“Underrated” First Lady Caroline Scott Harrison: Advocate for the Arts, Women’s Interests, and Preservation of the White House

 

Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison, accessed First Ladies National Library

Susan Swain, host of C-SPAN’s special TV series from 2013-2014 on the lives and influence of the nation’s First Ladies, described Caroline Harrison as “one of the more underrated” First Ladies. Caroline Harrison, wife of Hoosier President Benjamin Harrison, served as First Lady from 1889-1892. Previously cast off as simply a tactful housekeeper, historians now recognize that Caroline did more, including using her influence to advocate for the arts, women’s interests, and the preservation of the White House.

Harrison home in Indianapolis, 1888, accessed Indiana Historical Society Digital Image Collections

On July 4, 1888, Caroline stood next to her husband Benjamin in the parlor of their home on North Delaware Street in Indianapolis surrounded by guests. Caroline had filled the house with patriotic decorations, including red, white, and blue flags and flowers. However, this was not a normal 4th of July celebration: at the party, Benjamin gave a speech, accepting the Republican nomination for president. For the next four months, their home became the center of Benjamin’s political campaign. Parades marched up and down the street in front of the house Benjamin gave more than 80 speeches on their front porch.

Campaign outside the Harrison Home, 1888. According to the Indiana Historical Society, “Harrison replicated a ball used by his Grandfather, William Henry Harrison during his 1840 Presidential campaign. It was used with the slogan “keep the ball rolling” and rolled some 5,000 miles.” Indiana Historical Society Digital Image Collections

On Election Day, the Harrison family waited anxiously for a telegraph operator set up temporarily in a nearby bay window for election results. The next morning, Caroline and Benjamin discovered they had won. The Harrison family was moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Caroline and Benjamin Harrison, Accessed Indiana Historical Society Digital Image Collection, WH Bass Photo Company Collection

Though the Harrisons had lived in Indianapolis since 1854, the couple’s story began in Ohio. Benjamin had been a student of Caroline’s father at the Farmer’s College in Pleasant Hill, Ohio. Benjamin followed Caroline to Oxford, Ohio. She enrolled in the Oxford Female Institute and he attended Miami University. Soon after they earned degrees, the two got married and moved to Indianapolis.

A young Caroline Harrison, 1860s, accessed Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site

As Benjamin built up his law practice, Caroline became an integral part of Indianapolis’ charity network. Through membership at the Presbyterian Church, Benjamin and Caroline became active in the Indianapolis Benevolent Society, one of the city’s earliest charity organizations. Members were assigned their own district in the city, serving as “donors, fundraisers, friendly visitors and distributors of aid” in their assigned area. During the Civil War, Caroline expanded her efforts, volunteering with various women’s organizations that aided the war effort, like the Ladies Patriotic Association and the Ladies Sanitary Committee. She also started her 30 year long career with the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum, joining the board of managers in 1862. After the war, she became involved with a new charity, the Home for Friendless Women, created to care for an influx of widowed and transient women who flocked to the city after the war. The home operated until 2003, most recently under the name Indianapolis Retirement Home.

Indianapolis Orphans Asylum, ca. 1885, accessed the Indiana Album

Throughout the 1870s, Caroline’s reputation as a capable organizer for charities grew. She sat on the board of many temporary relief funds and charitable events. When Benjamin served as Senator, she added a number of Washington, D.C. charities to her roster, including the Washington City Orphans Asylum and the Ladies Aid Society for Garfield Hospital. An avid painter, she also found time to make pieces to display at early exhibits for the Indianapolis Art Association, which pioneered formal art education in Indiana and influenced the development of fine arts in the state.

Caroline Harrison in her inauguration dress, 1889, accessed Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site

When the Harrisons moved to Washington, D.C. for the Presidency, Caroline worked hard to have impact as a First Lady. Though her predecessor, the young and fashionable Frances Cleveland made Harrison look old and dowdy by comparison in the press, Harrison became a more publicly active figure than Cleveland had by advocating for the arts, women’s interests, and the preservation of the White House.

Four generations of Caroline Harrison’s family who lived at the White House, including her father, her daughter, and two grandchildren. Accessed White House Historical Association.

Four generations of relatives moved into the White House when Benjamin took office, which brought the household total up to 12. After the whole family crowded into the White House, Caroline became “concerned over the condition of the house provided for the Chief Executive and his family.” The private spaces for the family amounted to five bedrooms, one bathroom, and a hallway. The rest of the building was reserved for offices and public functions. In addition to the lack of space, the White House had fallen into disrepair. The threadbare carpets, shabby furniture, unwelcome presence of vermin made the White House unsatisfactory to say the least. Caroline reached out to former First Ladies and discovered that previous administrations had struggled with coming up with enough space to entertain and host important foreign leaders and dignitaries. There had been an embarrassing situation during the Buchanan administration where the Prince of Wales and the rest of the royal family could not all be accommodated because of the lack of space.

Some of the Harrison family outside the White House, including Caroline and Benjamin’s son Russell and three grandchildren with their pet goat and dog, ca. 1890. Accessed White House Historical Association.

Caroline began lobbying for congressional funds to refurbish and expand the White House. She gave interviews with journalists and took Senators and Representatives on personal tours of the White House to plead her case. She told reporters,

We are here four years. I do not look beyond that, as many things occur in that time, but I am anxious to see the family of the President provided for properly, and while I am here I hope to get the present building into good condition.

A few Representatives on the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds had already kicked around the idea of expanding the White House. The building had remained largely unchanged since its completion in 1800 (though it was rebuilt after the War of 1812 after the British set fire to it). These Representatives had voiced a number of plans, including adding another story to the White House or constructing an exact replica of the building across the lawn. Some even wondered if an entirely new mansion for the President should be built. Caroline, however, recognized the historical significance of the mansion and articulated a new plan that would preserve the structure. Architect Frederick D. Owen drew up her ideas, which included adding wings to either side of the White House. The press widely circulated her plans, which Owen even titled “Mrs. Harrison’s Suggestion for the Extension of the Executive Mansion.”

Aerial view of Caroline Harrison’s plans to expand the White House, accessed National Archives and Records Administration
Photo of the White House kitchen, a few years after the renovation in 1893. Accessed White House Historical Association.

Despite Caroline’s lobbying, her bill to provide funding to expand the White House did not pass. Though it went through the Senate, it failed in the House because President Harrison had ignored the Speaker of the House’s choice for collectorship of Portland, Maine. However, she did receive approximately $60,000 in appropriations to redecorate and renovate the interior and add the first electric lighting. Throughout her First Ladyship, Harrison directed painting, installing additional private bathrooms, renovating the kitchen, replacing all the dirty and moldy floors, rebuilding the old conservatory, adding greenhouses, and redecorating many of the public parlors.

During the renovations, Caroline had the entire contents of the White House inventoried. The Cleveland Leader reported,

Even the old bits stored away in the attic are to be listed, for Mrs. Harrison is anxious that pieces which have historic value or connection with presidential families of the past shall be preserved.

Three pieces from the Harrison china set, accessed White House Historical Association

She stopped the old practice of selling off furniture, china, and silver at the end of each president’s administration, not only to save money, but so the historic mansion would maintain pieces from past presidents. Through this process, Harrison laid the foundation for the celebrated White House China Collection. Harrison’s acquaintance, Harriet Foster wrote “she immediately began a valuable collection to be preserved, in cabinets, of the scattered remnants of the china of former Presidents.” She even designed the Harrison china set, which featured corn ears, stocks, and tassels.

Harrison didn’t stop at the White House, but took on additional causes. As First Lady, Harrison advocated the federal government place more emphasis on fine art. She told the Evening Star,

this government has reached that point where it should give more attention to the fine arts—that is, a judicious expenditure for works of merit.

National Art Association Catalogue. Accessed Smithsonian Libraries.

She made sure to include a large gallery of historical paintings in her plans for the White House expansion and supported the addition of paintings to the White House’s fine arts collection, including the first example of a non-portrait piece purchased for the mansion with federal funds. Her plans and actions set precedent for the introduction of a professional curator to care for the White House’s art collection, a position filled during the Kennedy Administration seventy years later. Lastly, in 1892 she became Honorary President of the National Art Association, joining forces with prominent artists like William Merritt Chase and Albert Bierdstadt, to lobby to exempt imported works of art from taxation. The tariff was eventually lifted.

Harrison lent her name to other organizations that promoted women’s interests. She agreed to head a local Washington, D.C. committee of women dedicated to securing women’s admission to the new Johns Hopkins Medical School. Johns Hopkins trustees promised five Baltimore women connected to the institution if they raised $100,000 (later increased to $500,000), the school would accept women on the same terms as male applicants. These women began recruiting prominent women across the nation to raise money in their own locales. According to historian Kathleen Waters Sanders, Caroline’s agreement to help the cause “was important, lending the campaign credibility and national visibility.” Due to women’s work, the medical school opened in 1893 as the first coeducational, graduate-level medical school in the nation.

Announcement for the DAR, The Scranton Republication, October 13, 1890, accessed newspapers.com

Harrison also agreed to become the first President General of a new organization, the Daughters of the American Revolution. The organization formed in 1890 after the Sons of the American Revolution refused to accept female applicants. The DAR’s goals were “the securing and preserving of the historical spots of America and the erection thereon of suitable monuments to perpetuate the memories of the heroic deeds of the men and women who aided the revolution and created constitutional government in America.”

The founders of the organization asked Harrison to lead, hoping her status as First Lady would elevate the DAR, give it credibility, and attract more members. Though she delegated day-to-day operations to other DAR board members, Harrison helped guide the fledgling organization through its early years and helped it become a political force. In 1892, the DAR had grown from a handful to over 1,300 members. Since 1890, the DAR has accepted over 950,000 members and served as an important political lobbying group. It has also restored and maintained numerous historic sites and preserved countless genealogical records and artifacts.

Portrait of Caroline Scott Harrison, Accessed White House Historical Association

Unfortunately, Caroline’s career as First Lady was cut short. She died in the White House from tuberculosis October 25, 1892. Benjamin lost reelection soon after. However, a new historical marker at the Benjamin Harrison house in downtown Indianapolis will honor Caroline Harrison’s achievements, both in Indiana and as First Lady. Please check our website and Facebook page for more information about the marker dedication ceremony, scheduled to take place in October.

Hoosier Women’s Fight for Clean Air

William A. Oates, South Indianapolis, 1967, Indianapolis Star, December 3, 1967, accessed newspapers.com

On February 5, 1970, the Franklin Daily Journal in Franklin, Indiana proclaimed air pollution the “Disease of the Seventies.” It predicted that “gas masks, domed cities, special contact lenses to prevent burned eyes” would become “standard equipment if life is to exist” by 2000, unless action against widespread air pollution was taken soon.

Neal Boenzi, New York City Smog, 1966, accessed Wikipedia.

The Daily Journal’s predictions were not off mark. Dense smog filled with toxic pollutants had already killed and sickened thousands of people in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948, in London in 1952, and New York City in 1966. By the late 1960s, this type of deadly smog had begun to appear in nearly every metropolitan area in the US.

However, it’s now 2017, no gas masks, domed cities, or protective eye wear needed. Why? You can thank Hoosier women, who fought for air pollution control measures since the 1910s.

Comic that appeared in the Indianapolis Star, April 3, 1968, accessed newspapers.com

Women first entered the fight against coal to combat air pollution. When burned, coal releases a significant amount of smoke and soot. Londoners began burning coal for fuel as early as the 1200s. Virtually every Londoner relied on coal for fuel and heat by the 1600s as England’s forests became depleted. As industries and factories powered by coal emerged across England during the Industrial Revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, many British cities developed air pollution problems. By 1800, a chronic cloud of smoke enveloped London. Soot and smoke dusted the streets, ruined clothing, and corroded buildings.

Major American cities did not escape the smoky air that plagued the Brits. European settlers cleared much of America’s forests for firewood, construction materials, and to make room for crops and cities. As the Industrial Revolution began on the East Coast at the end of the 18th century, industries, homes, and businesses began to rely on coal for heat and power. Dirty air followed throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Dark smoke palls drifted through many urban areas at noon that reduced visibility to less than a block. The dirty, dark atmosphere caused traffic accidents, injuries, and even death. Doctors increasingly linked the drab, polluted air to depression and tuberculosis.

Indianapolis was no exception. The Indianapolis News reported on February 11, 1904 that “for a year or more, the smoke cloud has constantly been increasing until during the last two or three months, the city has taken a place among the smoke cities of the country and by some visitors is credited with being as dirty as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, or St. Louis.”  That summer, the News described “dense volumes of black soot and smoke” blowing through business and residential districts across the city. A journalist wrote “Eyes and lungs are filled and as for wearing clean linen any length of time, that is one of the impossibilities.” The journalist noted that the smoke damaged goods in downtown shops and observed “every article in them to be thickly dotted with soot.”

“Aerial View of Indianapolis, 1913,” Panoramic Photograph Images, Indiana Historical Society Digital Image Collections.

Despite these issues, fighting smoke pollution in Indiana would be hard. Coal is one of Indiana’s natural resources and became a mainstay of the Hoosier economy during the early 20th century. It was discovered along the Wabash River in 1736. Organized coal production began in the 1830s and after World War I, production exceeded 30 million tons. Furthermore, coal and the smoke it produced became a symbol for economic prosperity nationwide. Often, postcards and promotional imagery for cities featured pictures of smokestacks emitting billowing, black clouds of smoke across the urban landscape. A writer for the Indianapolis News in defense of coal wrote in 1906, “But if the coal smokes, let it smoke . . . Wherever there is smoke there is fire, and the flames that make coal smoke brighten the world of industry and bring comfort to the untold hundreds of thousands of toilers. Let it smoke. The clouds of smoke that ascend to heaven are the pennants of prosperity.”

Bledsoe Coal Company Mine near Center Point, Indiana, 1931, Martin’s Photo Shop Collection, Indiana Historical Society Digital Images Collection

Indiana produces bituminous coal, a soft coal that often creates a lot of smoke when burned. Many cities had begun to abate smoke pollution simply by requiring residents and industry to burn anthracite coal, a harder coal that burned cleaner. Since bituminous coal was a major source of wealth for Indiana, many Indianapolis residents and businessmen did not want to take this course of action, even though they did support cleaner air for the city.

One method to abate smoke, but still burn Indiana bituminous coal was to install automatic stoking devices in factories and homes. These devices distributed the coal in furnaces more evenly so it produced less smoke. In 1904, the American Brewing Company on Ohio Street downtown installed one of these devices. According to the Indianapolis News, this device allowed the company to burn just as much bituminous Indiana coal as it had last year, but produce far less smoke: the journalist described the company’s smokestacks as “practically smokeless.”

However, few businesses followed in the American Brewing Company’s footsteps. In 1910, Indianapolis women formed the Smoke Abatement Association operating under the slogan “Better and Cleaner Indianapolis” to try to get housewives and manufacturers to stop burning bituminous coal. These women became part of a nationwide movement of middle and upper class housewives practicing “Civic Motherhood” or “Municipal Housekeeping” that drew on women’s traditional roles as protectors of the home. These women reformers argued they could use their skills as household managers to improve the health of the communities their families lived in and thus began to participate in political discussions surrounding health, pollution, and sanitation, like air pollution.

Announcement from Smoke Abatement Association, Indianapolis Star, January 31, 1911, p. 16, accessed newspapers.com

The group first asked women to reduce smoke produced in their homes by installing smoke control devices. The group offered demonstrations for proper coal firing and issued reports on local residences and factories that issued a lot of smoke. In 1913, the group succeeded in getting a city ordinance passed which banned burning bituminous coal in a downtown district bordered by Maryland Street, East Street, New York Street, and Capitol Avenue. To honor Indiana’s coal production industry, bituminous coal could be burned if a smoke prevention device was installed. It was hoped this ordinance would create a clean, smoke free section of the city to improve health and help merchants preserve goods otherwise ruined by the sooty air.

“Our Three Lines of National Defense,” World War I Propaganda Poster, accessed http://www.ww1propaganda.com/

Though the Smoke Abatement Association remained active throughout the 1910s, US entry into World War I reverted smoke pollution’s image. Black and gray smoke churning out of smokestacks once again became symbolic of progress, this time in support of the war effort. Throughout the 1920s until the 1950s, air pollution remained regulated at the local level; state and federal governments largely remained aloof of the issue.

 

However, a more complex air pollution emerged in the 1940s that became a struggle for locals to solve on their own. In the summer of 1940, a thick eye-stinging, tear-producing, throat-irritating haze never before experienced enveloped Los Angeles. Though it eventually cleared, episodes continued as America entered World War II: the effects on health were so irritating, some Los Angelinos speculated it was a chemical attack from the Japanese. The problem persisted into 1943: various industries were suspected of causing the issue, but when they were shut down, the harmful air remained. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, this phenomenon, known increasingly as “smog,” afflicted almost every major urban area in the United States.

Los Angeles Street filled with smog, 1943, accessed http://users.humboldt.edu/ogayle/hist383/LosAngeles.html

This was a complex type of pollution: growth in industry during World War II and the postwar era increased the amounts of emissions released into the air from factories as they burned oil and coal to create goods for the war effort, and later refrigerators, household appliances, and other consumer goods. During this time, the development of new chemicals, drugs, pesticides, food additives, and plastics also proliferated the consumer market. When manufactured, these products released a number of synthetic chemicals into the atmosphere that decomposed much more slowly than those emitted by older industries and remained hazardous longer. Lastly, the rise in population and expansion of the suburbs increased the use of automobiles. Cars blew out gasoline vapor that became a major ingredient in smog formation. All these combined emissions created a much more complex air pollution that was much harder to get rid of that would require cooperation from consumers, industry, and government regulation at all levels.

Soldiers and Sailors Monument, 1967 Indianapolis Star November 19, 1967, p. 29, accessed newspapers.com

This type of pollution first appeared in Indianapolis in the mid-1940s, but did not become much of a chronic problem until the late 1960s. The pollution became so bad that it stained and eroded the limestone on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument downtown, as well as the façade of the Statehouse. It also became tied to increased rates of emphysema, lung cancer, and other serious diseases. Again, Hoosier women stepped up to try to improve the air in their neighborhoods, communities, and the state at large. They became part of a larger movement of women concerned with air pollution across the country and helped make it a national issue during the 1970s.

Letter League of Women Voters of Indianapolis sent out lobbying for stronger air pollution control, League Bulletin, May 1970, accessed University of Indianapolis Digital Mayoral Archives.

Many women fought air pollution through the League of Women Voters. League members traditionally conducted extensive research on political issues, conducted educational campaigns, and lobbied local, state and federal governments to make sure appropriate regulation was enacted. League of Women Voters members in Indianapolis, Richmond, and Seymour branches attended and testified at local air quality hearings, wrote to representatives urging more stringent air quality regulations, and sponsored programs and produced literature to teach the public about air pollution, current regulations, and what they could do to improve the solution. For example, these methods encouraged people to stop open burning of waste and carpool, bike, or walk to reduce automobile emissions.

HELP meeting, 1965, Terre Haute Tribune, September 18, 1965, p. 2, accessed newspapers.com

Other women’s groups in the state took similar action. Housewives Effort for Local Progress, or HELP, a women’s group in Terre Haute dedicated to improving the city, took on air pollution as one of its major agendas. They lobbied local commissioners and educated the public on air pollution. The Richmond Women’s Club organized funds to purchase educational materials on air pollution to distribute to local students. Other women joined ecology groups, such as the Environmental Coalition of Metropolitan Indianapolis and fought for the passage of many regulations to control harmful gasses emitted by industry, such as Sulphur oxides. Chairwoman Elaine Fisher summarized the important role of the public in abating pollution: “Industry is pressuring . . . on one side. The only hope is for the public to give equal pressure on the other side.”

These women’s groups, and others across the nation, raised awareness of air pollution and made it a national issue. Most groups encouraged the federal government to get involved with air pollution. Since air pollution spreads across local and state boundaries, it made sense for increased federal oversight to control the issue. It is not a surprise that women’s fight against air pollution coincided with the passage of key federal environmental legislation, such as the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970, which gave federal officials authority over reducing air pollution throughout the nation and the power to set federal emissions states have to comply with. The Clean Air Act has produced purer air for all Americans: since 1970 its regulations reduced the levels of common pollutants, and thus prevented deaths from disease and cancer and decreased damage to plants, crops, and forests previously caused by air pollution. Thank you, Hoosier women.

Women at Work in Science, Technology, and Medicine

Historians, Get to Work!

Women have been consistently left out of the story of the Hoosier state. On paper, historians agree that including the histories of women and other marginalized groups provides a more complete understanding of the events that shaped our communities, state, and world.  However, in practice, few historians are researching, publishing, or posting on women’s history.  Having identified a dearth of resources on Indiana women’s history, organizers from various institutions, both public and private, came together to develop an annual conference. This conference strives to energize the discussion of Indiana women’s history and make the papers, presentations, and other resources resulting from the conference available to all Hoosiers. This year, the Indiana Historical Bureau and the Indiana State Library will host the second annual Hoosier Women at Work Conference.

This conference also aims to address and work towards correcting the pervasive lack of resources on Indiana women’s history. Even historians sensitive to the issue often follow established practices of treating the history of government and business and military as the “real” and “significant” history. However, these are areas where women have been categorically denied entrance or discriminated against directly or through lack of education or opportunities.  These areas exclude women of color, poor women, and native women even more disproportionately than white women of means.  To point out our own complicity, of the over 600 state historical markers created by our agency, only thirty-nine are dedicated to women’s history.  Several are simply wives or mothers of influential male notable Hoosiers, some only tangentially include women, and only ten include native women or women of color. We have work to do too.

It is essential that we, as historians who want a complete picture of the history of our state, do the work – the digging through newspapers, letters, photographs, and interviews; the comparing, analyzing, interpreting, writing, posting, and publishing; and the pushing back, organizing, and speaking up – to tell these stories at the local level.  These are the stories that in turn inform the national narrative of who we are as Americans and world citizens.  Half the story is missing!

Write an article, make a podcast, start a blog, edit a Wikipedia page, and join us for the Hoosier Women at Work Conference to hear speakers on a myriad of women’s topics and get inspired to contribute to the Hoosier story.

The Hoosier Women at Work 2017 Conference: Science, Technology, and Medicine

On April 1, 2017, the Indiana Historical Bureau and the Indiana State Library will host a symposium on the history of Indiana women at work in the fields of science, technology, and medicine.  The one-day conference aims to expand the scholarship and ignite discussion on topics as diverse as inventors/inventions; medical breakthroughs; agriculture and technology; public health; sanitation; exposure to hazardous materials in the work place; access to medical care; hospitals; women’s access to training and employment in any of these fields; and the impact of science, technology, and medicine on complicating or improving women’s lives.

The keynote speaker is Sharra Vostral, Associate Professor of History, Purdue University and author of Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology. The conference will take place at the Indiana State Library and Historical Building in downtown Indianapolis and registration is open now. Visit www.in.gov/history/hoosierwomenatwork to register and check back for updates.

Melba Phillips: Leader in Science and Conscience Part Two

Melba Philips, photograph, n.d., University of Chicago News Office, accessed http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/04/041116.phillips.shtml
Melba Phillips, photograph, n.d., University of Chicago News Office, accessed University of Chicago News Office.

See Part One to learn about Phillips’s contributions to physics via the Oppenheimer-Phillips effect and her work to prevent the future use of atomic energy for war.

The Second World War, particularly the use of the atomic bomb, gave way to the Cold War. Living in the shadow of the threat of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union induced anxiety among many Americans. While Senator Joseph McCarthy became the public face of fear of homegrown communists, many other paranoid and xenophobic senators participated in the witch hunts. In 1950, Nevada Senator Pat McCarran sponsored the McCarran Internal Security Act, which allowed for investigation of “subversive activities;” made an “emergency” allowance for detaining people suspected of such activity; and even made picketing a courthouse a felony if it “intended” to obstruct proceedings. The act also provided for a five-member committee with the Orwellian title of the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB), which was headed by McCarran and tasked with rooting out communists, communist-sympathizers, and other “subversives.” The SACB, or the McCarran Committee as it was more commonly called, went to work immediately.

Demonstrators demand repeal of the Smith and McCarran Acts, circa July 19, 1950, Los Angeles, Charlotta Bass / California Eagle Photograph Collection, 1880-1986, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll102/id/1320
Demonstrators demand repeal of the Smith and McCarran Acts, circa July 19, 1950, Los Angeles, Charlotta Bass / California Eagle Photograph Collection, 1880-1986, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research.

In 1952, Melba Phillips was called to testify before the McCarran Committee of New York, the state version of the U.S. congressional committee, on her political activity. She was called because of her involvement with the Teachers Union. According to an October 14, 1952 New York Times article, a witness claiming to be “a former Communist official” testified that “he helped set up secret units of Communist teachers” and that “300 of the 500 dues-paying Communist teachers in this city went into a secret set-up whose top unit consisted of leaders of the Teachers Union.” Several prominent New York teachers refused to confirm or deny communist leanings, while outside of the courthouse students and teachers gathered in protest, chanting “Pat McCarran, hit the sack. We want our professors back!”

According Dr. George Salzman, a University of Massachusetts at Boston professor who was a student of Phillips’s at that time ,

“She let the Committee counsel know that her lineage went back to the Mayflower, and she wasn’t about to take part in the witch hunt.”

Phillips was subsequently fired from her university positions due to a law which required the termination of any New York City employee who invoked the Fifth Amendment. Bonner explained, “McCarran was a specialist at putting people in the position in which they had to invoke the Fifth Amendment. It was a deliberate expression of the McCarthyism of the time.” In a 1977 interview, Phillips briefly discussed the incident (although she was reluctant because she was trying to keep the interviewer focused on her scientific accomplishments). She stated: “I was fired from Brooklyn College for failure to cooperate with the McCarran Committee, and I think that ought to go into the record . . . city colleges were particularly vulnerable, and the administration was particularly McCarthyite.” Phillips stated that she wasn’t particularly political. Her objection to cooperating had been a matter of principle.

New York Times, October 14, 1952, 1, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
New York Times, October 14, 1952, 1, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Phillips did not let her dismissal extinguish her passion for science education. While unemployed, she wrote two textbooks, which became university classroom standards: Classical Electricity and Magnetism (1955) and Principles of Physical Science (1957).

Melab Phillips and Francis T. Bonner, Principles of Physical Science (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1957)
Melba Phillips and Francis T. Bonner, Principles of Physical Science (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1957).

In 1957, Phillips became the associate director of the Academic Year Institute of Washington University in St. Louis, a teacher-training school.  Her appointment came at the behest of Edward Condon who had also been named as a security risk by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s. On Condon’s decision to hire her, Phillips stated, “there was much discrimination against people who had had any trouble of a ‘political’ kind, and it took a lot of courage, It took courage to hire any of the people in trouble during that time.”

Edward Condon, photograph, n.d., accessed National Institute of Standards and Technology, https://www.nist.gov/news-events/events/2016/01/government-science-cold-war-america-edward-condon-and-transformation-nbs
Edward Condon, photograph, n.d., accessed National Institute of Standards and Technology.

At the institute she developed programs instructing high school teachers about how to teach elementary science and physics. She remained at Washington until 1962 when she joined the faculty of the University of Chicago. Among her accomplishments there, she worked to make science accessible to non-science majors. She also made laboratory work an important part of the student experience. She explained that “we worked very hard in our laboratory in Chicago . . . unless the students get ‘hands on,’ it seems they don’t fully understand the material.”

In 1966, she became president of the American Association of Physics Teachers, of which she had been a member since 1943. This respected organization was founded in 1930 as “a professional membership association of scientists dedicated to enhancing the understanding and appreciation of physics through teaching.” Phillips became not only AAPT’s first female president, but one of its most memorable and effective leaders. Phillips was proud of the work of the organization and wrote the official History of the AAPT. She worked to make physics more important to teachers at the high school level in addition to college. She stated,

“The people in the universities whose future depends on their writing more and more research papers have very little patience with the problems of education at a lower level. This has to do in part with why the Association of Physics Teachers ever got started.”

Phillips remained at the University of Chicago until she retired as Professor Emerita in 1972. Even after her retirement from the University of Chicago, she continued to teach at other schools as a visiting professor. She taught at the State University of New York, Stony Brook from 1972 to 1975, and at the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing in 1980. Phillips was awarded more honors than can be mentioned without compiling an extensive list. Notably, however, in 1981, the AAPT awarded her the first Melba Phillips Award, created in her honor, “for exceptional contributions to physics education.”

book
Image courtesy of alibris.com.

In 1987, Brooklyn College publicly apologized for firing Phillips, and in 1997 created a scholarship in her name. Melba Phillips died on November 8, 2004 in Petersburg, Indiana at the age of 97. The New York Times referred to Phillips in her obituary as “a pioneer in science education” and noted that “at a time when there were few women working as scientists, Dr. Phillips was leader among her peers.” Her accomplishments helped pave the way for other women in the sciences. In a 1977 interview, Phillips addressed the problems women face in aspiring to science careers an a 1977 interview, stating:

We’re not going to solve them, but, as I’ve been saying all the time; if we make enough effort, we’ll make progress; and I think progress has been made. We sometimes slip back, but we never quite slip all the way back; or we never slip back to the same place. There’s a great deal of truth in saying that progress is not steady no matter how inevitable.

Melba Phillips: Leader in Science and Conscience Part One

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Indiana native Melba Newell Phillips pioneered new physics theories, studied under the famous J. Robert Oppenheimer, worked passionately to improve science education, and advocated for women’s place at the forefront of science research. After the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II, Phillips and other scientists organized to prevent future nuclear wars.  She took a great hit to her career during the Cold War as she stood up for the freedom to dissent in the oppressive atmosphere of McCarthyism. Colleagues and students have noted her “intellectual honesty, self-criticism, and style,” and called her “a role model for principle and perseverance.”

Phillips was born February 1, 1907 in Hazleton, Gibson County. According to Women in Physics, Phillips graduated from high school at 15, earned a B.S. from Oakland City College in Indiana, taught for one year at her former high school, and went on to graduate school. In 1928, she earned a master’s degree in physics from Battle Creek College in Michigan and stayed there to teach for two years. In 1929 she attended summer sessions on quantum mechanics at the University of Michigan under Edward U. Condon.  When she sought Condon’s help on a physics problem, her solution, rather than his, ended up being the correct one. This led to a lifelong friendship and Condon recommended Phillips for further graduate study at the University of California, Berkley. Here she pursued graduate research under Oppenheimer and earned her Ph.D. in 1933. Within a few years she was known throughout the physics world because of her contribution to the field via the Oppenheimer-Phillips effect.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, photograph, in Ray Monk, Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2014)
J. Robert Oppenheimer, photograph, in Ray Monk, Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2014)

The 1935 Oppenheimer-Phillips Effect explained “what was at the time unexpected behavior of accelerated deuterons (nuclei of deuterium, or ‘heavy hydrogen’ atoms) in reactions with other nuclei,” according to a University of Chicago press release. When Oppenheimer died in 1967, his New York Times obituary noted his and Phillips’s discovery as a “basic contribution to quantum theory.” Manhattan Project scientist and professor emeritus of chemistry at the State University of New York, Stony Brook Francis Bonner explained in the release that normally such an accomplishment, now considered “one of the classics of early nuclear physics, “would have meant a faculty appointment. However, Phillips received no such appointment, perhaps due in part to the Great Depression, but also likely because of her gender.

Oppenheimer-Phillips Effect

Instead, Phillips left Berkley to teach briefly at Bryn Mawr College (PA), the Institute for Advanced Study (NJ), and the Connecticut College for Women. On February 16, 1936, the New York Times reported that she was one of six women to receive research fellowships for the 1936-1937 academic year as announced by the American Association of University Women.  The announcement read: “Melba Phillips, research fellow at Bryn Mawr, received the Margaret E. Maltby fellowship of $1,500 for research on problems of the application of quantum mechanics to nuclear physics.”

New York Times, February 16, 1936, N6, ProQuest Historical New York Times
New York Times, February 16, 1936, N6, ProQuest Historical New York Times

In October of 1937 Phillips served as a delegate to the fall conference of the association at Harvard, where the discussion centered around the prejudices against women scientists that halted not only their careers, but scientific progress more generally. According to a 1937 New York Times article, Dr. Cecelia Gaposchkin, a Harvard astronomer, detailed the “bitter disappointments and discouragements” that faced women professionals in the field of science.  Certainly, Phillips related, as her career moved forward slowly despite her achievements in physics.

Pupin Physics Laboratory, Columbia University, "Short History of Columbia Physics," accessed http://physics.columbia.edu/about-us/short-history-columbia-physics
Pupin Physics Laboratory, Columbia University, “Short History of Columbia Physics,” accessed http://physics.columbia.edu/about-us/short-history-columbia-physics

Finally, in 1938, she received a permanent teaching position at Brooklyn College. In 1944, she also began research at the Columbia University Radiation Laboratory. Phillips was highly regarded as a teacher and Bonner noted she became “a major figure in science education” who “stimulated many students who went on from there to very stellar careers.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. officially entered World War II with the December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. No previous war had been so dependent on the role of science and technology. From coding machines to microwave radar to advances in rocket technology, scientists were in demand by the war effort.

In July 1945, the Manhattan Project scientists successfully detonated an atomic bomb in the desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico.  In August 1945, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, forcing the country to surrender and effectively ending World War II. Over 135,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and 64,000 in Nagasaki.  Many thousands more died from fires, radiation, and illness. While a horrified public debated whether the bomb saved further causalities by ending the war or whether it was fundamentally immoral, scientists also dealt with remorse and responsibility.

atomic-bomb
Leslie Jones, “1st Atomic Bomb Test,” photograph, Boston Public Library

Henry Stimson, Secretary of War in the Truman administration, stated, “this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice.” Oppenheimer, however, reflected, “If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and of Hiroshima.” More bluntly, Oppenheimer told Truman, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” Many physicists retreated to academia, but some became politically active, especially in regard to preventing further destruction through scientific invention.

Representing the Association of New York Scientists, Phillips and leading Manhattan Project scientists helped organize the first Federation of American Scientists meeting in Washington, D.C. in 1945. The goal of the Federation was to prevent further nuclear war. That same year Phillips served as an officer in the American Association of Scientific Workers, an organization working to involve scientists in government and politics, to educate the public in the science, and to stand against the misapplication of science by industry and government. On August 16, 1945 the New York Times reported that Phillips and the other officers of the Association signed a letter to President Truman giving “eight recommendations to help prevent the use of atomic bombs in future warfare and to facilitate the application of atomic energy to peacetime uses.”

By the end of the 1940s, Melba Phillips’s accomplishments in physics and science education were well-known throughout the academic physics community. However, by the early 1950s, she was accused of being affiliated with communist subversives and fired from her university positions.  What happened to this Hoosier physics pioneer?

Find out with Part Two, Melba Phillips: Leader in Science and Conscience.

Hoosier Saint: Saint Theodore Guérin

Guerin graphic
Graphic created from: Oil painting of Mother Theodore Guérin from 1858. Digital Image Copyright ©2006 Sisters of Providence. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Image of Mother Theodore Guerin, Digital Image Copyright ©2006 Sisters of Providence. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

In the early and mid 1800s, girls and young women in Indiana had limited access to educational opportunities.  Indiana historian Richard Boone noted that the state held “a prejudice against the education of girls with their brothers,” but “an impulse was early manifested” to establish schools for young women.

By 1850, approximately 14 schools for girls existed within the state. Young women also found it more difficult to obtain access to higher education during the early and middle 1800s. Most universities only allowed men to attend classes; Indiana University did not admit its first female student until 1867. During this time, however, there were dedicated individuals who worked to change the status quo. During her lifetime, Saint Theodore Guérin, recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church in 2006, provided educational opportunities to Indiana’s girls and young women through the establishment of schools, most notably Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

Saint Theodore Guérin was born and baptized at Etàbles in Brittany, France on October 2, 1798. Her parents, Isabelle le Fèvere and Laurent Guérin, named her Anne-Thérèse Guérin. During the first twenty-five years of Guérin’s life she faced numerous hardships. Before she reached the age of 13, she reportedly lost two brothers. When she was 15 years old, thieves robbed and murdered Guérin’s father, a French naval officer who served under Napoleon near Avignon, France. He was on furlough and heading home. After the loss of a husband and two sons, Guérin’s mother came down with a “severe illness,” leaving Anne-Thérèse Guérin to care for her mother and nine-year-old sister Marie.

The Indiana Historical Bureau and Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods installed a marker honoring Guerin in 2009.
IHB and the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods installed a marker honoring Guérin in 2009.

Guérin was a devout Catholic from a young age. She took her first communion at the age of ten. After ten years of caring for her mother, Anne-Thérèse Guérin left home and committed herself to becoming a nun. At the age of 25, she became a postulant at the Sisters of Providence in Ruillé, France on August 18, 1823, and received the religious name Sister Saint Theodore Guérin. Immediately following her entrance into the
convent, Sister Saint Theodore suffered from a severe illness that impaired her health for the rest of her life. She could never eat solid foods again. After her recovery, the Sisters of Providence assigned Sister Saint Theodore Guérin to missionary work in Pruilly-sur-Claise.

After a short period of time as a postulant, Sister Saint Theodore recited her first vows on September 8, 1825. She professed her perpetual vows on September 5, 1831. Around the same time she declared her first vows, Sister Saint Theodore received the appointment of Superior to the Sisters of Providence educational establishment in Rennes. For ten years, Sister Saint Theodore assisted the convent in establishing numerous schools and orphanages in Rennes, but a dispute with the Superior General of the Sisters of Providence resulted in a transfer of Sister Saint
Theodore. Her new assignment relocated her to Soulaines, a small country mission where her talents, as one biographer stated, “would find a much narrower scope.”

Bishop Simon Bruté of Vincennes. Image in public domain.
Simon Bruté, Bishop of Vincennes. Image in public domain.

After only a year in Soulaines, France, Sister Saint Theodore Guérin was “voted medallion decorations” by the French Academy Board of Education in 1836. One year earlier, in 1835, the Reverend Simon Bruté, the first Bishop of Vincennes, Indiana, visited Rennes, France. He and the Reverend Célestine de la Hailandiére, soon to be Vicar-General of the Vincennes Diocese, became acquainted with the various charitable works of the Sisters of Providence. Four years later, in 1839, Bishop Bruté sent his Vicar-General on a recruiting mission to France from Indiana. The Reverend Hailandiére searched for sisters of the Catholic faith willing to move to the United States and create schools and orphanages for the Vincennes Diocese.

When the Reverend Hailandiére reached France, he received news that Bishop Bruté had died on June 26, 1839. He also obtained confirmation of his own appointment as the new Bishop of Vincennes. While in France, Bishop Hailandiére convinced six members of the Sisters of Providence to come to the United States and start a school in his Diocese. Hesitant because of her frail health, Sister Saint Theodore Guérin initially did not accept Bishop Hailandiére’s invitation, but, after careful consideration and prayer, she finally took a leadership position in the operation.

* * *

On July 12, 1840, Sister Saint Theodore and the other sisters began their journey, departing from Ruillé, France. Fourteen days later on July 26, 1840, they left for Vincennes on the ship, Cincinnati. On September 4, 1840, the Cincinnati dropped anchor in New York. After traveling from New York by train, stagecoach, and steamboat the sisters rested in Madison, Indiana. On October 1, 1840, Bishop Hailandiére and three other men told the sisters they would not be starting a school in Vincennes. The Vincennes Diocese decided Terre Haute needed their services more. After various difficulties, Sister Saint Theodore and the other nuns arrived in the middle of a thick, village-less forest four miles outside of Terre Haute on October 22, 1840. Eventually, this became the site of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

Sketch of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in 1845. Digital Image Copyright © 2007 Sisters of Providence. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

The sisters lived with a farmer, Joseph Thralls, and his family during construction of their motherhouse and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods school. Workers also cleared land for farming and chopped wood for winter. During the school’s construction, Bishop Hailandiére visited the sisters on November 12, 1840, and awarded Sister Saint Theodore the title of “Mother.” Soon thereafter the Sisters of Providence began accepting new women ready to join the convent.

The first postulant arrived on May 1, 1841. On October 9, 1841, the Wabash Courier (published in Terre Haute) advertised the “Convent and Academy,” headed by “Sister Theodora Guerin.” After the establishment of their first school at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, the sisters’ educational influence spread quickly throughout the state. On March 21, 1842, the Sisters of Providence opened a Girls’ Boarding School in Jasper. Despite terrible hardships, the convent opened 19 schools and orphanages between 1842-1856, spanning from Evansville to Vincennes to Fort Wayne.

Perhaps the most significant difficulty faced by the sisters was a fire that destroyed their barns and granaries on October 2, 1842, burning various provisions needed for the upcoming winter. Impoverished by fire, Mother Theodore Guérin, Sister Mary Cecilia and other unnamed sisters left Terre Haute for France on April 26, 1843 in search of financial aid. One month later, Mother Theodore and her traveling companions arrived in France upon the Silvia. During their stay, Mother Theodore Guérin and Sister Mary Cecilia met with Queen Marie Amelie of France, and secured money for the voyage back to the U.S. The Queen also began taking donations that later helped fund new schools.

On November 28, 1843, Mother Theodore and the sisters left France on the Nashville. The boat headed to the Gulf of Mexico and docked in New Orleans. The passengers and crew faced numerous hardships on the voyage back to the United States. The Nashville nearly sank during a hurricane, and Mother Theodore became “seized with fever” while in New Orleans. The sisters then traveled up the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash rivers to return to Terre Haute. Mother Theodore Guérin and the other sisters finally returned to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods on April 1, 1844.

A statue of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin by Teresa Clark at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Ill. An inscription on the front of the statue is a quote from Guerin that reads, "Love the children first, then teach them."
A statue of Saint Mother Theodore Guérin by Teresa Clark at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Ill. An inscription on the front of the statue is a quote from Guérin that reads, “Love the children first, then teach them.” Image from Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods blog.

Mother Theodore Guérin continued to advance women’s educational opportunities after she returned from France. Mother Theodore Guérin and the Sisters of Providence established a seminary of higher education for women at St. Mary-of-the-Woods. On January 14, 1846, nearly six years after arriving in Terre Haute, Governor James Whitcomb approved the Articles of Incorporation for the Female Seminary of St. Mary’s of the Woods (Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College).

After 12 more years of continuous educational service with the Sisters of Providence, Mother Theodore Anne-Thérèse Guérin died on May 14, 1856. She was buried on the grounds of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. On December 3, 1907, Mother Theodore’s remains were moved from the burial plot to a crypt. During the re-burial process workers discovered what is considered the first sign of Mother Theodore’s holiness: her brain was still intact.

Almost a year later, on October 30, 1908, the first miracle attributed to Mother Theodore Guérin occurred. Sister Mary Theodosia, who was suffering from cancer, stopped at Mother Theodore’s tomb to pray for another ill sister, Sister Joseph Therese O’Connell. The next day Sister Theodosia’s ongoing pain vanished. A medical examination later could not find the cancerous tumor.

Image of Mother Theodore Guerin, Digital Image Copyright ©2006 Sisters of Providence. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Image of Mother Theodore Guerin, Digital Image Copyright ©2006 Sisters of Providence. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

This unexplained occurrence piqued the interest of the Indianapolis Diocese. Two months after Sister Mary Theodosia prayed at Mother Theodore’s tomb, Bishop Joseph Chartrand of the Indianapolis Diocese wrote to the Sister’s of Providence Superior General, Mother Mary Cleophas Foley, to indicated that initial “proceedings regarding” Mother Theodore’s canonization would be discussed on December 6, 1908. Many members of the Diocese began to diligently gather the needed information about Mother Theodore Guérin, including interviewing people such as Mother Anastasie Brown who worked with the foundress.

In January 1914, the Reverend Alphonaus Smith and the Reverend John T. O’Hare officially initiated the rigorous process of canonization for Mother Theodore Guérin when they left for Rome with about 500 sealed typewritten pages of evidence. Years passed as different Catholic committees performed the needed tasks to complete Mother Theodore’s canonization. In June, 1975 members of the Indiana Academy elected the late Mother Theodore Guérin into their organization. The academy was created by the “Associated Colleges of Indiana to honor Hoosiers who have enriched the cultural and civic life of the state.”

During the 1990s the canonization of Mother Theodore gained momentum. In November 1996, Vatican medical consultants approved the healing of Sister Mary Theodosia as a miracle. Four months later, in March 1997, the Sister Theodosia miracle was approved by Vatican theologians, and acknowledged by the Cardinals in June that same year. On October 25, 1998, Pope John Paul II beatified Mother Theodore Guérin in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. The church gave her the title, Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin. Pope John Paul II stated at the ceremony that

“Her life was a perfect blend of humanness and holiness. She was fully human, fully alive, yet her deep spirituality was woven visibly through the very fabric of her life.”

Pope Benedict XVI proceeds to the altar at St. Peter's Square for the canonization of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin in 2006. Digital Image Copyright © 2006 Sisters of Providence. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods
Pope Benedict XVI proceeds to the altar at St. Peter’s Square for the canonization of Saint Mother Theodore Guérin in 2006. Digital Image Copyright © 2006 Sisters of Providence. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods

In 2001, doctors diagnosed Phillip McCord, an employee at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, with a swollen cornea. Physicians told McCord that he needed a risky surgical procedure to transplant a new cornea. Although not a Catholic, McCord prayed to Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin for help. Slowly his condition improved over a matter of weeks, and doctors were amazed at his recovery without surgery. According to a 2006 article in the Criterion, McCord had “better than 20/20 vision in both eyes.” With the approval of this final miracle, Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin was canonized and officially determined to be a Saint on October 15, 2006. The Vatican gave the new Saint the religious name Saint Theodora Guérin, but the Sisters of Providence refer to her as Saint Mother Theodore Guérin.

In addition to her sainthood, Guérin’s ongoing legacy features her efforts to spread learning throughout Indiana. As of 2008, her most prominent endeavor, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, continues the mission it began under Saint Theodore Guérin, to provide women with educational opportunities. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College enrolls 1,700 students and offers campus-based undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificate programs.  After 175 years of operation, the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods’ Board of Trustees voted for the college to become fully co-educational in 2015.

To view the citations and annotations used in this post click here.

Wabash Valley Visions and Voices Digital Memory Project holds an impressive collection of digitized artifacts, and documents associated with Saint Theodore Guérin as well as historical sketches of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

 

Sarah Bolton: “Hoosier Poetess” and Women’s Rights Advocate

Bolton Graphic
Black and white image of Sarah Bolton, image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Women’s rights advocate, poet, and author of “Paddle Your Own Canoe” and “Indiana,” Sarah Tittle Barrett was born in Newport, Kentucky circa 1814. Commonly known as Sarah Bolton, she moved to Indiana as a young child, when much of the state was still unsettled. According to the Life and Poems of Sarah T. Bolton, while growing up on her family’s farm near Vernon, she was exposed to the pioneer experience, living in a log house and clearing the fields.

The Life and Poems of Sarah T. Bolton reports that she published her first poem in the Madison Banner when she was not yet fourteen and that she later wrote regularly for the papers of Madison and nearby Cincinnati. Bolton authored over 150 poems during her lifetime, many of which were featured in newspapers across the country. Her writings were included in numerous anthologies in the 1800s and 1900s, and several of the melodic verses were set to music, including Bolton’s “Indiana.”

use this indiananaaa
Musical score, 1912, image courtesy of Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

In 1831, she married Indianapolis Gazette co-editor Nathaniel Bolton and the couple moved from Madison to Marion County, Indiana soon after. Between 1836 and 1845, they owned and operated a tavern, “Mt. Jackson,” on the National Road. In 1845, the Boltons sold their property to the State and it eventually became the site of the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, later renamed the Central State Hospital.* While in Indianapolis, Sarah’s poetry output continued to increase, and she wrote some of her most popular works there. She lived in the city for many years by the time she became involved in the women’s rights movement.

owen
Robert Dale Owen, ca. 1840s, image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Research Information System.

Bolton aided social reformer Robert Dale Owen in his fight for women’s rights of personal property in the 1850 State Constitutional Convention. Owen sought to add a provision to the new constitution that would allow women to retain control of their personal property after they entered into the contract of marriage. Bolton wrote letters to women across the state to build support for the movement, but Owen’s measure was voted down.

Bolton summarized her involvement in the effort to secure personal property rights for married women in a letter to William Wesley Woollen, stating:

“I was writing articles setting forth the grievances resulting from women’s status, as under the common law, and the necessity of reform and scattering these articles through the newspapers, over the state to make public opinion. At length the measure passed, but was reconsidered and voted down. Then we rallied the few women who were in favor of it and went to the Convention in a body to electioneer with the members. The measure was brought up and passed again, reconsidered the next day & again voted down. This, to the best of my recollection, was repeated five or six times before it was finally lost.”

In a July 6, 1851 letter to Bolton, Owen credited her efforts, stating “by dint of perseverance through many obstacles, you have so efficiently contributed to the good cause of the property rights of your sex.” Decades later Bolton reflected on her work, writing in 1882 “I am not a ‘woman’s rights woman’ in the common acceptation of the phrase. I have taken no part in the present crusade, but am proud of my action in that long ago battle for the property rights of my sisters.”

use this
Orphan’s Lament or, I’m Standing by your Grave Mother, ca. 1855, image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

In 1855, Bolton’s husband was confirmed as Consul to Geneva, Switzerland, and she spent the next three years dividing her time between Missouri and Europe. She spent her final years, 1871-1893, at her home “Beech Bank” in the community of Beech Grove, focusing on her family and writing. Bolton died August 4, 1893 and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. The legacy of the “Hoosier poetess” endures through her poetry, such as “Paddle Your Own Canoe,” which has been translated into several languages and sung around the world.

poerm
Sarah T. Bolton, Paddle Your Own Canoe and Other Poems (1897), courtesy of Hathi Trust Digital Library.

Learn more about Sarah Bolton from the sources cited in this IHB report, and plan a visit to Bolton’s historical marker.

*IHB staff is currently conducting research for a Central State Hospital marker. Stay tuned to learn more!