10 Amazing Facts About Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe
Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe / Alanson Fisher, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Over 41 issues, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was published as a serial in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era, beginning on June 5, 1851. At first, few readers followed the story, but its audience steadily grew as the drama unfolded.

“Wherever I went among the friends of the Era, I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin a theme for admiring remark,” journalist and social critic Grace Greenwood wrote in a travelogue published in the Era. “[E]verywhere I went, I saw it read with pleasant smiles and irrepressible tears.’” The story was discussed in other abolitionist publications, such as Frederick Douglass’s newspaper The North Star, and helped sell $2 annual subscriptions to the Era.

The popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin exploded once it was made available in a more accessible format. Some publishers claim the book edition is the second best-selling title of the 19th century, after the Bible.

1. Harriet Beecher Stowe's father and all seven of her brothers were ministers.

Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born on June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her mother, Roxana Foote Beecher, died five years later. Over the course of three marriages, her father, Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher, had 13 children, 11 of whom survived into adulthood. All seven of his surviving sons became ministers. Henry Ward Beecher carried on his father’s abolitionist mission and, according to legend, sent rifles to anti-slavery settlers in Kansas and Nebraska in crates marked “Bibles.”

The women of the Beecher family were also encouraged to rise to positions of influence and rally against injustice. Eldest child Catharine Beecher co-founded the Hartford Female Seminary, while youngest daughter Isabella Beecher Hooker was a prominent suffragist.

2. The Fugitive Slave Act inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to Write Uncle Tom's Cabin.

In 1832, Harriet Beecher moved to Cincinnati with her father, who assumed the presidency of Lane Theological Seminary. According to Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life by Joan D. Hedrick, the Ohio city introduced her to formerly enslaved people and Black freemen. She also joined a literary group called the Semi-Colon Club.

She married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at Lane, and eventually relocated to Brunswick, Maine, when he went to work at Bowdoin College. By then, Stowe had published two books, Primary Geography for Children and the short story collection New England Sketches. She was also a contributor to newspapers supporting temperance and abolition as a writer of “sketches,” brief descriptive stories meant to illustrate a political point.

Following a positive response to her The Freeman’s Dream: A Parable, Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the anti-slavery paper The National Era, sent her $100 to encourage her to continue supplying the paper with material. The 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, obligating authorities in free states to apprehend runaway enslaved people, took the slavery fight northward. It also encouraged Stowe to step up her game.

“I am at present occupied upon a story which will be a much longer one than any I have ever written,” Beecher Stowe wrote in a letter to Bailey, “embracing a series of sketches which give the lights and shadows of the ‘patriarchal institution’ [of slavery], written either from observation, incidents which have occurred in the sphere of my personal knowledge, or in the knowledge of my friends.” For material, she scoured the written accounts relayed by escaped enslaved people.

3. Uncle Tom's Cabin made Harriet Beecher Stowe rich and famous.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, circa 1850
Harriet Beecher Stowe, circa 1850 / Southworth & Hawes, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

According to Henry Louis Gate Jr.’s introduction to the annotated edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, The National Era paid Stowe $300 for 43 chapters. Before the serial’s completion, Stowe signed a contract with John P. Jewett and Co. to publish a two-volume bound book edition, and that’s when it really took off. Released on March 20, 1852, the book sold 10,000 copies in the U.S. in its first week and 300,000 in the first year. In the UK, 1.5 million copies flew off the shelves in the first year. Stowe was paid 10 cents for each one sold. According to London Times, she had already amassed $10,000 in royalties. “We believe [that this is] the largest sum of money ever received by any author, either American or European, from the sales of a single work in so short a period of time,” the Times wrote.

4. Harriet Beecher Stowe went to court to stop an unauthorized translation of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Immediately after Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a literary sensation, a Philadelphia-based German-language paper, Die Freie Presse, began publishing an unauthorized translation. Stowe took the publisher, F.W. Thomas, to court [PDF]. American copyright laws were weak, irking British writers whose work was widely pirated. 

The case was tried in the Third District in Philadelphia with jurist Robert Grier, a supporter of the Fugitive Slave Act, presiding. “By the publication of Mrs. Stowe's book, the creations of the genius and imagination of the author have become as much public property as those of Homer or Cervantes,” Grier ruled. The precedent set by Stowe vs. Thomas meant that authors had the right to prevent others from printing their exact words, but almost nothing else. “All her conceptions and inventions may be used and abused by imitators, play-rights and poet-asters,” Grier wrote.

5. Harriet Beecher Stowe pressured Abraham Lincoln on emancipation.

Though Stowe had criticized what she saw as his slowness in emancipation and willingness to seek compromise to prevent southern states' secession, Stowe visited President Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1862, during the early days of the Civil War. Reportedly, Lincoln greeted her with, “So this is the little woman who brought on this big Civil War,” but some scholars have dismissed the quote as Stowe family legend.

Details of their conversation are limited to vague entries in their respective diaries. Lincoln may have bantered with her over his love of open fires (“I always had one to home,” he reportedly said), while Stowe got down to business and quizzed him. “Mr. Lincoln, I want to ask you about your views on emancipation,” she began.

6. Harriet Beecher Stowe was an extremely prolific author.

Stowe wrote more than 30 books, both fiction and nonfiction, plus essays, poems, articles, and hymns.

7. The Stowes wintered in Florida, a former slave state.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, circa 1870
Harriet Beecher Stowe, circa 1870 / Library of Congress // No known restrictions on publication

The influx of wealth from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the end of the Civil War allowed the Stowes to purchase a winter home in Mandarin, Florida, in 1867. It may have seemed strange—and perilous—for a famous anti-slavery crusader to buy 30 acres in a former slave state so soon after the war. Yet, six years after the purchase, she wrote to a local newspaper, “In all this time I have not received even an incivility from any native Floridian.”

8. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain were neighbors.

The Stowes’ primary residence, beginning in 1864, was a villa in the Nook Farm section of Hartford, Connecticut, a neighborhood populated by prominent citizens, including Mark Twain. The homes of Nook Farm had few fences, and doors stayed open in sunny weather, creating an air of gentility. Twain described Stowe's later years, in which she likely had dementia, in his autobiography:

“Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe who was a near neighbor of ours in Hartford, with no fence between. In those days she made as much use of our grounds as of her own in pleasant weather. Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irishwoman, assigned to her as a guardian.”

9. Harriet Beecher Stowe outlived four of her seven children.

While continuing a lucrative and prolific writing career, Harriet Beecher and her husband raised seven children, but experienced the tragedy of losing four of them during her lifetime. Their son Henry drowned in a swimming accident in 1857. Their son Frederick disappeared en route to California in 1870, while their daughter Georgiana died of septicemia in 1890. Second-youngest son Samuel died in infancy from cholera in 1849. These losses informed several of Stowe’s works.

10. several of Harriet Beecher Stowe's homes are open to the public.

Visitors in Cincinnati can pop into the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, where she lived after following her father to his position at the Lane seminary. In Maine, the Harriet Beecher Stowe House on the campus of Bowdoin College in Brunswick commemorates where she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The building houses faculty offices, but one room is open to the public and dedicated to Stowe. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center preserves her home in Hartford, Connecticut. Finally, the site of her home in Mandarin, Florida, is marked by a plaque.

For more fascinating facts and stories about your favorite authors and their works, check out Mental Floss's new book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels and Novelists, out May 25!