The other day, as I was crossing Bryant Park to get to the New York Public Library, I stopped at the fountain at the west end of the park. I’m usually in such as hurry I never slow down enough to notice the park at all, geek that I am. For me, it is just a conduit between the subway and the library. But on this sunny summer day, I remembered to stop because someone had recently told me that the fountain was the first (and still one of very few) public memorials dedicated to a woman in New York City. This seemed significant enough to me to warrant a closer look.
The classical-style granite fountain is dedicated to Josephine Shaw Lowell (December 16, 1843 – October 12, 1905), a nineteenth-century advocate for progressive reform who was born into a wealthy New England family and was educated in the United States and abroad by philanthropic parents who encouraged intellectual curiosity, religious tolerance, and community involvement in their five children.
Lowell’s life of service began at the beginning of the Civil War, where her husband, Charles Russell Lowell, died in battle, less than a year after they were married and only one month before their daughter, Carlotta, was born. After her husband’s death, Lowell moved in with her parents on Staten Island and never remarried. Throughout her life, she was dedicated to helping the disenfranchised and lived a simple life in simple surroundings despite her family’s affluence. She is remembered for helping to found numerous charitable organizations, including the New York Charity Organization (1882), the first custodial asylum for women in the U. S. (1885), the House of Refuge for Women (later known as the State Training School for Girls; 1886), Consumers’ League of New York (1890), the Woman’s Municipal League (1894), and the Civil Service Reform Association of New York State (1895). (source)
She was also an outspoken advocate for social justice and reform. “If the working people had all they ought to have, we should not have the paupers and criminals. It is better to save them before they go under, than to spend your life fishing them out afterward,” she once said.(source) She also believed that public relief should not be paid out of taxpayers’ money:
“It is not right to take money by law from one man and give it to another,” she declared, “unless for the benefit of both.” She repeated the most common objection to relief in general. “Human nature is so constituted that no man can receive as a gift what he should earn by his own labor without a moral deterioration.” (source)
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Lowell dedicated herself to “teaching the rich how to give and the poor how to live.” (source) Indeed, Lowell’s Charity Organization Society and other similar organizations served as models of how philanthropic institutions would function in the twentieth century and shaped “private philanthropic and public policies toward the dependent individual.” (source) It was in this role as a skilled public advocate that she came to the attention of New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden, who, in 1876, appointed her a New York State Board of Charities commissioner, the first woman to hold such high office in state government.
Josephine Shaw Lowell lived her life surrounded by public luminaries. Her brother Robert Gould Shaw organized the first African-American regiment in the Civil War (the film Glory, starring Matthew Broderick, was about his service in the war), her husband Charles Russell Lowell was also a Civil War hero who died in battle, her uncle-in-law was poet James Russell Lowell, and her brother-in-law was George William Curtis, editor of Harper’s Weekly. (source) She was clearly a shining light in her own right, however, whose luminescence has never dimmed due to her legacy of giving and compassion that has endured to this day through her charitable organizations and the philanthropic policies she helped implement.
So the next time you are in Bryant Park, take a moment to visit the Josephine Lowell Fountain. In addition to her many accomplishments, the fountain can be said to represent all of the many women of Lowell’s age and class who worked so hard to make life better for those less fortunate than themselves and were never acknowledged at all. So throw in a coin, and wish them well.