Monday, March 18, 2013

1916 postcard from Norristown's State Hospital for Insane

This postcard shows the "Female Wing, State Hospital for Insane" in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Was it written and mailed by a patient there back in 1916? Quite possibly, in my opinion.

It was postmarked at 7 a.m. on August 16, 1916, with a stamp indicating "NORRISTOWN, PA. HOSPITALS."

It was written and addressed in pencil, in neat cursive handwriting (see below). The recipient was Mr. Edgar Simpkins of Camp Creek, a now-nearly-forgotten location in Floyd County, Virginia.1

The note, as best Joan and I can tell, states the following (no punctuation or capitalization has been added or changed):
Aug 16
Dear Edgar
how are you
These hot days are to the good
I hope I'm well and hope you are the same
have you learned to run the auto yet
Take a run up to see me
I would be glad to see you
your Friend Mary

[across bottom] I'll write a letter soon
[across top] Write soon

I find it most illuminating that Mary writes "I hope I'm well." Why was she hospitalized/institutionalized?2

The hospital is still in operation today and is known as Norristown State Hospital. According to its official website, it opened its doors and received its first patient, a woman, on July 12, 1880. By September of that year, there were about 550 patients on site.

It was originally called the State Lunatic Hospital at Norristown, according to Wikipedia. I don't know if "State Hospital for Insane," as printed on this postcard, was ever its official title.

As far as the buildings and grounds are concerned, here is some further history from the hospital's website:
"Norristown State Hospital was the first of the Pennsylvania state hospitals to construct its buildings in a style following the 'cottage' model, developed in Gheel [sic], Belgium, rather than the large-scale single structure Kirkbride Model3 that was composed of multiple 'wings' attached to it. The Norristown State Hospital buildings were separate structures above ground, but were all inter-connected by a system of tunnels. The 'cottage' model allowed for the separation of patients into areas based somewhat on their level of functioning."

Some of the therapy options that were available for the first patients, many of which were occupation-oriented, included a bakery, a billiards room, a carpentry shop, a working farm, a garden, a mattress shop, painting, shoemaking and weaving. Patients could also play croquet and tennis.

On the other hand, according to the hospital's website, electroshock therapy, insulin coma therapy, and lobotomies were methods of treatment during the 1930s and 1940s.

Norristown State Hospital currently has 258 beds for general psychiatry and 136 beds in the Regional Psychiatric Forensic Unit (which, by my understanding, is modern-day PC code for "criminally insane.")4

1. Floyd County, even now, is sparsely populated, with about 15,000 residents and a population density of about 36 people per square mile. Some of the place names in Floyd County, many of which are unincorporated, include Carthage, Check, Duncan, Haycock, Pizarro, Poff, Smart and Alum Ridge.
2. As a non-historical aside, when I saw that her name was Mary, I thought of the heard-on-tape character of Mary Hobbes in the horror film "Session 9".
3. The "Kirkbride Model," designed by Pennsylvanian Thomas Story Kirkbride, featured large buildings with long, staggered wings that allowed for the most possible privacy, fresh air and sunlight, to benefit patients with mental illness. One of the best examples of the Kirkbride Model was Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts (most of which has been demolished, with the central shell transformed into apartment buildings). For more on the buildings of the Kirkbride Model, check out the thorough website
4. In researching this post, I found Papergreat's doppelgänger — a website called Noises in the Attic, which features a post titled "Norristown Asylum for the Criminally Insane: An Early History of Trouble."


  1. Hi!
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    Cheema from Pakistan

  2. I have a friend who volunteered there in high school. Mostly, he'd sit and visit with patients. He liked to tell about one gentleman who loved to play chess. My friend, a very good chess player himself, would sit down and the gentleman would ask, "How many moves?" Whatever number my friend gave, that's exactly how many moves the gentleman would take to win the game.

  3. Hey thanks for the history, it's very fascinating! I took a few pictures of the hospital in it's current state. Check them out if you have a minute: