Matilda Bradley Carse (November 19, 1835–1917) was an Irish-born American businesswoman, social reformer and leader of the temperance movement.
She was born in Saintfield, Ireland, near Belfast, part of a Scotch-Irish merchant family. Educated in Ireland, Carse immigrated to Chicago in 1858. Later, she married a successful railroad manager and fellow Irish immigrant, Thomas Carse. His death in 1870 left her a wealthy widow with an independent income, which she used to benefit local charities and welfare work. Her mission in life was determined soon afterward, when the youngest of her three sons,Thomas Alexander, was killed by a drunken drayman. After this incident, Carse became a determined and outspoken leader of the temperance movement in Chicago and nationwide in the United States. She joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1874, becoming the president of the Central Chicago WCTU in 1878. The Chicago branch became one of the most successful branches of the WCTU, thanks to Carse's involvement and leadership.
Though Matilda Carse is often remembered for her savvy as a businesswoman for the WCTU, she also sponsored various reform activities as the president of the Chicago Central Union. Carse's reform activities encouraged temperance but also more generally improved conditions for the working class in Chicago. Carse supported the development of nurseries for the children of working mothers, Sunday schools, medical dispensaries, and low income housing. Several of her notable reform projects include the opening of the Rehobeth refuge and recovery shelter, as well as the Bethesda Mission, which was specifically aimed at teaching neighborhood women practical household skills. Both missions also held temperance support meetings. Carse's social reforms positively influenced the slums of Chicago particularly by providing services and opportunities for members of the poverty-stricken working class.
Matilda Carse's first major business venture was the Woman's Temperance Publishing Association (WTPA) in 1880. It was an independent stock company composed entirely of women—an organization that represented Carse’s commitment to temperance, business and the woman’s movement. The WTPA published WTCU books and pamphlets to support temperance movement reform movements. The legend goes that on November 1, 1879, at the WCTU convention in Indianapolis, Carse held a secret meeting with seven Illinois women. The subject of the conclave was the desire for a weekly newspaper to address the views, opinions, and activities of American women. That night the women sought divine counsel, each individually imploring God for an answer; the next morning the Women’s Temperance Publishing Association (WTPA) was born. Carse’s business acumen made the WTPA a success. At its height in 1890, it employed over one hundred employees, mostly women, and published the largest women’s paper in the world, the Union Signal. Carse wrote articles for the Union Signal, a WCTU weekly organ, detailing the mission and work behind her greatest project, the Temperance Temple.
Carse directly oversaw the creation and distribution of The Signal, a low-cost newspaper that featured editorials and articles focused on women and family issues of the day (McKeever 368). She also proposed merging The Signal with Our Union, the official monthly newsletter of the WCTU; this move was initially met with much skepticism and outright negativity by the majority of WCTU members. The WCTU President, Frances Willard, however, was highly supportive of Carse’s plan, and by 1882 The Union Signal, a weekly newsletter published by the WTPA, was created.
Carse’s legacy was the office building she planned and funded in the center of Chicago’s financial district to benefit the WCTU. Known as the Temperance Temple, it was designed as a meeting place for the CCWCTU, after their agreement with the local YMCA was cancelled. Carse’s vision for the building went far beyond a union meeting-place, however: as plans developed, the Temple became a headquarters for the WCTU as well as an office building, whose rents would provide income for the WCTU’s operations. In this way, the building would not only be a symbol for the temperance movement, but also a fundraiser for the WCTU that would increase its “power and autonomy”. However, it was, from the onset, Carse’s personal project: it was not financed or managed by the WCTU, but by Carse herself. She incorporated and acted as the (self-appointed) trustee for the Women’s Temperance of Building Association (WTBA), which oversaw donations and sold stocks to finance the Temple. She sold $600,000 in stock to Chicago businessmen and capitalists, and $300,000 in bonds to her fellow WCTU members. Using these funds, and under the direction of Carse, the Temple was completed in 1893. it was designed by the noted architectural firm of Burnham and Root.
A large part of the controversy surrounding the Temperance Temple was created by Carse’s own personality and her position as a woman in a male-dominated sphere. In order to succeed in the business world, Carse had to be outspoken, stubborn and aggressive, traits that were considered masculine and hard to reconcile with the traditional image a Christian woman. By participating in a masculine activity like business, Carse left herself vulnerable to attack from both outside the WCTU as well as from within its ranks. Carse’s insistence on bringing the WCTU into the commercial/business sphere led some in the organization to worry that worldly considerations such as money and leases were undermining their mission. Ironically, Carse’s competence in securing the land and overseeing the construction of the building cast doubt on her ability to lead the project, as WCTU members increasingly viewed her activities as speculative and incompatible with a Christian women’s organization. Doubts about the project and about Carse herself as the woman in charge made funding difficult, and, despite initial success, the building soon became a losing investment for the WCTU and Carse.
The troubled project came to an end largely due to an adverse business climate following the panic of 1893. Though much of the controversy about the Temple had centered on Carse as a woman, her fate was not unique among businessmen who took on similar ventures at that particular time. The problem was not Carse’s management skills, rather it was a depression that ruined many of her lessees, and a building cycle that created a surplus of office spaces in the city. Unable to pay off the mortgage, the WTCU officially disaffiliated itself from the building, which became the property of the Field-Columbian Museum. It was finally demolished in 1926. The failed venture had put enormous strain on the WCTU, not only because of the financial loss but because of disputes over the mission of the union. Carse resigned from her presidency of the WTPA, attempting to restore unity to the WCTU through mediation and compromise.
After the failure of her Temperance Temple, Carse continued to be committed to charity work. She served as president of the CCWCTU until 1913 and was the first woman on the Chicago Board of Education. She raised thousands of dollars for the Chicago Foundling’s Home Aid Society during the time of her presidency. Her work for women is also notable. She was able to found an organization that gave workingwomen housing during their visit to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. She retired to New York in 1913, dying four years later at the age of 82. She is remembered as a founding member and important leader of both the temperance and women’s rights movements.
- Jane L. McKeever, “The Woman’s Temperance Publishing Association,” The Library Quarterly (October 1985): 368-370.
- Old Chicago in Vintage Postcards, "Women's Temple"
- Lender, Mark Edward, ed. (1984), "Matilda Carse", Dictionary of American Temperance Biography: From Temperance Reform to Alcohol Research, the 1600s to the 1980s, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, pp. 82–83
- James, Edward T., ed. (1971), "Carse, Matilda Bradley", Notable American Women, 1607-1950; a bibliographical dictionary. 1, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
- Bordin, Ruth (February 2000), "Carse, Matilda Bradley", American National Biography Online