Sage, Margaret Olivia (1828–1918)

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Sage, Margaret Olivia (1828–1918)

American philanthropist who was one of the top public benefactors in the early 20th century. Name variations: Margaret Olivia Sage; Olivia Sage; Mrs. Russell Sage. Born Margaret Olivia Slocum in Syracuse, New York, on September 8, 1828; died in New York City on November 4, 1918; daughter of Joseph Slocum (a merchant) and Margaret Pierson (Jermain) Slocum; attended Syracuse public schools; graduated from the Troy Female Seminary, 1847; married Russell B. Sage (a financier), on November 24, 1869 (died 1906); no children.

When Margaret Olivia Sage inherited more than $63 million from her husband's estate upon his death in July 1906, she quickly became one of America's premier philanthropists. Her first project was to establish the Russell Sage Foundation in memory of her husband, who had amassed a fortune in wholesale groceries, the stock market, railroads and money-lending. Begun in 1907 with a $10 million endowment (at the time the largest-ever single gift for the public good) which she later increased by $5.6 million, the Russell Sage Foundation was intended to improve living and social conditions in the United States. Its trustees were granted almost total authority for distributing money, most of which provided support for numerous small organizations and charities. Margaret Sage donated huge numbers of modest sums to hospitals, churches, homes for the elderly, the YWCA and YMCA, Bible tract societies, and the American Seaman's Friend Society. As her philanthropic work progressed, her focus remained on education, religion, and welfare, although she also supported such causes as fresh air funds, humane treatment for animals, milk inspection, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the women's suffrage movement.

Sage was born on September 8, 1828, in Syracuse, New York, the daughter of Joseph Slocum and Margaret Jermain Slocum . Both her parents came from families whose ancestors had settled in America during colonial times; Joseph Slocum, a well-to-do merchant, traced his lineage to Anthony Slocum, who immigrated from England to Massachusetts in 1630, although she later also claimed that he had been related to Miles Standish. (After her husband's death, she would assert that his ancestors had fought on the side of William the Conqueror.) Known as Olivia in her youth, Sage went to local schools in Syracuse before attending the Troy Female Seminary in Troy, New York. By the time she graduated in 1847, her family faced financial hardship, and she therefore accepted a teaching post at the Chestnut Street Seminary in Philadelphia. Although Sage resigned from teaching after only two years because of ill health, she maintained a lifelong interest in women's education. For the next two decades, she taught infrequently when her health permitted.

At the age of 41, she married Russell B. Sage, a millionaire businessman, former congressional representative, and widower whose first wife had been a close friend of hers at the Troy Female Seminary. Although Russell Sage had acquired millions of dollars from business ventures and the stock market, he was not noted for his generosity. Only at Margaret Sage's urging did he fund the education of 40 Native American children, donate $50,000 to the Woman's Hospital of the State of New York, and provide money for a dormitory at the Troy Female Seminary. The Sages maintained homes in New York City, Long Island, and Sag Harbor; from these locations, Sage acted on her conviction that her gender and her station in life commanded her to work for the benefit of society. Although she felt that a woman's first duty was to her home, she also believed women to be the moral superiors of men, and that as such they had a special responsibility to work for the improvement of social systems. A lifelong Presbyterian, she took a keen interest in home and foreign missions.

Many of Sage's religious and social beliefs reflected upper-class 19th-century American culture, particularly her attitudes toward servants and the poor. She perceived servants as misled and wayward children, and her concern about the "moral filth" of the poor led her to insist on the need for missionary work among them. (She also considered giving money directly to the needy "the very worst thing to do.") At the same time, she gave generously to institutions fostering women's education, and purchased a new campus for her own alma mater in Troy, by then called the Emma Willard School after its founder, in 1910. Six years later, after consultation with Eliza Kellas , the school's principal, she used its old buildings to start Russell Sage College for women's vocational education. Other universities and colleges also benefited from Sage's generosity. Harvard University received a dormitory, named Standish Hall at her request, Yale acquired the Pierson-Sage campus (both of these gifts honored her parents' colonial lineages), and Syracuse University received $16 million. For a time, the teachers' college at Syracuse was named the Margaret Slocum Sage Teachers' College. Her patronage extended as well to 13 other leading Eastern men's and women's colleges and to 2 black colleges, Tuskegee Institute and Hampton Institute, each of which received $800,000. She also gave $800,000 to the New York Public Library. Missions, various religious societies and other ministries received some $7.5 million.

Sage also provided financial support for the Children's Aid Society, the Charity Organization Society, the Woman's Hospital and the Presbyterian Hospital, as well as other welfare institutions. Among the cultural institutions she provided with sizable donations were the New York Botanical Gardens, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and the New York Zoological Society. She purchased 70,000 acres on Marsh Island off the Louisiana coast and presented it to the government as a bird refuge, and also purchased Constitution Island, the former home of Anna and Susan Warner in the Hudson River, and gave it to the U.S. Military Academy. In all, her charitable financial contributions amounted to about $80 million, placing her in the same league as such better-known philanthropists as Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. Margaret Sage died in New York City on November 4, 1918, at age 90. She continued her philanthropy posthumously with bequests in her will for many of her favorite charities, including the Russell Sage Foundation. Both the foundation and Russell Sage College remain in operation.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Lolly Ockerstrom , freelance writer, Washington, D.C.

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Sage, Margaret Olivia (1828–1918)

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