the era's publications suggest boxes were closely associated with missionary work. Not until the late 19th century does the term "alms box" become common in periodicals.

I wish I knew what the box in our collection was used for. Nevertheless, it's my favorite object in the exhibition, because it serves to remind us that giving has a history, and that history is sometimes hidden in the most seemingly familiar objects.

Amanda Moniz is the David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy in the Division of Home and Community Life. The Philanthropy Initiative is made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and David M. Rubenstein.

Posted in Philanthropy