Charlotte Odlum Smith

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Charlotte Odlum Smith (1840 – 1917) was an American reformer, regarded as the foremost authority on women's working conditions. At labor conventions, she was sometimes the only female delegate, and was partly responsible for the mandatory listing of ingredients on food labels. Smith was also a magazine editor, active in gaining recognition of women inventors.

Early life[edit]

Charlotte Smith was born Charlotte Odlum in or near the village of Waddington in upstate New York, in 1840. She was the oldest child of Irish immigrants, Richard Odlum and his wife Catherine. Richard is listed as "engaged in agriculture" in the 1840 census. After a difficult childhood (three siblings dying as infants, father soon absent, mother supporting Charlotte and her three surviving brothers by keeping boarders, frequent moves interrupting her education), she became the head of the household after Richard's death in the mid-1850s. During this period the Odlums traveled to New Orleans, then to New York City, Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, and Montreal, Quebec, Canada. These journeys were made partly in search of medical care for Catherine Odlum, who was suffering from a diseased tooth.

Before she was twenty, Charlotte was running her own shop in St. Louis, Missouri, while her mother ran a boardinghouse. In 1860 Charlotte, her mother and two of her brothers traveled to Cuba, returning to New Orleans from Havana on March 21, 1861, the same day Louisiana ratified the Confederate Constitution. When Charlotte's brother David enlisted under-age in the Civil War, the family tried to bring him back, but were trapped in occupied Memphis, Tennessee for the rest of the conflict. David, serving under the name "Charles Rogers" in the 8th Missouri Volunteer Infantry, disappeared after the Battle of Shiloh; it was never known whether he had been killed, captured or had deserted. Charlotte, however, ran the Union blockade across the Ohio River, and evidently made thousands of dollars doing so. At the same time, she and her mother were providing milk, butter, and nursing services to Union soldiers in Memphis. On April 4, 1864, the Odlums' house in Memphis was torn down by Union troops to clear an artillery firing path.

After the war, the family went to Mobile, Alabama, where Charlotte opened an enormously profitable dry goods store, and Catherine ran multiple boardinghouses. Here, Charlotte met and eventually married Edward Smith, an Irish-born merchant. The marriage failed, and almost immediately after the birth of her second son, Charlotte moved to Chicago. The bookstore she started there was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1871, and she fled with her children to St. Louis, where she published a book on the Fire, and was soon doing newspaper work.


By 1873, with another Catholic businesswoman, Mary Nolan, she started her first magazine, the Inland Monthly. This publication was noteworthy in several ways: edited by a woman, but not a women's magazine, containing unusual amounts of science but virtually nothing about suffrage, and aiming with fiction, poetry, and essays at educated readers in general. It ran until 1878, when Smith sold it for a large sum and headed for Washington, D.C.

Lobbyist for working women[edit]

While in St. Louis, Smith had been awakened to the woes of the poor, including underpaid workers. She also saw the economic disadvantages of women in particular, and began calling for equal pay for equal work. She became particularly interested in the problems of prostitutes and women inventors, and resolved to try to advance their causes at the nation's capital. Swiftly obtaining the ear of Senator Henry W. Blair of New Hampshire, partly by her undercover research into working conditions for women and girls, she became a formidable lobbyist for her causes. She also founded a union of female federal clerks, called the Women's Nation Industrial League, brought it into the Knights of Labor, and spoke at labor conventions, sometimes as the only female delegate. In 1886 she founded her second periodical, the Working Woman. This was far more radical, and less successful, than the Inland Monthly. Very few issues survive.

On May 19, 1885, Charlotte Smith's brother, Robert Emmet Odlum, a swimming instructor, decided to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge to prove that it was possible; he died in the attempt.[1] Charlotte visited New York on May 28 and spoke to Coroner William H. Kennedy, who denied responsibility for removing Odlum's heart and liver.[2][3]

In 1896 the Women's Rescue League, presided by Smith, passed a resolution denouncing "bicycle riding by young women because [it produces] immoral suggestions and imprudent associations both in language and dress which have a tendency to make women not only unwomanly, but immodest as well".[4] By the early 1890s Charlotte Smith was already credited with gaining or helping to gain passage of more than fifty bills through Congress, as well as gathering data used in Senator Blair's Committee on Education and Labor, and becoming the foremost authority on working conditions for women and girls. Notable among her successful causes were Chinese Exclusion legislation and laws against the adulteration of foods, cosmetics, and medicines. She was partly responsible for the listing of ingredients on product labels.

Female inventors[edit]

Smith also became involved in the fight to win more of a role for women in the great World's Columbian Exposition of 1892-3. Specifically, she fought for more recognition of Queen Isabella's enabling role in Christopher Columbus's discoveries, and for women inventors. In 1892 she founded a third periodical, the Woman Inventor[5] which ran for 2 issues, and crusaded for a permanent exhibition of women's inventive work in Washington, D.C. Her major achievement for women inventors, however, was persuading the United States Patent Office to issue a list of all female holders of U.S. patents to that date (1883).[6]

In addition to working through legislatures and organizations, Charlotte Smith also took direct action, personally helping many poor women and "underdogs," and providing housing for poor working girls with her own money. During these years (1880s - early 1890s), she was one of the best-known women in America, with hundreds of articles appearing about her in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and smaller newspapers as far away as Montana and Hawaii.

The last chapter of Smith's life took place in Boston, Massachusetts, where she continued to work for her main cause, the welfare and advancement of working women, in the legislatures of Massachusetts and Maryland, as well as in Congress. Her fame diminished in her last years, and when she died in Boston in 1917, she was buried in a pauper's grave.


  1. ^ Catherine Odlum (1885). The Life and Adventures of Prof. Robert Emmet Odlum, Containing an Account of his Splendid Natatorium at the National Capital. Gray and Clarkson.
  2. ^ "Robert Odlum's Sister". The New York Times. May 29, 1885. Retrieved 2011-07-01.
  3. ^ "The Public "I": A VERY BAD IDEA" (Retrieved on July 1, 2011)
  4. ^ "The Peterson Magazine 1896". Retrieved 4 February 2017.
  5. ^ The Women Inventor,
  6. ^ Women inventors to whom patents have been granted by the United States government, 1790 to July 1, 1888 [and Appendix no. 1-2, July 1, 1888 to March 1, 1895, OCLC 6530276
  • Stanley, Autumn (2009). Raising More Hell and Fewer Dahlias: The Public Life of Charlotte Smith, 1840-1917. Lehigh University Press. ISBN 978-0-934223-99-7.