A question that has come up in our tours and amongst our staff as of late has been one of location, location, location: How did Clara Barton, a native of Massachusetts and a schoolteacher in New Jersey, become a U.S. Patent Office clerk in Washington D.C.? It seemed like a bit of a geographical and vocational stretch until we dug deeper into Clara’s life preceding her time here at 7th Street NW.
In 1850, at the age of 29, Clara Barton enrolled at the Clinton Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York, for a year of study. During this time her mother, Sara Barton, died, and Clara visited her friend Mary Norton in Hightstown, New Jersey. While visiting, they went on a trip to Bordentown where Barton was dismayed to see “idle boys. But the boys! I found them on all sides of me. Every street corner had little knots of them, idle, listless, as if to say what shall one do when they have nothing to do?” New Jersey lacked in free public education, instead using private schools and pauper schools to educate the young in the community.
|Barton's Original Bordentown, NJ Schoolhouse (Wikimedia)|
|Washington D.C. circa 1850's (dickinson.edu)|
There are a number of reason why Barton goes to Washington D.C. She mentions that she wanted “the mild air for my throat” and that D.C. was as far south as a single, unaccompanied woman could go – perhaps a nod to her staunchly Northern sensibilities. She also attested that she was interested in politics and the Library of Congress as a resource for study. She quickly made the acquaintance of a congressman from her home district and distant cousin, Alexander DeWitt. Through this contact she began to broaden her circle of acquaintances in D.C. to include Mr. Charles Mason, the United States Commissioner of Patents. They became friends and, originally, Mason hoped to employ Barton as a governess for his twelve year old daughter, Mary. However, with some persuading on the part of DeWitt, a private carriage ride to the Patent Office, and an interview, Mason hired Barton as a temporary clerk at the Patent Office in July of 1854.
|U.S. Patent Office circa 1850 (now the American Portrait Gallery)|
Fortunately for Barton, this trend did not continue, as Mason was brought back by popular demand in November of 1855 and she received double wages that month, again consistent with her previous $1400/ year salary. She would still be kept on the rolls as a temporary copyist so as not to goad McClelland, but was kept busy with aiding Mason in untangling bad eggs in the office and dismissing frauds. But by 1857,
she was exhausted from the driving
work pace, intermittent bouts of malaria, and the sexism and rumors that
prevailed about her from her male colleagues that ranged from affairs with her
boss to illegitimate children with African American features. Her best allies
were also fading from view - Congressman Dewitt was not reelected in 1857 and
left the District, and Mason resigned from the Patent Office for good in August
of that same year. A month later, in September of 1857, Barton was told her
position at the Patent Office was wanted, and so she returned north to
Massachusetts only to return to Washington D.C. a mere three years later and
take up lodging at our location on 7th Street for the next eight years.
|Alexander DeWitt (wikimedia)|