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Lowell, Josephine Shaw

Josephine Shaw Lowell (1843-1905) — Social Reformer, Founder of the New York City Charity Organization Society and Advocate of the Doctrine That Charity Should Not Merely Relieve Suffering But That It Should Also Rehabilitate the Recipient

By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.

Josephine Shaw Lowel
Josephine Shaw Lowell
Photo: Public Domain

Introduction:  Josephine Shaw Lowell’s activities for her fellow men cover the whole range of humanitarian effort. The Charity Organization Society, of which she was the founder and whose councils she guided for more than twenty-three years, the State Charities Aid Association, of which she became an active member in 1873, the New York State Board of Charities, of which she was the first woman member, appointed by Governor Tilden in 1876, the Outdoor Recreation League, are only a few of the organizations with which she has been connected on the more strictly charitable side. On the more political side of this effort are the Civil Service Reform Association, the Woman’s Municipal League, the Consumers’ League, the Philippine Progress Association and many others. Among the many movements with which she has been identified, and in which she bore a leading part, are the separation of charities and corrections, state reformatories for women, state custodial care for adult idiots, state asylums for feeble-minded women and girls of child-bearing age, the abolition of police lodgings in New York and the establishment of municipal lodging-houses for men, opposition to institutionalism in the care of dependent children and placing matrons in all police-stations.

Early Life: Josephine Shaw was born on December 16, 1843, in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, one of five children born into a wealthy and socially conscious family. When Josephine was growing up, she traveled throughout the world and attended school in Paris, Rome, New York City, and Boston. Her mother considered her “the genius” of her family. She was quick to learn, and eventually with studying abroad was able to learn several languages. She was influenced by the constant intellectual discourse in her household. Her early years were spent studying, but she showed an inclination to help others by the time she was thirteen. She eagerly joined with her mother working with the Woman’s Central Relief Association in NYC packing up clothing and useful items to soldiers. She kept a diary before her marriage and shows an unusual interest in the affairs of the country. She was quite concerned with the military successes and failures. She knew many young men from her circle of friends and family who were serving their country, and followed the news very carefully. She was involved with many conversations about important ideas with men and never took a back seat. This may have distinguished her from many other girls, but her family was quite liberal and educated. Josephine Shaw married Colonel Charles Russell Lowell in 1863. Unfortunately, he was wounded and died the next year in Virginia, while serving in the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry. Her brother, Robert Gould Shaw, also died a hero’s death in 1863.  He was a colonel leading the first black Union Regiment.

Professional Career: Josephine Lowell started her volunteer service at the beginning of the Civil War and, throughout the years, participated in and helped to found many charities. During the Civil War, she worked with the American Red Cross and joined the Women’s Central Association of Relief, which provided aid to Union Soldiers. She was a life-long Unitarian in her religious beliefs. She preferred their liberal faith and sincere beliefs in humanism. She hated all forms of bigotry, and worked to right any wrongs. Lowell became a career woman in the growing field of organized philanthropy and government service. In 1876 she was appointed by Governor Tilden of New York State to be the first woman commissioner of the New York State Board of Charities. She served in this position until 1889, using her post to speak out, lobby, legislate, and advocate for people who were unable to do so themselves. Her investigations led to the establishment of the first custodial asylum for feebleminded women in the United States in 1885 and to the House of Refuge for Women (later the State Training School for Girls) in 1886. She was also responsible for the presence of matrons in police stations, a practice established in 1888.

In 1882 Lowell was a founder of the New York Charity Organization Society, a group devoted to the cooperation of charitable agencies. She guided the society for 25 years; during that time she wrote a number of papers on the theoretical foundations of relief work, especially the influential Public Relief and Private Charity (1884).

She was also a founder of the Consumers’ League of New York (1890), the Woman’s Municipal League (1894), and the Civil Service Reform Association of New York State (1895). In addition to Public Relief and Private Charity, Lowell published some 40 reports and addresses on welfare topics. She was also involved in such issues as the labor movement. Lowell’s list of affiliations and accomplishments is lengthy. The highlights of the causes for which she fought during her lifetime are as follows: improved care for the insane; benefits for dependent children and widows; improved reformatories; police matrons for women prisoners; the emancipation of labor; advocacy of settlement houses; civil service reform; consumer’s rights; and anti-imperialism. All this she did within the established context of society. She sometimes did become angry with others in society, but she never stopped trying. In a letter to her sister-in-law in 1883 she writes, “Common charity, that is, feeding and clothing people, I am beginning to look upon as wicked! Not in its intention, of course, but in its carelessness and its results, which certainly are to destroy people’s character and make them poorer and poorer. If it could only be drummed into the rich that what the poor want is fair wages and not little doles of food, we should not have all this suffering and misery and vice.”

Personally her life was fulfilled with family, friends, and her work. She never remarried and never rejected her true womanhood. She always dressed in black and believed first in her duties toward home. She was opposed to the concept of institutionalization, except as a last resort. She believed that even a poor home was preferable to a good institution. Later in life she spoke out on more political matters and in a speech advocating her support for William Jennings Bryan for president she revealed her passion for patriotism and morality. She argued, “When the people of the United States consent to deprive another people of its rights and liberties, they strike a terrific blow at the foundations upon which stand their own rights and liberties.” Josephine was opposed to both the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars: “We paid a bitter price to free ourselves from the sin of slavery, and the nation will again pay a bitter price to free itself from the sin of empire, if, driven by fear of financial distress or lured by hope of wealth, it now deserts its ancient ideals.” In this fight she did not prevail, but her ideas certainly made an impact. She died Oct. 12, 1905, in New York City.

On the day after the announcement of Mrs. Lowell’s death, Charities published on one of the cover pages the following editorial paragraphs:

A foremost citizen, a pure patriot, a good neighbor to the poor and to all men, has gone to rest in the death of Josephine Shaw Lowell or as she preferred always, in loyal devotion, to have others write her name Mrs. Charles Russell Lowell, though the husband of her youth was killed at Cedar  Creek, as was her brother Robert Gould Shaw, at the head of  his Negro regiment at Fort Wagner. With two such sacrifices to treasure in her memory, Mrs. Lowell earned the right, which for forty years she has exercised with high courage  and indomitable energy, to serve her country with an eye single to its highest interest.

Josephine Shaw Lowel
Josephine Shaw Lowel
Photo: Public Domain

She has championed unpopular causes when she believed they were right. She has known nothing of mere expediency, but she worked nevertheless with rare wisdom and with remarkable success. No friend was too intimate for her to rebuke when there was occasion, no interest too important for her to imperil by frank criticism if it were linked with injustice. A certain wholesome uneasiness was never absent from her fellow workers lest Mrs. Lowell should put her finger upon some indefensible method, some failure to remain steadfastly true to the nobler ends, which more complaisant comrades would be inclined to overlook as necessary evils or incidental lapses. And yet the reproof was always so free from malice, so clearly the expression of deeper spiritual in-sight and so charitable withal, that the uneasiness at last gave way to relief and renewed appreciation of the immeasurable value of Mrs. Lowell’s presence.

This is not the time to attempt a catalog of Mrs. Lowell’s actual achievements. Her monument is built in the constitution and statutes of New York and other states, in charitable and reformatory institutions which except for her would not  have been established, in the successful fight for the merit  system in the public service, in an impress on the labor movement, on the social settlements, on the new ideals of independence in municipal affairs. There are few who read these  paragraphs who will not have besides the general sense of loss in the death of such a leader in social reform, some feeling of  personal grief, some distinct reason for appreciating that the loss to the community and to all its good causes is very great.

We of Charities and of the New York Charity Organization Society have indeed the right to share in an expression of personal bereavement. Mrs. Lowell was the founder of the Charity Organization Society and for the twenty-three years, since as a commissioner of the State Board of Charities she called the society into existence, she has been its most faithful, untiring and efficient member. She, more than any other person although it has never been, and she and other associates were always determined that it should never be, a one-man society has been its guiding spirit.

She has served continuously on its central council and its  executive committee and has also worked always on the more  humble routine of its district work. Only a few days before her death she had written to the president expressing regret  that she could not attend committee meetings during the winter and a desire to be allowed to remain in the central  council. We mourn the loss of one whose place cannot be filled, whose services will never be forgotten, whose work will remain.


Source: In Memoriam: Josephine Shaw Lowell, New York: Charity Organization Society, 1906


This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.


For further reading:

Gordon Milne, George William Curtis & the Genteel Tradition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1956).
William Rinelander Stewart, The Philanthropic Work of Josephine Shaw Lowell: Containing a Biographical Sketch of Her Life, Together with a Selection of Her Public Papers and Private Letters (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1911).
Robert W. De Forest, et al., In Memoriam: Josephine Shaw Lowell (New York: Charity Organization Society, 1906).


How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. (2013). Josephine Shaw Lowell (1843-1905) — Social reformer, founder of the New York City Charity Organization Society and advocate of the doctrine that charity should not merely relieve suffering but that it should also rehabilitate the recipient. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from

One Reply to “Lowell, Josephine Shaw”

  1. I have really enjoyed reading about Josephine Shaw Lowell. I’m in Walden’s MSW program and I had several options of social workers who made an impact of social work; I chose Josephine Shaw Lowell.

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