Monday, April 30, 2012

History: The Halfway House

When we speak of a halfway house today we usually mean a place where people who need assistance of some kind, or perhaps parolees, live temporarily. It may come as a bit of a surprise that the term actually came from the pioneering work of one of the first coastal lifesaving associations in the world: The Massachusetts Humane Society.

The Society was founded in the 1780s, not long after the Revolutionary War (Peter H. Spectre in A Mariner’s Miscellany gives the founding year as 1789 while this website indicates 1787). The task of the Society was specific to rescuing those involved in boating accidents and shipwrecks along the shores of the vast territory of Massachusetts, which then included the modern state of Maine. This pioneering effort was the forerunner of the U.S. Life-Saving Service and, to a lesser degree, the U.S. Coast Guard. Europe would not establish such Societies until a full 35 years later when the Royal National Lifeboat Institution was founded in Britain.

The service provided by the MHS included huts along the shore that were specifically designed to allow a victim of shipwreck to take refuge while awaiting rescue. Originally known as humane or charity houses, the huts were set up at carefully chosen points along the coast that were far from inhabited areas. Spectre describes the huts as:

eight feet square by seven feet high, with a sliding door on the south side, a sliding shutter on the west and a 15-foot flagpole on the east side at the top.

The huts varied as far as accommodation. Some simply offered a built in bench to sit or lie on with straw to help the shipwrecked sailor stay warm. Others were almost luxurious by comparison, featuring a lantern with whale oil, a stove with wood and kindling, hardtack and fresh water. The flagpole was used by the survivor or survivors to raise a signal flag that would let members of the Society, who made regular checks of the huts particularly in inclement weather, know that someone was alive and needed help.

When the U.S. Life-Saving Service took over the MHS, the huts became known as Halfway Houses because they were positioned halfway between the Society’s larger life saving stations.

The modern use of the term halfway house, then, is just another example of the language of the sea making itself comfortable on land.

Header: MHS station and lifeboat in Marblehead from Lighthouse Antiques (see link above)


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! This is almost like a SMS post... I mean that in a good way.

I'm sure those little huts were a welcome sight to any shipwreck survivors who found them.

I also like the outfits on the folks in the picture... and the fact that it's in MAHblehead (as they would say)...


Pauline said...

Kind of; so much of modern English comes from "sailor speak" that it's hard not to drift off in that direction now and again.

And yeah; that picture is awesome.