York Town Square

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Early Civil War responders: ‘The women of York … pitched in with enthusiasm’

The Ladies Soldiers Aid Society met in P.A. & S. Small’s buildings, right, on York, Pa.’s, Centre Square to sew and wind bandages for Union fighting men in the Civil War. That’s the M.B. Spahr Company, on the northeastern corner of the square, in this circa 1890 photograph, a colorized version of a York County Heritage Trust photo, that appears in Metro Bank’s Prospect Street Office. That building was replaced by a architecturally significant bank building, most recently Citizens Bank. Citizens said it was closing this landmark in late 2011. Also of interest: Isabel Small led procession of women who made wreath for Abe Lincoln’s coffin and York County Civil War nurse about Confederate invaders: ‘Dogs of war in our midst’ and Living historians bring spotlight to York’s Civil War story.

A recent York Town Square blog post detailing the end of the Young Women’s Club of York’s operations of the hospitality shop at York Hospital leads to the question:
When did such organized service clubs – facing shrinking memberships today – start their good work around York?
The Civil War might have brought organized women’s service work into existence… .

Soon after the first shots of the war were fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina in 1861, Isabel Small spearheaded the York-area women’s efforts to provide aid to soldiers.
The women established an organization to recruit others, and the Ladies Soldiers Aid Society was formed.
I wrote in “East of Gettysburg” that female volunteers met in a large room set aside at P.A. & S. Small’s Centre Square store. Isabel Small made that happen. She was the wife of “S.” — Samuel Small.
There the women sorted donated clothing, sewed new clothing and wound bandages. Children helped, too.
Farmers opened great chests brought with them across the Atlantic to equip the women with linen to make dressings for wounds.
Mark Snell searched for antebellum women’s service organizations in York as part of his 1987 master’s work, “A Northern Community Goes to War.”
“Antebellum York must have been very active socially, at least from a white man’s point of view,” Snell, now a history professor at Shepherd University, wrote.
York, for example, played host to one Masonic and three Odd Fellow lodges, five volunteer fire companies, two benevolence associations, a male temperance society, a mechanics order and a YMCA, he wrote.
But a borough directory of that day did no list any women’s charitable, voluntary or temperance societies.
Snell came up with no evidence of any women’s associations from county newspapers and church records.
So Sumter might have catalyzed such organized service — the Ladies Aid Society.
“The women of York … pitched in with enthusiasm,” Snell wrote, “forming what might have been York’s first women’s organization.”
Actually, the women of York were organized to do good work in those years before the Civil War, but perhaps not readily visible to us today. Many churches in York had active women’s societies undertaking benevolent work. Their work is a topic awaiting exploration by someone looking for a master’s thesis topic.
All York Town Square women’s history posts from the start.