Ambasciatrice, Activist, Auntie, Author: Caroline Crane Marsh

By Etta Madden, Short-Term Fellow
December 19, 2018

Etta Madden is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in English at Missouri State University. She received a New York Public Library Short-Term Fellowship in support of a book project that illuminates the political activism, personal transformations, and diversity of 19th century American women in Italy. In addition to Caroline Crane Marsh (1816-1901), the book examines New Yorker Emily Bliss Gould (1822-75), who established an industrial school and orphanage in Rome, and Philadelphian Anne Hampton Brewster (1819-92), a newspaper correspondent.

An Affluent Orbit

Mrs. Astor calling card, circa 1868-1871

Mrs. Astor calling card, c. 1868-1871; Crane family papers, NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division

In early winter of 1870, wealthy New York philanthropist Mrs. Augusta John J. Astor scribbled a note on a calling card she left at the home of Caroline Crane Marsh. The embossed calling card, among the vast Crane family papers in the Library's Manuscripts and Archives Division, reminds us of one method of communication in the days before electronic social media.

This day, Astor gladly noted that she was taking her "first drive" after an illness and had "stopped by" Marsh’s door in passing, assuming it would give her friend "real pleasure to know" that Astor had "advanced from her convalescence." Astor likely left the card at the Villa Forini of Florence, where Caroline lived with her husband, George Perkins Marsh, then US Minister Plenipotentiary to the newly unified Kingdom of Italy.

Portrait of Caroline Crane Marsh, with Firenze in text at the bottom  - box 12, Crane family papers, NYPL

Portrait of Caroline Crane Marsh, Crane family papers, NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division

Astor was one among many Americans abroad who orbited Marsh in her position of ambasciatrice, or wife of the ambassador. Correspondence between "Mrs. Astor" and "Mrs. Marsh" would follow for more than a decade. Astor noted in 1879, for example, that she would contribute to one of Marsh’s activist causes—the orfontrofio, or orphanage and school associated with Italy ‘s "Free Church" movement, established in the 1860s.

Marsh’s activism went beyond asking Astor for financial support. She garnered contributions from Anglos abroad, as well as from Americans at home. In New York, Cyrus W. Field, who famously completed the first transatlantic telegraph cable, wrote that he was enclosing funds and a list of subscribers to the cause, gathered by his wife.
In a cumbersome path that marks the ways in which women’s work was often subjected to control by men, Field sent the collection through Marsh’s nephew, Alexander B. Crane. Another highly successful New York businessman and attorney, Crane then sent the money abroad to his "Uncle George" (as he is addressed in many letters of the collection), where it finally reached Marsh and her cause.

Circuitous pathway of contributions, 1871-1873 - box 2, Crane family papers, NYPL

The "circuitous pathway of contributions," 1871-1873 ; Crane family papers, NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division

These communications about a project supporting female education suggest only one reason for exploring documents associated with Marsh: Defying the label of "invalid," bestowed upon her because of the inability at times to walk and to see, Marsh was not only an activist but also a teacher, author and beloved “auntie”—well before her marriage to George in 1839 and continuing long after his death in 1882.
Her multifaceted life comes to light through the more-than 500 letters to and from her within the Crane papers.

"Dear Alick"… "Dear Auntie"

A letter beginning with

"Dear Alick"; Crane family papers, NYPL Manuscripts and Archives Division

Many of the letters are from Alexander, or "Alick," as Marsh fondly referred to her successful nephew. More frequently than he addressed his uncle, Crane communicated with his "Dear Auntie," confiding in her and seeking advice about romantic relationships, career, and family life.
Alick assisted his aunt with shipping the Marshes’ books to Italy, where they enhanced the Villa Forini library and supported the couple’s literary endeavors. Alick and his children would visit the Marshes not long before George’s death. Afterward, the supportive nephew would help the widowed Marsh with the books once again, as she arranged for the return and sale of the massive library (its home now is the University of Vermont).
Finally, Marsh lived with Crane and his large family on his Scarsdale estate, Holmhurst, upon her return from Italy and up through her death in 1901.

An Aspiring and Inspiring Author

References to reading in the family letters reveal how Marsh was immersed in the literary world, even as she offered advice and guidance as a teaching aunt. They also point to her literary inclinations, as she not only wrote letters and kept journals but also wrote and translated poetry and prose.

Handwritten letter from Gould and Lincoln to George Perkins Marsh

Letter from Boston publishers Gould & Lincoln to George Perkins Marsh, explaining they have written to “Mrs. Marsh” stating that she should not “hesitate to complete” her translation of The Hallig, which they published in 1856. Crane family papers, NYPL M

Marsh’s correspondence with her husband—while she managed their home in Burlington, Vermont, and he was involved with political negotiations in Washington, DC—illustrate how the two encouraged each other. George supported Caroline’s two published translations, "The Hallig" (1856) and "The Wolfe of the Knoll and other Poems" (1859), coaching her through negotiations with Gould and Lincoln, her first publisher, and then Scribner’s. Caroline’s books caught the attention of both men and women, the correspondence indicates, with other authors looking to her for support and friendship.

These mutually beneficial relationships lie at the heart of this project on Marsh, who today remains overshadowed by the better-known work of her husband, a co-founder of the Smithsonian Institution and an early conservationist, as well as a US ambassador for more than 25 years, first to Turkey and then to Italy.

Marsh did much more than support her husband and his career. From her early years as a teacher in Vermont, and then in New York in Miss Martha Mitchell’s school in lower Manhattan in 1838, this insightful and sensitive woman read, wrote, and shared ideas in a way that inspired people of all ages, and across gendered and cultural boundaries. Her life, revisited today, should likewise be an inspiration to those who may deem themselves invalid because little-known but who engage those around them.

Notes on the Crane Family Papers

Aside from Caroline Crane Marsh’s work abroad, the Crane family papers contain information about a number of enduring research topics. Letters and journals contain contemporary commentary about romantic relationships, reading and readership, fashion and shopping, national crisis, mortality, births—and are all available for research.