A Bryant Park memorial for a Gilded Age crusader

When ground broke in 1912 on a new fountain on the east side of Bryant Park, New Yorkers assumed that what was dubbed the “Lowell Memorial” would honor James Russell Lowell, a popular 19th century romantic poet.

Instead, the fountain, which still graces the park today (though now on the Sixth Avenue side of the park), honors the poet’s niece by marriage, Josephine Shaw Lowell (right, at age 26).

In the years before and after the turn of the century, New York City—like many other booming cities entranced by the City Beautiful movement—went on a statue- and fountain-building frenzy.

But a fountain dedicated to this female social reformer was an interesting choice in an era that tended to honor war heroes, presidents, and political leaders.

Mostly forgotten today, Lowell was famous during the Gilded Age for her 40-year devotion to ending the deep poverty that affected so many New Yorkers—the “other half,” as fellow social activist Jacob Riis described the city’s poor in his 1890 book.

Like many social reformers of the era, Lowell came from a well-off background. Born in 1843 to an old New England family, she grew up on Staten Island and in Europe.

She was widowed when she was just 21; her husband was Union Army Colonel Charles Russell Lowell, who died in battle and is seen with his bride at left.

After her husband’s death, Lowell gave birth to their daughter, Carlotta, wore black every day for the rest of her life, and continued the Union Army charity work she had been doing for the Red Cross and the Women’s Central Association of Relief.

In the years following the end of the war, a movement toward charity and benevolence took hold in New York—sort of the flip side of the crass moneymaking that typically characterizes the Gilded Age. Lowell soon became its steward.

Basing herself first in Staten Island and then in a brownstone at 120 East 30th Street (above), Lowell founded the Charity Organization Society in 1882 (which helped various charities coordinate their efforts). In 1876 she was the first woman appointed to the New York State Board of Charities. And in 1890 she launched the New York Consumer’s League, lobbying for better conditions and pay for working women.

Lowell was arguably one of the most powerful women in the late 19th century city. For 40 years, she served as “a career woman in the growing field of organized philanthropy and government service,” states Virginia Commonwealth University’s Social History Project.

What made her controversial, however, was her reliance on what was called “scientific charity,” the idea that providing direct relief (in the form of food and housing, for example) to the poor fostered dependency and led to idleness.

Scientific charity was a generally accepted concept at the time, an era in which the city provided almost no direct relief to the “deserving poor,” and charity was supposed to be given in exchange for some kind of work.

Lowell held firm to her strong convictions. She advocated that some poor residents be “committed, until reformed, to district work-houses, there to be kept at hard-labor, and educated morally and mentally,” according to Mike Wallace’s Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

Her dedication to eradicating poverty, though, was never in question. In a letter to her sister-in-law in 1883, Lowell wrote:

“‘Common charity, that is, feeding and clothing people, I am beginning to look upon as wicked! Not in its intention, of course, but in its carelessness and its results….If it could only be drummed into the rich that what the poor want is fair wages and not little doles of food, we should not have all this suffering and misery and vice.'”

The day after Lowell’s death from cancer in 1905 was made public, a tribute to her was published that included this summary of her life’s work: “She has championed unpopular causes when she believed they were right. She has known nothing of mere expediency, but she worked nevertheless with rare wisdom and with remarkable success.”

[Images 1, 3, and 7: Wikipedia; fourth image: Google maps; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Bryantpark.org]

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12 Responses to “A Bryant Park memorial for a Gilded Age crusader”

  1. Tom B Says:

    Seen this fountain many times, but never new the history. Some tough love charity reform! How would she be perceived today? Because we are knee deep in this now. Wasn’t FDR’s New Deal kind of like her theory. Great story.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I think she would be perceived negatively for her condemnation of some poor people. But she was a product of her time and tried to break cycles of poverty within families in a way that felt right to her, and to many others in the late 19th century city.

  2. Kenny Says:

    She is certainly someone worth remembering and emulating.

  3. sara Says:

    i agree with the philosophie that hand outs are almost always not good if someone Can do something good for others in exchange.

  4. Bill Wolfe Says:

    What is the large building at the far end of the park? I know I should know that, but I don’t.

  5. David Says:

    The fountain was originally located on Bryant Park’s east end near the Bryant Memorial, as shown in the 1922 (6th) image above. It was moved to the west/6th Ave end when the park was redesigned in the 1930s under direction of Robert Moses.

  6. chas1133 Says:

    Imagine if the “basic” premise of her philosophies took hold…

  7. Shankar Subramanian Says:

    Excellent! What a capable lady !

  8. www.Naukrimap.com Says:

    http://www.Naukrimap.com

    A Bryant Park memorial for a Gilded Age crusader | Ephemeral New York

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