Phoebe Cary was born on September 4, 1824, in comparative poverty, the sixth of nine children. The family lived in a cramped cottage on a farm north of Cincinnati. The cottage still stands looking much as it did during Phoebe's youth, maintained by the Cary Cottage Group. Cary rarely had the time to attend school, teaching herself from her parents' limited materials, primarily the family Bible. Her mother died when Phoebe was about eleven, less than two years after two of Phoebe's sisters died. When her father remarried, the children did not seem to accept their stepmother; they did not move into the new house built by Robert Cary for his new wife.
Phoebe began writing poetry at about the age of thirteen, publishing some in local newspapers. In 1849, Horace Greeley visited the Cary family, encouraging both Phoebe and her sister Alice to write; he published the first volume of their verse the following year. Phoebe moved to New York with her younger sister, Elmina, to live with Alice in 1851. Six years later, the three sisters moved to a house that Alice bought and where Alice and Phoebe held their famous Sunday evening receptions attended by writers, artists, and activists, including such notables as P. T. Barnum and Horace Greeley. The normally retiring Phoebe shone at these gatherings as a brilliant and witty conversationalist. With only the income from their writing, life was not easy, but the sisters worked diligently and tirelessly, even in the face of debilitating illness and death. Alice and Phoebe were devastated by the death of Elmina in 1862.
During her lifetime, Phoebe was, and continues to be, overshadowed by her sister Alice. In the collections of their poetry, Alice always appears first, and Phoebe is usually referred to as "her sister." Alice did have more financial