Faithful readers of this blog will know that I am captivated by the Remonds, an African-American family of ten who lead exemplary lives of advocacy, activism and entrepreneurialism in Salem in the nineteenth-century, often centered around Hamilton Hall, the Federal reception hall right next door to my house. I feel very connected to them and I’m interested in everything they did. The parents, John and Nancy, clearly raised their children to be independent and assertive, and were both independent and assertive themselves. The most public, and therefore most well-known, Remonds were the abolitionist speakers Charles Lenox and Sarah Parker, and while I have the utmost admiration for them they have their historians, while their siblings do not. There are also no photographs (in the public realm anyway) of the other Remonds, so we don’t “see” them. So I’ve been collecting as much information as possible about the “invisible” Remonds, and I thought I would cap off my year of #salemsuffragesaturdays with a spotlight on the amazing life of the youngest member of this distinguished family, Caroline Remond Putnam (1826-1908). She’s one of the most impressive women I have ever encountered. The closest I can get to her is her signature, sadly: on a petition against capital punishment signed when she was a teenager, on a letter addressed to Wendell Phillips sent from London (both from the digital collections of Harvard), on her passport application in 1865.
Even without an archive of personal papers to elucidate her life, it’s easy to see that Caroline was a very engaged woman: the advertisements for her businesses fill the pages of the Salem Register; her efforts towards abolition are referenced in successive issues of The Liberator. As the youngest Remond child, she had several examples to follow as every family member was busy: in business and in reform causes, or both. Her parents managed to enroll her older sister Sarah and Caroline in the Salem public schools, from which they were expelled for no cause other than their race, prompting the relocation of the family to Newport, Rhode Island. The Remonds returned to Salem when the girls’ schooling was complete, and to their several businesses. Caroline began working in hairdressing in partnership with several of her sisters, and on her own, and in the late 1840s she married Joseph H. Putnam of Boston, whose family was part of the African-American network of entrepreneur activists which extended to Philadelphia. Caroline never stopped working: as a personal hairstylist, as the owner of a Salem salon and wig factory called the Ladies Hair Work Salon with her sisters, and as the manufacturer of the popular “Mrs. Putnam’s Medicated Hair Tonic” for hair loss. She and Joseph had two children, Edmund and Victoria, but tragedy struck in 1859 when Caroline lost both her husband and her baby daughter within three months. Her reaction was to leave: she booked passage for Britain for herself and her young son Edmund to join her sister Sarah, and there are no indications that she planned to come back to the United States. But she did: back and forth across the Atlantic she went over the next 20 years or so, sometimes with a sister, often with Edmund. She came back because she had a lot to do: she had her businesses, and had assumed major leadership roles, chiefly in the realm of fundraising, for the American and Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Societies. After the Civil War she shifted her efforts towards the suffrage movement and the American, New England, and Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Associations, and was always recognized as a “well-known advocate” of the cause. Caroline clearly had many obligations in the United States, but she returned to Europe several times in the 1870s and eventually joined her sister Sarah in Italy (where she managed a hotel in Rome!) in the mid-1880s and then made a permanent move to England, where she died in 1908.
Abolition, Suffrage AND Pacifism: Caroline had big goals, and that characteristic Remond mix of activism and pragmatism regarding business matters.
It’s rather sad to see someone work so hard for the greater good in a country, and be so eager to leave it: after Frederick Douglass visited the Remond sisters (Caroline and Sarah, plus Maritcha) in Rome he reported that “they detest prejudice of color and say they would not live in the U. States, if you could or would give them America!” These sentiments were grounded in experience. Caroline experienced at least three cases of very public discrimination: she was with Sarah at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston in 1853 when they were ejected from their seats, on her first Atlantic crossing in 1859 she and her young son were barred from the first-class cabins in the Cunard liner Europa for which she had purchased tickets, and on a trip to New York City in 1870 her reservations for rooms at the Metropolitan Hotel were not honored. I’m sure these were just three public instances out of many more private ones. But still she pressed on, always trying to create a better world for herself, her family, her gender, her race, and pretty much everyone else.