Donor demography

An item titled “donor demography” is always on my to-do list – I have a database with the names of over 5,000 individuals and groups who gave to famine relief, and there always seems to be something more I could be doing with that data.  I’ve been playing around with a sample of 120 American donors.  Telling a story about these people is tricky.

The easiest, and most bloodless approach is a statistical one:

In a sample of 12o donors, the largest single donation came from the Society of Friends in Philadelphia, who in February of 1847 collected $7,200.  The smallest donation was of $1, and came from a “Friend of Ireland” somewhere in the vicinity of Charleston.  The average donation was $443, but the most commonly donated amount was $5.  The median donation was $50, and the geographic distribution of this sample (drawn from Charleston and New York Newspapers) shows donors scattered across the United States.

Another approach is to break them up into smaller groups, say, professional men (doctors, lawyers, clergymen, judges and military officers); men whose names don’t indicate rank or profession; women;  towns and groups of people, and write a speculative narrative about what might have prompted men or women of a certain type to give.

From February to May of 1847, professional men across the United States contributed to famine relief.  Some, like the Reverend Jas. Dupree of Summerville, South Carolina, gave as little as $3, while others like Dr. Benjamin Waldo, gave as much as $200.  In the 1850s, a skilled laborer could make, at most $300 in a year, so the doctor’s donation certainly, and Reverend Dupree’s donation possibly represented a sizable portion of their household income.  A significant majority of these men worked with a church in some capacity, suggesting that frequent exposure to doctrines of virtue through charity might have effectively encouraged some to give.  These men also would have had access to the dominant newspapers of the day – easily affording penny periodicals like the New York Sun or Charleston Courierand would consequently have been exposed to many of the circulating ideas about Americans’ obligations to the suffering Irish.

Finally, one of these donors from one of these groups, say “Dr. Reynolds” of Camden, SC, might be used to extrapolate the possible charitable motivations of men.

This “Dr. Reynolds” could have been any one of three Reynolds men living in Camden in 1840 (or someone else entirely, who emigrated in the intervening seven years).  All three Reynolds residents of Camden owned slaves.

There, the trail goes cold.  I could, with infinite time and resources, track down all of the donors mentioned in the records of famine charities, and that’s actually something I aspire to do some day, but those people who are recoverable from mid-nineteenth-censuses will likely prove to be remarkable in some way – an uncommon name or profession, or living in an uncommon place – rendering them less than ideal examples of the average or exemplary donor.  Ultimately, I’m not convinced that having the stories of five thousands individuals will tell me more than trying to make sense of the groups they belonged to, or how they identified in their communities, but I’m neither sure what the best way to tell their stories is.

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