“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.

Putting Children Back into the Story: Indenture Contracts at the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum

Indianapolis Orphans Home , 1909
Indianapolis Orphans Home postcard, postmarked 1909, accessed HistoricIndianapolis.com.

Eddie Anderson had been at the asylum for a mere fifteen days, and it already looked like he would be leaving. On September 15, 1882, a man known as Dr. Harvey brought the ten-year-old boy from Hendricks County to the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum, the city’s first and oldest orphanage. Now a Mrs. Skillman, who had traveled over seventy miles from her home in Peru, Indiana, took Eddie from the orphanage. On September 30, 1882, the president of the Board of Directors, Hannah Hadley, and Mrs. Skillman signed an indenture for Eddie Anderson, essentially agreeing that Eddie would work for Mrs. Skillman in exchange for room and board. Mrs. Skillman agreed to “carefully keep and rear” the ten-year-old boy until he reached the age of twenty-one and give him $100 at that age. After signing the contract, Mrs. Skillman left as Eddie’s new guardian.

More than twenty years later, in December 1903, Eddie wrote to the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum from Sharpe, Kansas. He received no answer. After waiting several months, he wrote again.

                                                                                                Sharpe Kansas

Mar. 23 1904

Superintendent of the Orphants [sic] Home

            Kind Sir-

            I wrote to you in Dec. 1903 and as yet I have not heard from you and fearing my letter or yours was misplaced I now write again, as I am interested to find out about my record and in what condition I was taken out of the Orphants [sic] home by mrs [sic] Skillman some 20 years ago.

Eddie begins his letter in a somewhat neutral tone but quickly becomes distressed as he recounts his experience with Mrs. Skillman.

My name… I know was Edd Anderson but they changed it to Elmer Anderson and did me other meaness [sic]. I am totally ignorant of myself. they used to pretend as though I was adopted and was to get part of their estate… [when] I was of age then they turned me off without clothes hardly good enough to wear and not a cent to go on; now please do what you can for me if you have any knowledge as where my folks are please let me know and all that is of interest to me as I have been informed that my name, age, and record you will have in your ledger. some of mrs Skillmans relatives say she had papers that I should of got concerning me and my relatives but they distroyed [sic] them so please now help me all you can…

Eddie’s letter does not reveal the story of a child who was “carefully kept and reared” and given $100 dollars when he turned twenty-one. Rather, it reveals the story of an individual searching for his past and his identity. Unfortunately, Eddie’s letter to the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum (IOA) is an exception—few children left behind written records of their indenture experiences. Nevertheless, the indenture documents contain vital information—such as demographic information and expectations for both the adults and children—that allows the historian to piece together a lost story (like Eddie’s) and refocus the narrative on the ones who were affected most by 19th-century orphanages—the children.

The Indianapolis News, March 4, 1874.

During the 19th century, indenturing children was a relatively common method to care for dependent children. At the IOA, an indenture was signed between the institution and an adult—the child, arguably the one affected most by the indenture, was not involved in that process. The Indiana Historical Society contains 152 indenture contracts (including Eddie’s) from the years 1875 to 1885 in their collections. An examination of these records reveals insight into 19th-century childcare practices in Indiana.

IOA indenture contracts began by identifying “the parties”—the institution and the adult guardian. An IOA indenture from the 1870s states “This indenture . . . witnesseth that the said parties of the first part [the IOA], in consideration of the covenants and agreements of the said party of the second part [the individual receiving the child] . . . do put and bind . . . an orphan child . . . unto the said party of the second part.”  At the very outset of the contract, it is stipulated that the child is “put and bound” to the individual and that the individual receives the child’s “service and custody during said period, which by the laws of the State a master has over an indentured apprentice.” The indenture contracts used by the IOA clearly show that children in the care of the institution were placed in homes in exchange for their labor.

1941 map shows location of the Indianapolis Orphan Asylum, courtesy of Indianapolis Sanborn Map and Baist Atlas Collection, IUPUI, accessed HistoricIndianapolis.com.

While the indenture contracts clearly state that a child’s service is given to an adult guardian, they also identify the responsibilities of the new guardian. At least one-third of the contract stipulated requirements for the adult. The asylum required the new guardian to “covenant and agree” to “carefully keep and rear” the child; “provide for [him/her] in sickness and health”; and “supply [him/her] with suitable food and clothing.” In addition to these vital necessities, the indentured child’s new guardian was also required to “teach [him/her] to read and write the English language, and to know and practice the general rules of arithmetic, including ‘to the double rule of three inclusive.’” Thus, in addition to providing for the child’s physical needs, adult guardians had to educate an indentured child as well. In an ideal setting, the child would also learn “some useful trade or occupation,” but only if the guardian “deemed [it] best.” The IOA clearly stated its expectations of adult guardians.

In addition to providing information about the expectations regarding 19th-century indentures, the contracts reveal insight notions of gender during the era. Of the 152 IOA indentures, 91 of the children (sixty percent) were female, and 61 of the children (forty percent) were male. This number is not representative of the ratio of girls to boys at the IOA, because, during the same time frame, there were significantly more boys than girls at the asylum. Throughout the 1870s, there were on average sixteen more boys than girls per month at the IOA. In 1878, the average number of girls per month at the asylum was less than half of the number of boys.

Based on asylum admission records from the 1870s, which listed the number of boys and girls at the asylum each month.

Intriguingly, the number of boys and girls indentured does not reflect the number of boys and girls at the asylum—if anything, it is the opposite.

In 1878 for example, fifteen children were indentured with the number of boys indentured drastically lower than the number of girls. In 1878—a year when there was an average of twenty-eight more boys than girls per month (see figure 1)—four of the fifteen children indentured (twenty-seven percent) were boys. The remaining eleven children (seventy-three percent) were girls. Despite the much higher percentage of boys at the asylum, a higher number of girls were indentured.

The higher number of girls indentured could be because adult guardians had to give boys more money when they completed their indentures. With the IOA indentures, boys almost always received $100 to $150 upon completion of their indentures, while girls received $5, $10, $25, $50, or simply a bed, bedding, and two suits of clothing. Lizzie Young Conversa was one year old when she was indentured on April 12, 1876. The IOA agreed to indenture her for the next seventeen years, with only the promise of five dollars and “a good bed and bedding and two suits of suitable clothing” at the end of her indenture. According to the contracts, boys were indentured until the age of twenty-one while girls were indentured until the age of eighteen (or until they got married). This could be another reason why adult guardians preferred girls over boys—they did not have to commit to caring for a girl as long as they had to commit to caring for a boy.

The Indianapolis News, May 16, 1881.

The preference for indentured girls over boys indicates that notions of gender and masculinity limited the tasks a boy could perform. According to Birk, “While boys helped as physical laborers, farmers and their wives wanted girls who could assist with housework. Placed-out girls often performed jobs identical to those of the women of the house.” These jobs included “making breakfast before moving on to tasks such as laundry, ironing, mending, cooking, and farm chores such as milking, caring for chickens, gardening, or aiding in field work.” So, while boys only helped with farm work, girls helped with housework and farm work. Because of notions of gender responsibilities and masculinity, it is extremely unlikely that a boy would have helped with laundry, cooking, or cleaning. However, a girl could help with gardening, field work, milking, and caring for animals in addition to laundry, cooking, and cleaning. It comes as no surprise then that adult guardians preferred indentured girls over indentured boys, since they did not have to provide for girls as long; they did not have to pay girls as much (if anything); and they could use girls to work in both the house and on the farm.

Overall, the IOA indenture records tell only a small portion of a child’s story. Of the 152 children, how many fulfilled their indentures in a home-like environment? How many were treated as free labor and shown no love? How many ended up like Eddie, searching for their family, their past, and their very identity? Although these indenture contracts do not contain the answers, they do provide a means for putting children back into the story of nineteenth-century orphanage policies.