Robert Treat Paine

Descended from early New England settlers, a patriot “founding father,” and generations of reverends, governors and lawyers, Robert Treat Paine came of age as the United States entered into Civil War. Paine’s three brothers risked their lives in the service of the Union, and one died at Gettysburg never knowing the country would be reunited. Paine opted out of military service, but was called to action of a different sort, namely improving the lot of the working poor and promoting international peace.

Capitalist with a Conscience

Robert Treat Paine spent a lifetime striving to fulfill the lofty expectations of his class. In his autobiography, he stressed his inheritance of intellect and denied any inheritance of wealth, considering himself a self-made man. In his railroad and mining investments, he attributed his success to "my habit of thorough personal inspection, forming my own deliberate judgment and acting on it boldly."

In contrast to the robber barons of his day who acquired wealth through exploitative and ruthless labor practices, Paine invested with ethics. For instance, he was a major shareholder in the prosperous Calumet and Hecla Mining Company in Michigan, which provided housing and schools to the workers and their families.

Workingmen and Their Families at Stonehurst, ca. 1890

Workingmen and Their Families at Stonehurst, ca. 1890

The Philanthropic Imperitive

Paine invited members of local "workingmen's institutes" that he founded to Stonehurst annually. Modeled after similar organizations pioneered in England, Paine's institutes were the first such endeavors in America. They were part club, part school, providing  "innocent amusements, social pleasures, reading rooms and class instruction…touching one of the very deepest needs of the working classes."

"I reached the conviction that as we only had this life on earth once, I was not willing to devote the last half of it to the mere business of making money." —Robert Treat Paine, 1904 

Robert Treat Paine saw Boston's population triple during his adulthood. The physical and financial needs of the new immigrant population overwhelmed Boston's infrastructure, and government-sponsored welfare did not yet exist. Paine felt a sense of duty toward those less fortunate. He stood out from his peers for his holistic approach to remedying difficult societal problems of his day.

Paine devoted himself "often to the point of utter weariness, to good works," serving on sixty charitable committees, writing voluminously, and founding the first fellowship at Harvard to study social science. He pioneered affordable housing, cooperative building and loan associations, and community institutions for the working class.

Paine helped hundreds of families escape the unhealthy conditions of tenement life by financing construction of low-cost but attractive single-family houses in the growing suburbs of Boston.

Robert Treat Paine's ad for affordable housing, "Own Your Own Home," 1881   

Robert Treat Paine's ad for affordable housing, "Own Your Own Home," 1881