By Susanne Beck
In June 1812, Boston was a town divided. President James Madison had just declared war on Great Britain, an act the majority of the Massachusetts House of Representatives condemned. Legislators called the event “awful, unexpected, hostile to your interests, menacing to your liberties, and revolting to your feelings,” voting 406 to 240 in opposition. The state Senate disagreed, passing a resolution in favor of the war, declaring it both just and necessary.
The president prevailed, worsening the New England economy that was already in freefall from an earlier embargo, and effectively closing off access to the region’s primary source for commerce, the sea. Almost half of the area’s working men were left unemployed. Poor houses, overflowed. Impoverished mothers and children became the unintended casualties.
Into this fray the Fragment Society was born, a group of Beacon Hill-based women less concerned with opinions on the war than with its devastating effects, especially on poor children. They took as their inspiration – and the reference for their name – a quote from the book of John (John 6:12), attributed to Jesus Christ: “Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.” Fragments, for them, were not just those left behind economically, but also the scraps of fabric and other materials that they might use to clothe and comfort the same. As stated in their original constitution, adopted in October of 1812 in a private home on Beacon Hill, the women vowed, “Though our means may be small, we may be able to do something toward relieving the want and promoting the comfort of the suffering poor.”
One year later, in 1813, the Fragment’s director annual report observed: “Widows and orphans are fast multiplying around us in consequence of our present calamities.” The so-called underclass was continuing to fail, calling upon society members to further dedicate themselves to their prescribed work.
Two hundred and eleven years on, the mission of the “Fragments” and the nature of their work remains much the same. Well-decorated packages are carefully assembled, filled with baby clothing, blankets, and the like – better known as a layette and delivered to those deemed most in need. By tradition, at least one item in each parcel is homemade. The sense of community is also unchanged. Current board chair Kimberlea Jeffries notes that even during the pandemic, camaraderie was strong and the commitment of members to give back, undiminished. “This is a unique group of smart, interesting women who have led very interesting lives. They appreciate the challenges of the world and they [still] want to do their part.”
Jeffries notes that, for the most part, only the number of impoverished children has changed, rising consistently over time despite various private interventions and government-sponsored support. “The need is still there,” she confirms. “Kids need clothing and school materials, babies need blankets and other goods.” Vice President Alison Geyer agrees, adding “it would be an amazing thing to be able to say it’s not needed anymore after two hundred years but the reality is it is needed more than ever. So, we fill a gap.”
Some of the group’s practices and procedures have changed, however, a reflection of modern-day mores and members’ lifestyles. In its early years, for instance, Fragments connected directly to those in need, hand-delivering their decorative packages to those most wanting. Today, thirteen agencies act as intermediaries for the 217-member organization, identifying the recipients and protecting their identities in the process. Early on, most Fragments sewed, gathering regularly to create goodies for their bags and to catch up. For a very brief period of its two hundred-plus year history, such get-togethers became exclusively social in fact, with elaborate dinners held at stately homes in and around Beacon Hill. The practice was quickly dropped, however, seen as antithetical to the mission. Many current members laugh when asked if they sew, Maggie Begley, full-time attorney, among them. “My mom was doing knitting and taught us [but] I just didn’t have the patience for it. I would start a sweater and then mom would finish it… I have thought maybe I should try it one of these days, but it’s still on the to-do list.” Vice President Geyer is no different. “I did growing up,” she chuckles, “but you certainly don’t need to be a sewer or a knitter to be a member.” Anyone who can pitch in, in any way, and for any amount of time each year, is welcome.
In-person meetings are also rarer, especially post-COVID, unless there is a specific purpose like assembling the 635 bags the society provided last year. Members’ lives are simply too complicated by careers, kids, and other callings. Communication has been upgraded, as a result, with the addition of a website, an Instagram account, and greater reliance on email. In a nod to the organization’s longevity and the age of some long-time Fragments, snail mail, and the telephone have not been completely abandoned. The recent vote on new by-laws, for instance, was carried out by mail. President Jeffries is quick to note, though, that it is not age alone that defines communication patterns. “Carlotta [a member] texts and she is 101!” she exclaims.
The addition of social media is also intended to raise the profile of what has been documented to be the oldest female charitable organization in Boston that has preserved its autonomy and has continued uninterrupted to honor and perpetuate its original mission – in particular, to recruit new volunteers, whether they sign on as formal members or not. Jeffries estimates that until recently, the average age of the membership was close to 70. Some new, younger Fragments signed up recently helping to lower that number, but work remains. “Last year, we did a volunteer fair and this year, we participated in HillFest,” Jeffries says; more events are planned as the need continues to grow. Begley notes that unless her mother had been involved, she might not have known about the society or its good works at all. “I don’t think it’s a particularly well-known organization, at least amongst most of the people I know,” she observes.
The Fragment Society leadership is clear-eyed about the challenge it faces to stay relevant and of interest to younger women in the Boston area. People continue to be pressed for time. And the organization is hardly alone in the kind of work it does and for whom. So why take the time to participate? Words like “sweet,” “unique,” and “tradition,” are often cited by those who have been Fragments. But they quickly give way to more considered expressions of joy and heart-felt gratification from what ultimately seem to be a deeply personal acts. “There is always satisfaction when [the packages are] done,” Geyer says quietly. “You know, [I feel] I helped our group of volunteers, but also I helped someone who I don’t know who’s going to receive a beautiful layette bag, and that’s a really satisfying feeling.”