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First Lady Biography: Caroline Harrison

Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison

Born: October 1, 1832 - Oxford, Ohio

Died: October 25, 1892 - White House

Father: John Witherspoon Scott – teacher, Presbyterian minister (1800 – 1892)

Mother: Mary Potts Neal Scott (d. 1876)

Ancestry: English

Siblings: Sisters – Elizabeth Lord, Mary Spears; Brothers – John, Henry

Physical description: About five feet, one inch tall, brown eyes, soft wavy brown hair that turned gray before she became First Lady. She had pretty features with a strong nose, smiling mouth and sparkling eyes. She became heavy as she grew older and poor health resulted in heavy pouches under her eyes. She carried herself well and made a fine appearance in her reception or evening gowns. She preferred silver, lavender and deep red colors, but also wore blue and cream.

Religion: Presbyterian

Education: Caroline’s father was a professor of science and math at the newly created Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He made sure that his daughters Lizzie, Carrie and Mary received as good an education as his sons, John and Henry. Caroline Lavinia Scott grew up in a house filled with books, music and literature. Beside her exposure to reading and the arts, Caroline also learned the skills of a housewife. In 1845, Dr. Scott and several other professors broke with Miami University over the issues of abolition (at one point, Dr. Scott was suspected of harboring runaway slaves) and a school for girls. He moved his family to Cincinnati where he taught at the Farmers College (now gone). Dr. Scott began his all-girls school. While in Cincinnati, Caroline met Benjamin Harrison, who was immediately smitten. In 1849, the Scotts moved back to Oxford, where Dr. Scott opened the Oxford Female Institute. Mrs. Scott served as the Matron and also as the Home Economics Head. At the Institute, Caroline mastered English literature, for which she developed a life-long love, drama, music, art and painting. She graduated in 1853 with a degree in music. She taught music, home economics and painting, both in Oxford and in Kentucky. She loved painting, first watercolors and then china painting, and she painted for her entire life.

Husband: Benjamin Harrison (1833 – 1901)

Courtship and Marriage: Young Benjamin Harrison left the Farmers’ College and pursued his education at Miami University. He chose Miami not only for its good reputation, but also to be near Carrie Scott and her "dancing brown eyes." She encouraged him to be more relaxed and, against her father’s wishes, took him to dances. She later said that she had no patience with her church’s ban on dancing. Benjamin was serious almost to the point of being solemn, while Carrie was lighthearted, humorous and had a sparkling personality. Carrie taught for a year in Kentucky, during which time she experienced poor health. Concerned about her, Benjamin persuaded her to return to Ohio, where they were married in her father’s parlor on October 20, 1853. After the wedding, Benjamin and Carrie departed for the Harrison home at North Bend, Ohio

Age at marriage: 21 years, 19 days

Personality: Fun-loving, humorous, fond of books, reading and painting, Caroline Harrison was also religious, deeply sentimental, supportive and artistic. She easily became depressed when she was not well and suffered from upper respiratory problems all of her life. She could easily be hurt, but never held a grudge. She could usually see the funny side to any issue. Her greatest love was family and home. She expanded home and family to include the community and gave her time to her church, her women’s groups and her art. She loved to act out books for her "Impromptu Club" and enjoyed reading aloud. Because of her love of music, she encouraged her children to learn to dance. Extremely broad minded, she was able to view both sides of an issue.


1. Russell Lord (later changed to Russell Benjamin) Harrison (1854 – 1936)

2. Mary Scott Harrison McKee (1858 – 1930)

3. An unnamed still born daughter (June, 1861)

Years Before the White House (1853 – 1889): Not wishing to live under the Harrison "name", Benjamin Harrison moved Carrie and their meager possessions to Indianapolis, Indiana to make their home. Carrie learned to make do with little, but she was very pregnant, which made it difficult. She returned to Oxford where Russell was born in August 1854. The addition of a daughter in April 1858 filled them with joy, but Ben’s long hours at the law office and his pursuit of a living drove a wall between the young couple. Caroline did not complain, but the strain showed. It took the Civil War and its horrors to teach Ben Harrison to value what was really important: wife and children. His letters to her (hers unfortunately did not survive) are filled with a deep passionate tone. When he returned home from the war, she would never again reproach him for neglect. His law practice, as well as his fame, grew, and he became a political force. Caroline’s involvement in her church and Sunday school led to her work with the Indianapolis Orphanage and other women’s organizations. She brought a young, German artist named Paul Putzki to Indianapolis, and he taught her and anyone else who was interested, china painting. Their house, built in 1874-75 on North Delaware Street, became a center of activity. Benjamin’s election to the Senate in 1880 brought Caroline to the nation’s Capitol, but a serious fall that year undermined her health. In 1883, she had surgery in New York and required a lengthy period of recovery. Even in the midst of politics, parties and receptions, Caroline Harrison pursued her art work, her gardening (she loved all flowers, especially orchids), her Impromptu Club and her arrangement of her children’s marriages. In the campaign of 1888, she was a definite asset. Her charm, naturalness and open manner offset her husband’s chilly manner. She spoke often to members of the press. Their financial situation was still precarious, causing her to joke once, "Well, husband, it’s either to the White House with us or the poor house." He was elected in November 1888, but by electoral vote, not popular vote.

First Lady: Caroline Harrison’s tenure as First Lady was overshadowed by her predecessor and her successor: Frances Cleveland. Mrs. Cleveland’s youth made Caroline Harrison seem older and more staid than she really was. In actuality, Caoline Harrison was more involved in women’s issues and was more radically inclined than her younger counterpart. Caroline had electricity installed in the White House and made up very detailed plans to enlarge the existing building by adding an east and west wing facing two art galleries. Due to political timing, her plans were narrowly defeated. She did, however, change the west wing by adding a bathroom and converting a bedroom into two rooms. Caroline was horrified at the filth and clutter, and cleaned out all the rooms including the kitchen, which she also modernized. She had floors refinished and rooms wallpapered, all of which met with Frances Cleveland’s approval upon her return in 1893. As First Lady, Caroline Harrison made china painting popular. She brought Paul Putzki with her to Washington and opened classes in china painting to anyone who wanted to learn. Her interest in china led her to catalog past administration’s china. She also had a china cabinet especially made for the collection. She designed her White House china using a motif that included ears of corn and the goldenrod. Caroline went with the President on his trip to California in April/May, 1891 and planted a tree at the site of the future Stanford University. In 1890, the newly formed Daughters of the American Revolution asked her to become their first President General, which she accepted. Instead of it being an honorary position as she thought, it became a full-time job. Her tact, energy and humor saved the organization from destruction from both internal and external factors. In February 1892, Caroline gave the first recorded speech ever given by a sitting First Lady at the first Congress of the DAR. When John Hopkins Hospital asked her for her support for the creation of a new hospital wing in Baltimore, she refused – unless they agreed to admit women. They did, and she hosted receptions and fund raisers for them. She did a painting of orchids, turned it into a print and made it available to "women and girls" of America. The White House conservatories blossomed during her tenure. Her grandchildren, "Baby" Benjamin McKee, his sister and Marthena Harrison, had a grand time at the White House, but Caroline worried about their safety. Even though Caroline’s sister died in early December 1889 in the White House, Caroline still went ahead with her plans for the first Christmas tree in the White House’s history. She had Sousa and the Marine Band play and, for the first time since Sarah Polk was in the White House in 1845, there was dancing in the White House. The only real criticism Caroline ever received was for supposedly accepting a bribe – she accepted a cottage at Cape May Point in New Jersey from Postmaster General John Wannamaker. Caroline and the President paid him $10,000 for the cottage to assuage the public outcry. Mrs. Harrison accompanied her husband to the Centennial celebrations of the presidency in 1889 and even christened a battleship, the U.S.S. Philadelphia. By the summer of 1892, she was very ill and depressed. The illness and depression may have caused her to image that her husband was falling in love with her niece and secretary, the widow Mary Lord Dimmick. She later regretted her feelings. Her illness was diagnosed as tuberculosis. A summer in the Adirondack’s failed to restore her to health. In September the President brought her home to the White House, where she lapsed into semi-consciousness. When her husband asked if there was anything they could do, she smiled and said, "No, dear."

Death: 6:30 a.m. October 25, 1892 at the White House

Age at death: 60 years, 24 days

Burial: Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana

Legacy: In spite of her grandmotherly appearance and her desire to make everyone comfortable, Caroline Harrison believed in being involved in the society around her – in her church, her women’s clubs, her community and in the nation. Caroline Harrison proved to be ahead of her time in her pursuit of causes: the use of American goods, the President Generalship of the fledgling DAR, the demand for the admittance of women as students to John Hopkins Medical School. She forged ahead with human, intelligence and tact. She balanced her family with her interests and beliefs, and created a well rounded image of intelligence, compassion and artistic ability. She may well have been our most underrated First Lady.