America’s Oldest Social Welfare Movement

Beginning in the 1880s, spurred in part by organizations like the YWCA, Travelers Aid programs were formed in major U.S. cities, specifically to provide protection for women and girls who traveled alone.

The Travelers Aid movement actually began in 1851, when Bryan Mullanphy, a former mayor of St. Louis and philanthropist, bequeathed $500,000 to the City of St. Louis to be used to assist “bona fide travelers heading west.” Even though that program no longer exists, its creation makes Travelers Aid the oldest, non-sectarian social welfare movement in the country.

By the early 20th century, Travelers Aid programs were established in enough cities that they began sharing ideas. Grace Hoadley Dodge, in New York City, provided leadership to articulate the objectives of the “modern” Travelers Aid movement, and fueled the formation of Travelers Aid Societies designed to serve all people regardless of gender, age, class, race or religion. Dodge’s work led to the formation of the first National Travelers Aid Association in 1917.

Travelers Aid welcomed immigrants to the United States, with operations at or near many of the ports of entry. It was a service designed to ensure that newcomers were not only welcomed, but that they were pointed to safe places to stay.

During the 1920s and through World War II, Travelers Aid was a prominent fixture at major railroad stations, assisting travelers with information, helping unaccompanied minors as they traveled, and assisting stranded travelers.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration called on Travelers Aid and five other national social service organizations to form the original United Service Organizations (USO). As part of the USO, Travelers Aid volunteers staffed more than 150 “troops in transit” locations.

The Travelers Aid International network now consists of 26 social service agencies, 17 airports, seven train stations and six direct service programs in the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada and Australia. Each of these programs is locally operated and meets the social service needs of their community, with a common thread being to help return stranded individuals safely home.

The programs are diverse and include work with local homeless populations and the working poor. Since World War II, Travelers Aid programs have developed at major U.S. airports, providing a “helping hand along the way” to travelers, with information, directions, and problem solving. Travelers Aid continues to have a presence at four North American train stations, and partners with Greyhound to provide discount travel for stranded persons.

An organization with a history dating back almost 200 years is constantly evolving to meet the contemporary challenges of travelers. Although the nature of travel has changed, and many have communication tools and resources at their disposal that weren’t available years ago (e.g., smartphones and credit cards), we are a more mobile society than ever before, and travelers are still in need of Travelers Aid.