A Clover Nook Evokes Memories of Two Sisters

In 2003, Ohio celebrated 200 years of statehood by casting bronze bells and painting a colorful bicentennial logo on barns in each of the state’s 88 counties. Vehicles with a redesigned license plate traveled the state’s highways and byways, passing over 500 new historical markers that sprouted along the side of the road. Pioneer re-enactors crossed the state during a 24-day wagon train.

All these commemorative activities found an appreciative audience in me, but the one bicentennial memento I coveted most of all was a poster.

Preserve Ohio’s Book Heritage” was the Ohio Preservation Council’s contribution to the Ohio Bicentennial. It celebrated both the significant contributions that 19th- and early 20th-century Ohio authors made to literature, as well as the aesthetic legacy of the cloth bookbindings of the era. Over 30 books either published in Ohio or written by an Ohioan, each preserved in its original bindings by Ohio Preservation Council member libraries, were pictured.

It was a terrific teaching tool for publishers’ bookbindings, illustrating decorative hallmarks like pictorial designs stamped in black and gold, blind-stamped and patterned borders, inset vignettes, asymmetric designs, ornate lettering, beveled-edge boards, and architecturally inspired ornamentation.

It was a tribute to well-known books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whose author moved to Cincinnati when she was 21; accomplished writers like William Dean Howells, who traded his reporting talents for storytelling; and Paul Laurence Dunbar of Dayton, whose poetic gifts were cut short by his untimely death.

It also introduced me to writers like Lafcadio Hearn, a Cincinnati journalist who became entranced with Japan; Hamilton Lanphere Smith, a Kenyon College philosophy teacher who invented tintype photography and wrote The World, one of the first science textbooks written in America; and two sisters from Cincinnati named Alice and Phoebe Cary, who were mentioned in the poster in three separate entries.

Frontispiece, Clovernook; or, Recollections of Our Neighborhood in the West, 1852 (Ohio History Connection)

When I landed at Miami University Libraries and started working with its special collections, I recognized one of the books pictured in the poster: the 1884 edition of Alice Cary’s Clovernook, a collection of fictional stories based on her life in Ohio that was first published in 1851. The binding’s elaborate design was classic-1880s style, depicting images from the stories within, but with a unique twist: The author’s last name was misspelled “Carey.”

So began my interest in discovering more about the inseparable pair of poets who died within six months of each other and whose work remained popular for decades after their deaths.

In 1814, Robert Cary bought 27 acres of woodland about eight miles north of downtown Cincinnati, in a neighborhood known as Mount Pleasant, later called Mount Healthy because its clean air helped it to avoid the cholera outbreaks that plagued the city. Naming his property Clovernook Farm, he built a three-room cottage there, where his nine children were born, including Alice (1820) and Phoebe (1824), were born. In 1832, he replaced the cottage with a two-story brick house with a frame porch.

Cary Cottage, courtesy of Jessica Salyers, Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired

When Alice and Phoebe were teenagers, they started secretly writing poetry after the rest of the family had gone to bed, hiding their work in a cupboard under the stairs. By the late 1830s, their poems started to be published in Cincinnati newspapers and church publications. “I did not care any more if I were poor, or my clothes plain,” Phoebe said. “Somebody cared enough for my verses to print them, and I was happy…but I kept my joy and triumph to myself.” Alice’s “Pictures of Memory” was published in an 1848 anthology, Female Poets of America; in his review for the Southern Literary Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe praised it as “the noblest poem in the collection” and “one of the most musically perfect lyrics in the English language.”

The Poetical Works of Alice and Phoebe Cary (Ohio History Connection)

After Poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary was published in 1849, Horace Greeley visited the sisters in their “tidy cottage” on a trip to Cincinnati. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote them an appreciative, encouraging letter. Later, they visited him at his Amesbury, Massachusetts home.

Recalling their visit years later in “The Singer,” Whittier wrote of the “two song-birds wandering from their nest,/A gray old farm-house in the West.” About “timid” Alice, he wrote: “…A memory haunted all her words/Of clover-fields and singing-birds./…Her speech dropped prairie flowers; the gold/Of harvest wheat about her rolled.”

The sisters moved to New York City in 1850 to make a name for themselves. From their home on 20th Street near 4th Avenue, they wrote for The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s and abolitionist and women’s suffrage publications. Alice was president of Sorosis, the first women’s club in the United States. Besides publishing her own poems in Poems and Parodies and Poems of Faith, Hope and Love, Phoebe wrote lyrics for church hymnals.

Frontispiece, Ballads, Lyrics and Hymns (1874), by Alice Cary (Ohio History Connection)

On Sunday evenings, the sisters hosted salons, discussing literature and current events with well-known figures like P. T. Barnum, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Mapes Dodge, and their old friends Greeley and Whittier. Phoebe often wore to these salons a necklace that was nearly four feet long, made from dozens of things her friends had given her, such as a marble, a piece of amber, and a ball of malachite.

The Carys might have left Clovernook, but their childhood home didn’t leave them. It appeared in both sisters’ poems, such as Alice’s “Of Home” (1887): “My heart made pictures all to-day/Of the old homestead far away…I hear the old clock tick and tick/In the small parlor…”

Alice died from tuberculosis in 1871; Phoebe died five months later of hepatitis. They are both buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. A Memorial of Alice and Phoebe Cary by Mary Clemmer, and The Poetical Works of Alice and Phoebe Cary, published in 1891, both were pictured on the Ohio Preservation Council’s poster.

Detail, letter from Alice Cary, May 24, 1860 (Ohio History Connection, VFM 899)

In 1903, a Cincinnatian named Florence Trader saw an advertisement that the Carys’ cottage was for sale. Thinking that it would be a perfect home for her blind sister, Georgia, and other visually impaired women, she approached William Procter, head of The Procter & Gamble Company, about the possibility of purchasing the cottage and some surrounding land. With Procter’s help, the Clovernook Center became the first home for visually impaired women in the state of Ohio. These women were trained in weaving, crocheting, knitting, beading and basketry, and the money they earned from selling the items gave them feelings of independence and self-esteem. They also operated a printing press that was one of the country’s largest producers of Braille publications.

Today, the Clovernook Center continues to provide resources for the education, occupation and recreation of the blind and visually impaired. Cary Cottage remains as part of the campus.


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