Sunday, November 23, 2008

Russell Sage: The Miserly Millionaire

Russell Sage began the business which consumed his life around 1837, when he was 21 years old. He was part owner of a grocery store in Troy, N.Y. The business expanded to include a slaughterhouse, then took off during the Civil War when Slocum and Sage helped supply the Union soldiers with food. By the 1840's, Sage was investing in railroads and running for local office in Rensselaer County. He was so successful at making money that his railroad deals started cheating his constituents' economy by the 1850's. His greed and his unpopularity in Troy forced him to move to New York City in 1863. He purchased a mansion on Fifth Avenue and 39th Street, where he lived for the rest of his life. None of the furniture or artwork inside it was of much value, however. He was so good at playing the stock market that he may have beat out Jay Gould himself!

After the death of his wife Maria in 1867, Mr. Sage courted and married a poor schoolteacher, Margaret Olivia Slocum, known as Olivia, in 1869. Olivia was not given an allowance to spend, however, and as she began to develop an interest in charitable work, she was only able to give pittances to her favorite institutions, such as the Emma Willard Association or the Women's Hospital. While New York society departed for toney towns such as Newport during the hot summers, the Sages cooled themselves off in a simple home in Lawrence, on the south shore of Long Island. Olivia was unable to keep up with fashion trends or travel abroad. It was embarrassing that the wife of one of New York City's richest men was reduced to borrowing other people's carriages with which to travel about town.

Ironically, when Sage died in 1906, he left the entire $70 million he had accumulated to Olivia, who then proceeded to give it away methodically through the Russell Sage Foundation, which she founded. Olivia finally became well-known as a philanthropist, fielding about 10,000 letters appealing to her for money each year. Among the institutions which benefitted from Olivia Sage's benevolence were universities such as New York University, Yale, Rensselaer Polytechnic, and Syracuse University, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Forest Hills Gardens in New York City.


Crocker, Ruth. "Mrs. Russell Sage. Women's Activism and Philanthropy in Gilded Age and Progressive Era America." Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

Photo: Russell Sage at age 78. Published by Mrs. Sage in New York, 1908.

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