Object of the Month

"She had always aspired to something noble": Caroline Dall and Her Extraordinary Diary

Caroline Wells Healey Dall Daguerreotype

Caroline Wells Healey Dall

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This daguerreotype of Caroline Wells Healey Dall was taken by an unknown photographer between 1854 and 1860. In 1855, Dall's husband the Rev. Charles Henry Appleton Dall left for a ministry in Calcutta, abandoning her in Boston with their two children, ages five and nine.

A Daughter of Boston

Caroline Wells Healey was born on 22 June 1822 in Boston, the eldest of eight children of Mark and Caroline (Foster) Healey. Her father was a successful merchant and Caroline's youth was that of a typical well-heeled Bostonian. What made Caroline unique was her father's insistence on the best possible education for her, including private tutors and the best schools. By the time she was a teenager, Caroline was well versed in Latin and modern languages and had published articles in the Christian Register and other newspapers. Due to her mother's illness, Caroline took charge of the Healey home from the age of thirteen, and her formal education ceased at fifteen. Her participation in Boston's lively intellectual scene did not, however. Over the years, Caroline became involved in the activities of the luminaries of the New England literary renaissance: Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, and Theodore Parker, and in a range of reform movements such as abolition and anti-slavery, Transcendentalism, and women's suffrage.

An Unhappy Marriage

In 1842, with her father facing bankruptcy, Caroline moved to Georgetown in the District of Columbia to work as the vice-principal at Miss English's School for Young Ladies, a position she held for two years. She was also involved in founding a school for free African-Americans, a controversial and unpopular idea in Washington's pro-slavery social circles. While in Georgetown, Caroline became reacquainted with Charles Henry Appleton Dall, a social worker and Unitarian minister at large in Baltimore, whom Dall had first met in Boston. Despite the misgivings expressed in her diary, Caroline married him in September of 1844, beginning what would be a peripatetic and tumultuous lifestyle over the next eleven years as the Dalls moved from one unsuccessful ministerial posting to another. During this time, Caroline helped Charles with his parish work, taught, and continued to write. She became increasingly involved in abolitionist and women's rights causes and laid the groundwork for the reform efforts of her later years.

The Activist Life

In 1854, Charles Dall, always somewhat unstable, suffered a breakdown and the family returned to Boston. The next year, abandoning his wife and two children-William, age nine, and Sarah, age five-Dall left for Calcutta to serve as a Unitarian missionary, returning to Boston for only five brief visits over a period of thirty years before his death in 1886. Left to her own devices and determined to make her own way, Dall became a lecturer on women's rights and author of books on the subject, including Woman's Right to Labor, Woman's Rights Under the Law, and The College, the Market, and the Court; or Woman's Relation to Education, Labor, and Law. She helped organize woman's rights conventions in 1855 and 1859, and helped to found the American Social Science Association in 1865, an organization that helped the poor, unemployed, imprisoned, and mentally ill. Dall also published the first three volumes of a proposed girls' series Patty Gray's Journey to the Cotton Islands, as well was works of biography, history, travel, and other topics. In 1879, she moved to Washington, D.C. to live with her son William, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. She continued to write and teach, remaining active until her death from pneumonia in 1912 at the age of ninety.

A Life in Forty-five Volumes

Caroline Dall's extraordinary personal journals, kept in forty-five volumes, form part of the very large collection (twenty-four archival boxes and eighty-one bound volumes) of her personal and family papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. In addition to her diaries, the collection includes voluminous correspondence, as well as letter books, notebooks and scrapbooks that document Dall's long life and varied career from her early days in Hampton Falls, N.H., to her later years as a major reform figure in Boston and Washington, D.C. Among the topics covered are her involvement in Unitarian church affairs; her attraction to Transcendentalism and the teachings and writings of Margaret Fuller; her difficult marriage; her work in the antislavery and woman suffrage movements, and her prolific literary career.

Lecture and Booksigning

To celebrate the Historical Society's most recent publication, Selected Journals of Caroline Healey Dall, 1838-1855, Helen R. Deese, the editor of the Dall journals, will give a lecture and sign books on 15 November 2006 at 6:30 p.m. at the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1154 Boylston St., Boston. Dr. Deese is the author of a new biography of Dall, Daughter of Boston: the Extraordinary Diary of a Nineteenth Century Woman, Caroline Healey Dall, and an expert on Transcendentalist poetry and literature. The lecture is free and open to the public and will be preceded by a reception at 6:00 p.m., where examples of Caroline Dall's manuscript journals will be on display. For further information or to RSVP, please call (617) 646-0560.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Deese, Helen R., ed. Daughter of Boston: The Extraordinary Diary of a Nineteenth-century Woman, Caroline Healey Dall. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.

Deese, Helen R., ed. Selected Journals of Caroline Healey Dall, 1838-1855. Boston: Mass. Historical Society, 2006.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. "Caroline Wells Healey Dall," in Notable American Women, 1607-1950. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1971.



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