Josephine Shaw Lowell 1843-1905
&
Anna Shaw Curtis 1838-1927

Staten Island True Women - Social Reformer and Church Lay Leader


Anna and Josephine Shaw were two of five children born to Francis George Shaw and Sarah Sturgis of New England. They were sixth generation Americans born to a family of wealth and privilege.Their father was a businessman turned philosopher and philanthropist. Although he was born rich, he used his money to benefit mankind and his own family. The parents were devoted to their four daughters and one son. Their influence on Anna and Josephine continued throughout their lives. They traveled abroad for five years from 1851-1856 and instilled in their children love, attention, religious tolerance, and culture. In 1855 the family settled in Staten Island. They moved toStaten Island primarily because Mrs. Shaw need medical attention for her eyes and she wanted to be near Dr. Elliott, a well-respected doctor in West New Brighton. Anna, the eldest child, and Josephine, the second youngest, grew up to have very different lives, despite their very similar childhood. They were both true women and believed in family, traditions, and high moral standards. There is quite a bit of information about Josephine Shaw Lowell including her own writings, essays, letters, and memorials. There is very little about Anna's life, except what is recorded by her famous husband, George William Curtis, and in the records of the small Unitarian Church she was married in and where she served as president of the Board of Trustees for sixteen years.

Anna Shaw Curtis

Anna was married at the age of 20 to George William Curtis in 1856 in the Church of the Redeemer in New Brighton, Staten Island. George was an intellectual, an orator, an author, and considered to be a splendid match. Curtis was very much in love with Anna. He said, "she is thoroughly feminine yet conscious of social evils and eager to remedy them....thoroughly domestic, yet intelligent and widely read and able to charm the distinguished visitors."

Anna's husband George was a witer, but soon after they were married, an investment in Putnam's Monthly soured. Anna's father made him a loan, and for the next ten years George traveled far and wide and lectured frequently to reduce his business debt to his father-in-law. Anna and George lived with the Shaws after they were married and eventually they settled near her parents in a big house on Bard and Henderson. They lived there for the rest of their lives. Anna Curtis helped her famous husband in many ways. She typed all his essays and articles. She talked over difficult situations frankly and honestly and showed clear judgement. She was not a social butterfly. She avoided public functions. She was not a social butterfly. She took full charge of their home, stables, and grounds with very little assistance from her busy husband. According to her husband's biographer, Anna loved her own extended family above all. Her children Frank, Sally, and Elizabeth certainly kept her busy. Sally, her middle child was classified as "slow"and Anna was very attentive to her needs. She spent much of her adult life devoted to raising her children, and helping those in her immediate neighborhood who were in need. There is little mention of her traveling with George on his many excursions. George Curtis was a spokesman for women's rights. On the tenth anniversary of the Declaration of Sentiments in 1858 he said, "Good wifehood does not consist exclusively of skillful baking and boiling, neat darning and patching but in intellectual and public interests as well. The higher the estimate of women, the better the civilization...in a truly civilized society she should be given the right to vote and the opportunity for higher education." He must have had his wife in mind, and she strove to meet his definition of womanhood her entire life.

During the Civil War, she and her sisters and mother spearheaded local efforts to help the war effort. Although her whole family was abolitionist, there is no record of her ideas or actions in this regard. There is mention of knitting socks and sewinggarments to be sent to the front. The Underground Railroad was in use during this time to help runaway slaves, and it is believed that the Curtises and the Shaws were very involved in this effort. George Curtis was targeted by Southern sympathizers and during the draft riots in NYC during 1863, Anna and her three children left Staten Island to stay with her grandparents in Roxbury Massachusetts.

After the war, and the deaths of her brother Robert Gould Shaw, and her brother-in-law Charles Russell Lowell, Anna and her immediate family spent long summers in Ashfield Massachusetts in the Berkshires. Her children thrived in both these environments. Frank entered Harvard in 1875, and eventually became a medical doctor. Sally, the "slow" daughter died in 1874. Elizabeth Curtis was well educated, musical, and eventually grew up to found the Political Equality Club for Women, which evolved into the League of Women Voters. Elizabeth died before her mother in 1914. Little is known about the details of her life after George Curtis died in 1892. Anna became even more active in her church, taking on leadership and administrative assignments. She served as President of the Board of Trustees for the Church of the Redeemer, (later re-named the Unitarian Church of Staten Island for sixteen years from 1903-1919. She still was active in the church up until 1923 as an active Board member. During her tenure she undertook many substantial and important projects. She instigated the building of a parish hall and a parsonage. She worked closely with several ministers to accomplish much good. One of the ways in which the small church raised over $5,000.00 for these projects was to hold a Dickens festival in 1910. Both buildings are still in use today and are a testament to her efforts. Anna was influenced by her parents, and her husband, and the society she lived in. She was a successful daughter, wife, mother, and capable efficient and selfless church leader. This true woman is rarely mentioned in history books but gave much to her family, her church, and her country.

Josephine Shaw Lowell (1843-1905)

Josephine’s life might have turned out more like her sister Anna’s had her husband not been killed in battle during the Civil War. Her mother considered her "the genius" of her family. She was quick to learn, and eventually with studying abroad was able to learn several languages. She was influenced by the constant intellectual discourse in her household. Her early years were spent studying , but she showed an inclination to help others by the time she was thirteen. She assisted a poor settlement of Irish families in her neighborhood by offering treats at her home. She eagerly joined with her mother working with the Woman’s Central Relief Association in NYC packing up clothing and useful items to soldiers. She kept a diary before her marriage and shows an unusual interest in the affairs of the country. She was quite concerned with the military successes and failure. She knew many young men from her circle of friends and family that were serving their country, and followed the news very carefully. She was involved with many conversations about important ideas with men and never took a back seat. This may have distinguished her from many other girls, but her family was quite liberal and educated.

She married Charles Russell Lowell Jr. in 1863 in the same little church on Staten Island that her sister was married in.. Lowell graduated Harvard in 1954, at the head of his class. He was self-supporting in business, but when the war began he demanded a commission as his patriotic duty. Josephine Shaw Lowell decided to join him in Virginia and help take care of the sick and wounded. They were very much in love and his bravery was evident. He died a hero in battle and was called "a perfection of man and soldier." Unfortunately he never lived to see his daughter born one month after his death. Josephine and her young daughter Carlotta went back to Staten Island to live with her parents. She mourned for her husband, and her brother and started a long correspondence with her brother’s widow, Annie.. There are no letters or evidence of discussions between Josephine and her sister Anna during this time, but they lived close by and probably saw each other regularly. After a respectable period of mourning, Josephine, a 21-year-old widow and mother renewed her efforts to help others, and she never stopped. One of her first missions was with the Freedman’s Association. She and a friend traveled to Virginia with the goal of establishing schools for colored people in the South. This was just the beginning of her commitment to be a force for change in society for justice, freedom, and upholding moral values. In 1874 she moved from her parents house on Staten Island to NYC where she wished her daughter to be educated properly. She was already knee deep in charity work, visiting poorhouses and reporting on abuses. Her home on E. 30th street was simple but very welcoming. She rejected personal extravagances and the society life, choosing instead to be a charity worker day and night, with only Sunday as her day of reflection.

She was a life-long Unitarian in her religious beliefs. She preferred their liberal faith and sincere beliefs in humanism. She hated all forms of bigotry, and worked to right any wrongs. Josephine became a career woman in the growing field or organized philanthropy and government service. In 1876 she was appointed by Governor Tilden of New York State to be the first woman commissioner of the NYS Board of Charities.

In this position she served until 1889, using her post to speak out, lobby, legislate, and advocate for people who were unable to do so themselves.

Her list of affiliations and accomplishments is lengthy. The highlights of her achievements during her lifetime are as follows: Improved care for the insane; work for dependent children and widows; improved reformatories; police matrons for women prisoners; work for the emancipation of labor; settlement house advocate; civil service reformer; consumers league organizer, and anti-imperialist leader.. All this she did within the established context of society. She sometimes did become angry with others in society, but she never stopped trying. In a letter to her sister-in-law in 1883 she writes, " 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, which certainly are to destroy people’s character and make them poorer and poorer. 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. ."

Personally her life was fulfilled with family, friends, and her work. She never remarried and never rejected her true womanhood. She always dressed in black and believed first in her duties toward home. She was opposed to the concept of institutionalism, except as a last resort. She believed that even a poor home was preferable to a good institution. Later in life she spoke out on more political matters and in a speech advocating her support for William Jennings Bryan for president she revealed her passion for patriotism and morality. "When the people of the United States consent to deprive another people of its rights and liberties, they strike a terrific blow at the foundations upon which stand their own rights and liberties." Josephine was opposed to both the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars. "We paid a bitter price to free ourselves from the sin of slavery, and the nation will again pay a bitter price to free itself from the sin of empire, if, driven by fear of financial distress or lured by hope of wealth, it now deserts its ancient ideals." In this fight she did not prevail, but her ideas certainly made an impact. She died from an incurable disease in 1905.

The memorial service to Josephine Shaw Lowell had hundreds of attendees and at least 50 eulogies, as well as write-ups in the daily newspapers. She was remembered in the Outlook as "devoted herself to public affairs without sacrificing her womanliness." There is a permanent memorial to Josephine Shaw Lowell in Bryant Park in NYC. It is a classical style granite fountain dedicated shortly after her death.

Further Resources for Studying:
George William Curtis & the Genteel Tradition by Gordon Milne
The Philanthropic Work of Josephine Shaw Lowell by William Rinelander Stewart
Unitarian Church of Staten Island
Curtis, Staten Island's First High School

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Prepared by Susan McAnanama, a student in Professor Catherine Lavender's History/Women's Studies 386 (Women in New York City, 1890-1940) course, The Department of History and The Program in Women's Studies, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York.

Send email to Susan McAnanama at suebu@aol.com or to Professor Lavender at lavender@postbox.csi.cuny.edu.
Fall Semester 1998. Last modified: 16 December 1998