Mrs. Russell Sage: Women's Activism and Philanthropy in Gilded Age and Progressive America
by Ruth Crocker
Indiana University Press, 2008
317 pp., 44.95
In his 1896 essay “Socialism for Millionaires,” George Bernard Shaw urged potential donors to spend their fortunes on large, lasting projects. “I confess I despise a millionaire that dribbles his money away in fifties and hundreds, thereby reducing himself to the level of a mere crowd of ordinary men, instead of plunking down sums that only a millionaire can,” Shaw wrote. “The millionaire should ask himself what is his favorite subject? Has it a school, with scholarships for the endowment of research and the attraction of rising talent in the universities? Has it a library, or a museum? If not, then he has an opening at once for his ten thousand or his hundred thousand.”
Shaw never commented on the philanthropy of Olivia Sage (1828-1918), but Sage spent her money in the ways Shaw warned against. She inherited $75 million from her husband, Russell, and spent all of it on charity, more than any philanthropist of her era not named Carnegie or Rockefeller. She is best known for funding the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907, the first of the large foundations and the template later used by the creators of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Rockefeller Foundation.
But Sage only spent $15 million on the creation of the Russell Sage Foundation; the remaining $60 million was spent on much smaller projects. Andrew Carnegie, active at this time, used $50 million of his wealth to create the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the Carnegie Hero Fund, the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching, and the Carnegie Institute (now Carnegie-Mellon University). Olivia Sage used the same amount of money to create a small college and little more.
Sage is an important philanthropist who has not, until now, had a biographer. Ruth Crocker, an Auburn University professor, displays the strengths and weaknesses of the modern academic historian. She is diligent and thorough, and has unearthed every scrap of information that can be gleaned about her subject from 33 archives. Yet much of Crocker’s book is an attempt to bind Olivia Sage, born during the administration of John Quincy Adams, in the constricting corsets of 21st-century feminism.
Periodically, Crocker interrupts her narrative to deliver an indigestible, half-chewed bit of anachronism. For example, here is what she says about Olivia Sage’s role in upper-crust society: “In New York City as Mrs. Russell Sage, she constructed a public role as a benevolent Christian woman with work to do in the public sphere. This despite the fact that she derived her social standing solely from her relationship to Russell Sage, financial partner to the generally despised railroad baron Jay Gould.”
One of the charities Olivia Sage spent a good deal of time working on in the 1880s and 1890s was the New York Woman’s Hospital, which was funded by rich women: “As fund-raisers, patrons, and day-to-day managers, these upper-class women negotiated public identities that enabled them to challenge (though unsuccessfully) men’s control over the hospital and its therapies. Privileged women thus participated in the subordination of other women at the same time as they enlarged their power in public life.”
Such dreadful prose obscures rather than illuminates the daily battles women fought a century ago. Fortunately, Crocker substantially reduces her inane analysis once Russell Sage dies and Olivia Sage inherits her husband’s fortune. Her book would have been stronger had she been able to resist the temptation to lard her biography with these theoretical lumps.
Olivia Slocum was born in Cambridge, New York, north of Albany and near the Vermont border, in 1828. She attended Troy Female Seminary in Troy, New York, a private girl’s school that is now the Emma Willard School. Like most women of her generation, she did not attend college. After several years as a schoolteacher and occasional governess, she married Russell Sage, a business acquaintance of her father’s, in 1869.
Like many capitalists of his generation, Russell Sage (1815-1906) made some money in railroads and Civil War procurement contracts. He served two terms in Congress in the 1850s as a Whig, and became a Republican once the Whig Party collapsed. After the war, Sage made his fortune as a financier, an expert in the esoteric art of buying and selling puts and calls on stocks.
Because Sage became very wealthy without actually producing anything, he was regularly denounced in the press for his mysterious moneymaking methods. Journalists feasted on stories of Sage’s miserliness; he was routinely pilloried as being so cheap that he walked to save on streetcar fare. Another Russell Sage legend has him berating a clerk for delivering a 10-cent sandwich instead of the five-cent one he ordered.
Russell Sage controlled most of his fortune during his long life. Olivia Sage was allowed to make some small grants, but much of her philanthropic activity was spent in volunteer work: serving on the New York Woman’s Hospital, helping to organize the alumnae of the Emma Willard School. She was also moderately active in the women’s suffrage movement. (The suffragettes, Crocker writes, knew how to reward their patrons; donors at suffrage rallies gazed down on the masses from exclusive upper-tier boxes, and dined afterward on such delicacies as glace de ballot box—i.e., ballot-box cake.)
When Russell Sage died at age 91, he left his fortune to his wife with no restrictions on how the money was to be used. Like most donors of the era, Olivia Sage was besieged by people wanting money. Even before Russell Sage’s death, Olivia Sage’s day was spent dealing with bags of letters begging for money.
Journalist William Griffith interviewed Olivia Sage a few years before Russell Sage’s death. “On one long table were the letters,” Griffith wrote, “begging for everything under the charitable sun…One correspondent was declaring in a highly dramatic epistolary style that if he did not receive a thousand dollars before sundown he would blow out his brains. Another wrote a tear-faded letter about departing this life on an empty stomach, and another threatened the addressee with dire consequences if she did not obtain and forward him information about certain railway securities.”
Faced with this deluge, Olivia Sage asked Robert W. de Forest, one of her husband’s attorneys, for help. He enlisted the aid of his colleagues in the Charity Organization Society (COS) of New York. The COS staff eagerly accepted the challenge of being Olivia Sage’s gatekeepers; after 18 months, they wrote, they had cataloged nearly 40,000 requests for aid, and had discarded most of them.
De Forest had his own plans, and persuaded Olivia Sage to use $10 million to endow the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907. Russell Sage was the first large, general-purpose perpetual foundation. The only restrictions placed on its grantmaking were that the foundation, reflecting the “scientific” thinking of the time, had to fight the causes of poverty rather than directly aiding the poor. When the Sage board met for the first time, it said that it would not use Sage money to fund churches, “attempt to relieve individual or family need,” or give money to colleges or universities. Instead, the Sage Foundation was the place to go if you wanted advice on how to add more layers of bureaucracy to your nonprofit. The foundation also funded surveys of cities, which inevitably concluded that a great deal more government money was needed if poverty was to be alleviated.
The creators of the Russell Sage Foundation said that Olivia Sage had little role in the foundation’s creation or its research agenda. Olivia Sage, according to Crocker, is known to have imposed only two restrictions: that the foundation be called the “Russell Sage Foundation” as a memorial to her husband, and that the foundation could spend no more than a quarter of its endowment on what modern philanthropists would call program-related investments. Fully a quarter of the Russell Sage Foundation’s endowment was tied up in the construction of Forest Hills Estates, a housing complex for the poor whose backers promised the foundation “progress and six percent” return on their investment.
Olivia Sage had even less to do with the Russell Sage Foundation after 1910. She did leave the foundation an additional $5.7 million, as well as Marsh Island, a 30,000 acre Louisiana nature preserve where oil and gas were subsequently discovered. The oil and gas income, Crocker reports, proved very helpful to the Sage Foundation during hard times.
De Forest and his peers played little part in disposing of the remainder of Olivia Sage’s fortune. No one else acted as a philanthropic adviser to Sage, and she made mistakes. She was passionate about women’s education, and her wealth could have been used either to create a women’s college or a coordinate college like Barnard. An attempt to create a women’s counterpart to then all-male New York University was aborted when NYU took her vaguely-worded initial grant and diverted it without her permission to the engineering school. Not until 1916 did she create Russell Sage College—and because she endowed it with only $500,000, the school remained small and struggling for years.
Olivia Sage’s fortune was disposed of in dribs and drabs—a little for historic preservation, a little for poverty-fighting, surprisingly little for women’s suffrage, somewhat more for colleges and universities, and a relatively substantial amount for Christian missionary work overseas. She appeared to dispose of her wealth with no systematic plan.
Olivia Sage is an important philanthropist because of the creation of the Russell Sage Foundation. But the dissipation of most of her wealth ensures that she was far less significant than Carnegie, Rockefeller, James B. Duke, and Julius Rosenwald.
Sage’s life provides two lessons for donors. First, follow Shaw’s timeless advice and give substantial amounts to causes you care about. Second, don’t delegate the task of giving. People who are smart enough to create fortunes are smart enough to know the best ways to give away their wealth.
Contributing editor Martin Morse Wooster explores the creation of the Russell Sage Foundation in Return to Charity?: Philanthropy and the Welfare State.