Crane, Caroline Bartlett (1858–1935)

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Crane, Caroline Bartlett (1858–1935)

American Social Gospel minister and municipal reformer, known nationally as "America's Housekeeper." Name variations: Caroline Bartlett; Carrie. Born Caroline Julia Bartlett on August 17, 1858, in Hudson, Wisconsin; died on March 24, 1935, of a heart attack at her home in Kalamazoo, Michigan; daughter of Lorenzo Dow Bartlett (a riverboat owner-captain) and Julia (Brown) Bartlett; attended public then private school; graduated valedictorian from Carthage College in Illinois; studied privately for the ministry under the tutelage of the Reverend Oscar Clute, a Minnesota Unitarian Conference missionary; also guided in her theological studies by the Reverends William Channing Gannett, Samuel McChord Crothers, and Henry M. Simmons; graduate courses in sociology at the University of Chicago; married Augustus Warren Crane (a physician and early radiology pioneer) on December 31, 1896; children: adopted Warren Bartlett Crane in February 1914 and, about a year later, adopted Juliana Bartlett Crane , giving both children the birth date of May 25, 1913, in order to make them twins.

Family moved to LeClair, Iowa (1873), then to Hamilton, Illinois (1874); following graduation from Carthage College (1879), worked at various jobs in Iowa, Illinois, the Dakota territory, Minnesota, and Wisconsin; first assignment as a Unitarian minister in Sioux Fall, Dakota Territory (1887); accepted a ministerial position in Kalamazoo, Michigan; had formal ordination (1889); took on additional duties in nearby Grand Rapids and also traveled to England where she was profoundly moved by many urban social problems (1890); active in woman suffrage activities and served on many local, regional, and national committees; named to the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame (1985).

Caroline Bartlett Crane's interest in religious questions began when she was young, and she became a Unitarian minister in her late 20s. Because she instigated reforms nationwide that would help "clean up" America's cities, she became nationally known, by mid-life, as "America's Housekeeper." Her prime adult years coincided with the optimistic reform efforts of the Progressive Era. During that time, Crane was one of the nation's most prominent reformers. She would remain a national figure and a symbol of reform until her death of a heart attack in 1935.

Caroline Bartlett, known to her childhood friends and family as Carrie, was born in Hudson, Wisconsin, in 1858, the third of four children. Early aware of the child's intelligence, her family encouraged her to focus on education rather than domesticity. She learned to read at age four. While she enjoyed a loving relationship with her mother, her intelligence caught the interest of her father who became her childhood mentor. She enjoyed school and would later re-call that she was "eager to learn and sincerely fond of those who could help me," which led to her being the subject of the childhood taunt, "teacher's pet." Her father's strong focus on her school record made her "unduly anxious to excel." From family stories, Carrie learned that the "Bartlett women" had a history of strong will and independence. Few women during this time combined marriage and a career; as an "independent Bartlett woman," young Carrie never entertained the possibility of marriage. A spirited, intelligent, thoughtful child, she instead looked forward to a career.

Prior to Crane's birth, her mother and father had left the Methodist Church when the minister told them it was "God's will" that their first two children had died of scarlet fever. Carrie attended the Congregationalist Sunday school as a child, and by the age of seven she was disturbed by what she saw as illogic in biblical teachings. By 1874, the family was living in Hamilton, Illinois. Because of Carrie's interest in spiritual matters, and her continued unease with conservative Christian beliefs, her father arranged for a Unitarian minister to speak in town. That evening, to her parents' dismay, she announced her plans to become a Unitarian minister. Her father termed the idea "idiotic." She broached the topic again in 1876. When they still would not support her goal, she instead went to Carthage College, in Illinois. Although Carthage usually limited women students to an easier course of study than men, Crane insisted on completing the more difficult, male curriculum. She graduated valedictorian of her class in 1879.

After graduation, she asked her parents for financial assistance in order to attend a theological seminary. They refused. Since scholarships were not available for women, she temporarily put aside this ambition. For the next few years, Crane worked at various jobs, including private tutoring, serving as principal of the public schools in Montrose, Iowa, working as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune, and functioning as city editor of the Oshkosh Morning Times in Wisconsin. When her mother died in 1883, Crane briefly homesteaded with her father in the Dakota territory.

We must do something for others as well as for ourselves. And the more we have done for others, the more in the end, we shall find we have done for ourselves.

—Caroline Bartlett Crane

In 1886, when she repeated her desire to become a Unitarian minister, her father finally gave his blessing. For six months, she went into seclusion to meditate on and write about spiritual matters. In the fall of 1886, the Iowa State Unitarian Conference accepted her as a candidate for the ministry. Although women ministers were rare in most of the country, the Iowa Conference during the 1880s ordained women ministers, known collectively as the "Iowa Sisterhood," in order to provide an adequate number of spiritual leaders for the frontier.

Her first assignment, in 1887, was in Sioux Falls, Dakota (then still a territory), where she expressed a commitment to the Social Gospel. Primarily an urban movement, the Social Gospel combined congregational activism with a belief in scientific and social progress. Since God existed in all things, Crane argued, God also existed in the processes that could improve society. Her ministry would focus on those social processes throughout her life. The Social Gospel afforded Progressive Era women (who did not yet have the vote) the opportunity to affect institutional development or reform in government and education, allowing all people a chance for greater involvement in shaping their community.

In 1889, Crane accepted the pastorate at the First Unitarian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a state in which women ministers were not common. This congregation—which was in conflict and had been without a pastor for five years—was seeking a minister primarily to have someone to conduct funerals. Crane transformed the church into a large, cohesive organization that embraced her enthusiasm for the Social Gospel. She renamed it the People's Church. The leaders of the "seven day a week" church tried out institutional reforms, such as the first free kindergarten in Michigan, and then urged government institutions to take over those reforms that proved successful. During this time, Crane continued her education by taking summer classes at the University of Chicago, a leader in the new, exciting field of sociology. As one of the sociology department's first graduate students, she learned to use systematic analysis to define social problems and find possible solutions.

In 1896, well-known agnostic Robert Ingersoll visited Kalamazoo, Michigan. Evangelicals nationwide had recently instituted a prayer campaign for his conversion. Ingersoll proclaimed Crane's church to be the "grandest thing in the state" and added that if it were in his community he would become a member. As Crane's congregation included agnostics, transcendentalists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Christian Scientists, and anyone else who felt the need to express spirituality through community action, Ingersoll could have joined without causing a ripple. Her name gained national prominence when the press, misunderstanding the nature of Ingersoll's enthusiasm, mistakenly reported that America's most famous heretic had been converted by Caroline Bartlett. While denying his conversion, Ingersoll re-emphasized his admiration for Crane and her church, and the national attention made her the most widely known woman minister of her day.

In 1896, she surprised her friends, congregation, and the general public by marrying Dr. Augustus Warren Crane. Though Augustus would become a well-known pioneer in the field of radiology and one of the first to suggest that radiology might be used as a treatment for cancer, at the time of their marriage he was ten years younger than Caroline (a fact that raised local eyebrows), and he was yet unknown. The decision to marry was difficult for her because she had long held the common assumption that women who pursued careers should not also attempt marriage and family. After the wedding made national news, suffragist Susan B. Anthony

wrote Crane to express both her best wishes and reservations about the union. While Anthony hoped the marriage would multiply the happiness and productivity of both partners, she felt marriage did not often produce those results. For the Cranes, however, marriage would indeed encourage both private happiness and public productivity.

For health reasons, Crane resigned as minister of the People's Church shortly after her marriage. Working her schedule around her health needs, she expanded her Social Gospel activities to include "Municipal Housekeeping," or improving the quality of life in urban areas by cleaning up the elements that adversely affect it. Using a sociological survey that critically examined municipal services and hygiene, she investigated the aspects of Kalamazoo that most affected community health, including meat and milk industries, sanitation, water supply, and various social agencies. Crane not only exposed the un-sanitary meat packing conditions in the Kalamazoo area but also the city's legal inability to regulate these industries. As a result of her findings, she initiated state regulations that would allow cities to better control the meat coming in from outlying areas.

Kalamazoo benefitted from these, and other reforms, instituted by Crane, and soon other cities asked her to conduct "Sociological and Sanitary Surveys." As her reputation grew nationally, she traveled extensively, completing 62 city surveys between 1907 and 1916. Her largest surveys included a 12-city inspection of Kentucky and a 17-city survey of Minnesota. Insisting on community-wide support for her work before she would accept an assignment, Crane was typically paid $100 a day to personally inspect water systems, sewage processing, street sanitation, garbage collection, food processing, and institutions such as schools, prisons, hospitals and poor houses. She always presented her findings at large public meetings where citizens could ask questions and become involved in the process of reform.

In 1914, the Cranes adopted an infant son, Warren. Within a year, they adopted a second infant, Juliana. While the care of the children, as well as health problems, limited her role as "America's Housekeeper," Crane continued to be in the public eye. During World War I, she was appointed president of the Michigan Women's Committee of National Defense. Pairing this patriotic work with a campaign for women's suffrage, she helped garner public support for the passage of the 19th amendment, which would grant women the vote.

In the 1920s, Crane became associate editor of the Woman's Journal, a magazine for civic-minded women. In 1923–24, President Calvin Coolidge encouraged community leaders to plan and build single family dwellings as part of the "Better Homes in America Contest," a national competition for home designs. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover urged Crane to head the project for Kalamazoo. As a result, Crane designed and oversaw the building of "Everyman's house." The house, affordable to the working class and designed for easy and efficient childcare, won first prize out of 1,500 submissions. In 1925, Doubleday published a book by Crane about "Everyman's House." Among her last civic contributions, before she died of a heart attack in 1935, were Crane's work on prison reform, service on the boards of the National Municipal League, the American Civic Association, and the Michigan Housing Association, and her position as chair of the Michigan Association for Old Age Security. Caroline Bartlett Crane was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1985.


Crane Papers, Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collections, Kalamazoo, MI.

Hathaway, Richard, ed. Michigan: Visions of our Past. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1989.

Troester, Rosalie Riegle, ed. Historic Women of Michigan: A Sesquicentennial Celebration. Lansing, MI: Michigan Women's Association, 1987.

suggested readings:

Rickard, O'Ryan. A Just Verdict: The life of Caroline Bartlett Crane. Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues Press, 1994.


The papers of Caroline Bartlett Crane are located at Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collections, Kalamazoo, MI..

JoAnne Thomas , Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan

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Crane, Caroline Bartlett (1858–1935)

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