Caroline Maria Hewins, Hartford’s “First Lady of the Library,” was born in Roxbury, Mass., and was the oldest of nine children. She was educated at home and at private schools before attending the Normal School of Boston. After graduation, she was hired to do Civil War research for the Boston Athenaeum before coming to Hartford in 1875 to run the Young Men’s Institute Library. At the time, the institute was a subscription-only library housed in the Wadsworth Atheneum and had about 600 members. Under her 50-year leadership, the library moved from private to public, and its children’s programming became a model for libraries around the country.
Upon her arrival in Hartford, Hewins was dismayed to discover a dearth of children’s materials in the library and spent considerable time and resources to develop a children’s collection. She partnered with local schools so that children would have better access to library materials. In 1882, she published Books for the Young, the first bibliography intended for children, and in 1888 she wrote a history of children’s literature for the Atlantic Monthly. Hewins made herself available to local parents and teachers, serving them tea once a week when they came to consult with her, and founded the Education Club, which later became the Parent-Teacher Association. She also devised nature outings and story times for children, causing them to flock to her library.
Hewins also shepherded the library through a number of important changes. In 1878, the Young Men’s Institute was merged with the Hartford Library Association and, ten years later, a generous grant enabled the library to undertake a large expansion project. In 1892, Hewins oversaw the library’s change from a private, subscription service to a free public library, and the Hartford Public Library was born. Suddenly the library went from its 600 paying members to thousands of patrons with free access. In order to better serve the community, Hewins expanded the library’s hours to include Sunday afternoons so that working people could take advantage of the institution’s resources. She also opened the first branch library in the North Street Settlement House where she lived, staffing it herself one hour each evening.
Her work in library advocacy was not confined to Hartford, however, as Hewins became a kind of ambassador for libraries throughout the state of Connecticut and beyond. When the American Library Association (ALA) was founded in 1876, she was an early member and became the first woman to address its annual conference. In 1891, she founded the Connecticut Public Library Committee and became its executive secretary. Over the next decade, Hartford’s “First Lady of the Library” traveled the state encouraging collaboration between libraries and schools. She set up traveling libraries and book depositories all around the state at settlement houses, schools, and factories. A nationally-respected expert on library management, Hewins oversaw the quickly growing Hartford Public Library system—a rarity for a woman at the time, as most libraries were headed by men.
Though her general work on behalf of libraries is well known, Hewins is best remembered for her tremendous advocacy work on behalf of children’s books and children as readers. She helped found the ALA’s Children’s Section in 1900. Having worked for over twenty-five years to create and maintain children’s programming in the Hartford library, it was not until 1904 that her dream of creating a children’s library was finally realized. The Hartford Children’s Library opened on November 22, 1904 and became one of the first children’s rooms in the United States. Though she hired the library’s first dedicated children’s librarian in 1907, Hewins continued her active involvement in children’s programming. When she traveled, particularly abroad, she wrote extensive letters to the library’s young patrons. These letters were gathered and published in 1923 as A Traveler’s Letters to Boys and Girls.
Her memoir, A Mid-Century Child and Her Books, was published in 1926. In it, she details her life-long love affair with books and reading, including her earliest memories of learning to read and her first books. In addition to her work inside the library, Hewins was an avid personal collector of books as she endeavored to re-create her childhood library, eventually greatly exceeding it. Her collection of over 4,000 volumes is now housed at the Connecticut State Library Museum and the Hartford Public Library.
Both an innovator and a reformer, Caroline Maria Hewins is credited with transforming the library into a major cultural and intellectual resource for the city of Hartford. In recognition of her contributions, in 1911, she became the first woman to receive a Master of Arts Honoris Causa from Trinity College. She died at her home in Hartford in November 1926, just months after publishing her memoir. Upon her death, the Library Journal wrote that she “was one of the beloved in the library profession. She made of herself a center from which radiated an immeasurable influence, especially in the great revolution in the library world which, instead of banning the children, made them the first thought of the librarian who could look at the future as well as the present.” In 1951, she was one of 40 librarians named to the Library Hall of Fame. The Hartford Public Library’s Hewins Scholarship is named in her honor and awards scholarships to young women intending to pursue careers as children’s librarians in public libraries.
During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform
When the Declaration of Independence announced that all men are created equal, the path to citizenship for both blacks and women had begun. Despite not having the right to vote, women had long petitioned governors and legislatures to articulate a family grievance. Activist women presented to the U.S. Congress a large-scale innovative petition on behalf of abolition. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is widely credited with stirring public opinion, especially among women, to anti-slavery sentiments. Helped by women’s efforts, abolitionists eventually secured their goal in the three post-Civil War amendments.
Work in activities such as anti-slavery, temperance and moral reform led some middle-class women to the cause of women’s rights. They challenged the ideal of “separate spheres,” insisting on the same rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness as men. Through Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lobbying, New York gave women control over their property, wages, and children. In 1848, Stanton and others met in Seneca Falls to discuss the “repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” The resulting Declaration of Sentiments asserted that “woman is man’s equal.”
The early industrial economy had changed women’s lives. Textile production shifted from home to factory towns where farm daughters hoped wage labor would open new opportunities. Arrangements seemed ideal, until declining profits caused owners to slash wages to reduce costs. Lowell women walked out in 1836, and later petitioned the legislature to investigate deteriorating conditions. The labor force also changed as more immigrants arrived, delegated to poorly paid factory and domestic work.
In the Progressive Era, some benevolent women were committed to helping working-class women, and their needs received increased publicity after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911. Others addressed civic concerns, established settlement houses, worked for protective labor legislation, and tried to ban child labor. Clerical work in offices opened up as a desirable field for women, and some gained greater entry into various professions, including medicine, law, social work, nursing, and teaching.
Determined suffragists persisted in their political protests even after World War I broke out in 1914. Finally, seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls convention, employing new tactics and strategies, and a long, hard struggle at the state and national levels, the elusive goal was reached. The 19th amendment, proposed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1920, prohibited restrictions on the right to vote based on sex. It was one of the most successful mass movements in the expansion of political democracy in American history.
An important expression of feminism (calling for change in women’s private lives, not in their public roles) was the campaign in favor of access to birth control. Nurse Margaret Sanger spoke and wrote on its behalf, though her mailings were judged as violating the anti-obscenity Comstock laws. In 1916, after opening the first birth control clinic in the country, she was arrested and sentenced briefly to jail. For forty years she promoted contraception as an alternative to abortion, foreshadowing Planned Parenthood.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.