Cool Resource: Widows’ Pension Records

One hundred years ago, there weren’t a lot of options for widowed mothers who needed help caring for their children.

In Iowa and parts of Illinois, if a judge felt that the mother could not provide for her family, the children were sent to the Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home in Davenport, without a formal trial or a chance for the mother to make her case.

However, it cost the state of Iowa $12 a month to maintain a child at the Soldier’s Orphans Home and it was calculated that a widows’ pension would allow children to stay home with their mother and would cost the state less than $10 a month.  This would not only be more economical for the state, it would also benefit the children by keeping the family intact.

By 1912, six states had already enacted Widows Pension laws with great success: Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, California, Indiana and Oklahoma.   In Illinois, specifically Chicago, each case was thoroughly investigated by representatives from the county and social workers from local relief societies. They then would present a case to the judge and recommend the amount of aid each family needed.

Iowa’s Widows Pension Law went into effect on July 14th, 1913. The original bill was drafted by state representative Frank S. Shankland, a Republican from Polk County, and co-authored by Mrs. Sam Weinstock, head of the federated Jewish charities for Des Moines.

Under the new law, any widowed mother of children under the age of 14 (later changed to 16) was eligible to apply for a pension of no more than $10 a month per child, or $2 per week. The amount awarded was left to the discretion of the judge, after hearing testimony and examining all evidence.

The first pension in Iowa was given on July 21st, 1913, to a widow in Elkhart, who would receive one dollar a week* for each of her four children, ages 7 months to 7 years.

The Scott County Board of Supervisors passed their own Widow’s Pension bill at their meeting on November 20th, 1915. More than 30 families were to receive between $4 and $8 per month per child under the age of 14 years.

Each county was responsible for paying the state up to $5 per child in taxes. The money would come out of each county’s “pauper fund”—known as the “poor fund” in Scott County—which also paid for sending patients with tuberculosis to the Oakdale sanitarium in Iowa City.

Per Iowa law, this fund was not to exceed $2 million dollars, and the county supervisors in Polk County feared it would not be enough to cover all of the expenses. The statutory limit in the pauper fund had been raised to $3 million by 1932.

The widows’ pension law was repealed on January 1, 1944 and replaced by the federally backed aid-to-dependent children program.

We have three volumes of the Scott County Widows’ Pension Records available on Microfilm from 1915-1932.


Works Cited

“The Widow’s Pension Law”. (1914, March 20). Bode Bugle, p. 8.

Aid-to-Dependent Children Program Goes to U. S. for Okay. (1943, August 26). Mason City Globe-Gazette, p. 9.

Board Passes Pension Bill. (1915, November 21). Davenport Democrat and Leader, p. 12.

Elkhart Woman Gets First Widow’s Pension. (1913, July 21). Waterloo Evening Courier, p. 5.

Explanation of Widow’s Pension Law by Rep. Frank Shankland, Author of the Bill. (1913, July 03). Des Moines Daily News, p. 4.

Iowa Should Pension Widows. (1912, September 05). State Center Enterprise, p. 4.

Iowa Widows’ Pension Law. (1914, February 05). Elgin Echo, p. 3.

Measure to Pension Widows. (1912, August 31). Clinton Mirror, p. 6.

New Laws Affect Widows. (1913, July 03). Altoona Herald, p. 7.

Polk Will Suffer Under Tax Laws So Says Mr. J. B. Uhl. (1913, June 21). Des Moines Capital, p. 8.

Poor Relief is Putting Future Burden on IA. (1932, September 13). Ames Daily Tribune, p. 8.

State Has Child Aid Law. (1943, April 16). LeMars Semi Weekly Sentinel, p. 2.

Widows’ Pension Bill. (1912, December 12). Waterloo Evening Courier, p. 4.


*Or roughly $93 a month per child in 2012 dollars.


(posted by Cristina)

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