Thursday, November 19, 2015

Made in New York: Figured and Fancy Coverlets

Our final stop on our tour of items made in New York takes us to the central region of the state, where four so-called “figured and fancy” woven coverlets were made. These bed coverings, with their elaborate patterns of flowers, birds, and patriotic motifs, were the work of professional weavers active in the 1830s and 1840s. 

Weaving on a Jacquard loom
Throughout the 18th century, women had woven coverlets of cotton and wool in geometric patterns on basic four-harness looms like the one in the Alice’s collection. Fancy coverlets, however, required more sophisticated weaving technology and were almost always made by men (only two female professional weavers have been identified). Looms were equipped with Jacquard attachments or other devices that allowed the weaver to produce complex patterns using punched cards. Most of these coverlets were double-woven—that is, they were made of two layers of cloth woven simultaneously and only connected at the points where the surfaces interchange to form the pattern. This creates a textile that is both extra-warm and reversible.

Most figured and fancy coverlets were made in the mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states from the 1820s through the 1850s. By that time, mechanized textile production was in full swing in New England, so hand weavers moved westward where they could still find a market for carpets, coverlets, and other figured textiles. Many of these men were first- or second-generation immigrants from Germany, England, Ireland, Scotland, or France, and they moved frequently within the U.S. in search of new customers. Weavers advertised in their local papers, and the coverlets themselves—marked with the name of the weaver, location, and date—were their own form of advertising.

Coverlet by Jacob Impson, Cortland Village NY, 1835
The earliest dated coverlet in the collection is one made by Jacob Impson in 1835. This red and white coverlet features floral medallions and a border of grapevines. Impson marked the corners of the coverlet with his name, the date, the location—Cortland Village—and the name of the pattern, which he called “Lady’s Fancy.” Impson is also the maker of a second piece in the collection, this one a blue-and-white coverlet from 1841. It also features floral motifs and has added a patriotic border ofeagles. Jacob Impson was born ca. 1802 and seems to have started his career as a weaver around 1824 in Ludlowville, which is north of Ithaca on Cayuga Lake. In that year, he advertised in the Ithaca Journal that he had opened a shop at the home of John Goodrich, “where all kinds of work in his line will be done on the shortest notice and cheap, very cheap, for cash.” He later worked in Cortland Village and West Cortlandville.

Coverlet by Archibald Davidson, Ithaca NY, 1848
Also working in Ithaca was Archibald Davidson, who was born in Scotland in 1771. Davidson advertised in the early 1830s in the Ithaca Journal and Daily Advertiser that he could weave coverlets equal to any of those produced in “Europe or America,” and furthermore informed his clients that he had “gone to great expense to procure a patent loom.” Davidson marked his coverlets as the products of the “Ithaca Carpet Factory,” but he and perhaps his sons and an apprentice were the only employees of the “factory.” Sometime in the 1850s, he left Ithaca for Warsaw, New York. Davidson’s coverlet, made in 1848, incorporates two different border patterns: a leaping stag and tree, and eagles with a building that looks like the Capitol dome but can’t be, as it predates that structure by many years.

Coverlet by Samuel Butterfield, New Hartford NY, 1837
The final coverlet is the work of Samuel Butterfield of New Hartford, near Utica. Born in England in 1792, Butterfield for a time partnered with James Cunningham. By the late 1830s he was in business for himself, and in 1837—the year that our coverlet was made—he advertised in the Utica Observer that he could make “Damask & Drapes, Table Cloths, Ingrain, Venetian and Rag Carpets, Coverlets, etc.” Butterfield seems to have been particularly fond of the figure of George Washington on horseback, because he always used it on the corners of his coverlets, along with the slogan “United We Stand Divided We Fall.” Like Impson and Davidson, he also incorporated patriotic eagles into his borders, but he added the phrase “Under This We Prosper.”

The Civil War effectively brought the hand-woven coverlet industry to an end. Many weavers joined the army or went into other occupations for the duration of the war. By the time the war was over, almost all weaving was being done in factories. In the early 20th century, these coverlets became popular again with collectors, as examples of pre-industrial craftsmanship. There was also a movement to revive the lost arts of hand-weaving—which we’ll look at in more detail in future posts.

Information on coverlets and weavers is drawn from Clarita S. Anderson, American Coverlets and Their Weavers: Coverlets from the Collection of Foster and Muriel McCarl. And if you happen to be in western Pennsylvania, you can visit the McCarls’ collection at Saint Vincent College.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Made in New York: Indian “Whimsies”

Beaded pincushion with velvet center
 In my post last year on how the Erie Canal opened up New York state for tourism, I discussed the way Niagara Falls became the destination for fashionable travelers in the 19th century. And no trip to Niagara was complete without purchasing a souvenir or two. Beaded purses, pincushions, wall pockets, picture frames, and other novelties, made by the Tuscarora and other local Iroquois tribes, were by far the most popular. The Alice’s collection contains two classic examples of this type of Indian souvenir: a small flat purse, beaded with colorful flowers, and an elaborate star-shaped pincushion with three-dimensional designs in crystal beads.

Iroquois style beaded purse
The association of Native Americans with Niagara Falls goes back to at least the 18th century. Early images of the falls almost always included an Indian or two, to emphasize the “wild” nature of the falls. By the time tourism began in the early 19th century, Indian legends like the story of the Maid of the Mist had become part of the allure of Niagara Falls. Essentially, once white Americans no longer perceived Indians as a threat, they were sentimentalized and romanticized. Like the falls themselves, Indians were both symbols of untamed nature and safely domesticated and commercialized.

Textile historian Beverly Gordon has written about this phenomenon, describing how, by purchasing an Indian-made souvenir, tourists were “taking home a ‘piece’ of the Indian—and by association a ‘piece’ of the falls themselves.” The Indian whimsy was “a symbol, an object that could capture and make tangible something ephemeral and wild: the power and majesty of Niagara.”

Ca. 1870 photo of tourists purchasing
beadwork from Tuscarora women
Tuscarora women began selling beadwork at the falls as soon as tourists started to arrive in the early 1800s. Not surprisingly, businessmen quickly capitalized on the popularity of Indian souvenirs. By 1850 visitors could purchase souvenirs at two shops, owned by brothers Walter and Theodore Hulett—The Old Curiosity Shop and Indian Store, and the Great Western Indian Store—both of which were directly on the route to the falls. Soon they were joined by Isaac Davy’s Indian Bazaar, Fox’s Curiosity Shop, and others. In fact, there were so many Indians selling so many souvenirs that in the 1870s and 1880s stories began to circulate that the beadwork was not made by Indians, and that there were even “fake” Indians (who were actually Irish) selling their wares.

In 1885, New York state purchased the land contiguous to the falls and turned it into a public park. This was supposed to combat the commercialism of the falls and put visitors in a “composed receptive frame of mind.” Numerous hotels and stores, including Hulett’s Old Curiosity Shop, were torn down at this time. However, Tuscarora women were given permission to continue selling their wares in the park. Indian souvenirs remained very popular until around 1910, then came back for a time during the Great Depression.

Ca. 1850 daguerrotype of woman with beaded purse
One of the most interesting things about Indian whimsies is the number of photographs that survive from the 1850s and 1860s in which the sitters are holding Iroquois purses. Having one’s portrait taken at this time was a rare and special occasion, and people took great pains with the ways they presented themselves. That so many girls and young women chose to incorporate Indian purses into their portraits suggests that these souvenirs, though common, were also very special to their owners. They showed that the sitters were well-traveled and fashionable.

If you would like to learn more, Gerry Biron’s site Historic Iroquois and Wabanaki Beadwork is a great place to start. You can see many more wonderful photos of women with beadwork bags here and here. You can learn more about the souvenir industry of Niagara Falls here. Thanks to Gerry for letting me use some of his photos here!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Made in New York: Redford Glass

In honor of New York State History Month, all through November we’ll be featuring items in the Alice’s collection that were made in the state. In our history month posts last year, we saw how the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 cemented New York’s position as the hub of  American commerce. Agricultural products and manufactured goods traveled through New York State to all parts of the country, and many of them got their start right here.

We’ll begin with a product familiar to many people in this region: Redford Glass. Although the Redford Crown Glass Company was in business for a relatively short period of time (between 1831 and 1851) and only about 250 pieces made there have been definitively identified, it played a very important role in the development of the American glass industry and the economy of northern New York.

Two Redford Glass jugs
Glassmaking was one of the first industries in the United States to mass-produce goods in a factory setting. Between 1810 and 1840, about 120 glasshouses were established in the U.S., with ten of those in New York State. The Redford Glass Company was founded by two businessmen from Troy, Gershon Cook and Charles W. Corning, who had the backing of the Champlain Glass Company of Burlington. They chose a site on the Saranac River for their new glassworks, which was known to be a source of high-quality sandstone (one of the ingredients used to make glass) and was connected to Plattsburgh by a new road.

Construction of the glassworks began in March 1831, and the first glass was produced in October 1831. Redford’s main product was window glass—the factory produced about 10,000 boxes of window glass annually during the 1830s, and it was used all over the country, including many of the public buildings in Washington, D.C. According to an article in the Plattsburgh Republican, Redford Glass was “capable of standing every variety of climate” and was “distinguished from the ordinary crown glass by its uncommon clearness and beauty of surface, its superior transparency and lightness of color, and by its great thickness and general excellence of the materials which compose it.”

Redford Glass pitcher with lily-pad decoration
Today, however, Redford Glass is primarily known for its table and decorative ware—bowls, pitchers, jugs, jars, candlesticks, bottles, and the like. There is still some debate over the origin of these pieces and whether they were so-called “offhand” items, made by workers from leftover window glass in their spare time, or whether they were manufactured for sale. Workers later recalled that “pitchers, lamps, and other articles” were sold at the company’s offices, so it seems likely that at least some pieces were made especially for sale to the public.

Redford Glass pieces employed two distinctive forms of ornamentation. One type was known as “threading,” and was created by winding thin strands of glass around the object, usually to decorate the neck or rim of a drinking vessel. The other was called the “lily-pad” and was made with a droplet of molten glass that was pulled across the surface of the object.

Scrip issued by Redford Glass Co. for use at company store
Even though it made a high-quality product, the Redford Glass Company struggled financially. It shut down in 1843, opened again in 1846, and finally closed permanently in 1851. Redford found itself unable to compete with glass companies in Pennsylvania, which had access to coal—a much more economical fuel than the wood found in the Redford region. Redford was also too geographically isolated and lacked access to inexpensive means of transportation. But during the short life of the company, Redford was a thriving town with three stores, two taverns, a church, a public library, and a volunteer fire department.

Today, Redford glass stands as a memento of northern New York’s early industrial history, and pieces of Redford glass are treasured items in private and public collections, including the Clinton County Historical Association and the Plattsburgh State Art Museum.

The information in this post is taken from Reflections: The Story of Redford Glass, the catalog of an exhibition held at the Clinton County Historical Association in 1979, which is available to purchase from CCHA.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Visit to Chicago: The Rookery Building

Here at the Alice T. Miner Museum, we naturally tend to focus on Alice and William’s life in Chazy. But Chicago was also their home for many years, and was always the headquarters of William’s business interests. In honor of Miner Day on October 22, let’s take a look at one of the places where William spent a lot of time: The Rookery building at 209 South LaSalle Street, Chicago, where W.H. Miner Co. had its offices.

The Rookery in 1891
(Library of Congress)
The Rookery is important not only for its role in William’s life but for its place in American architectural history. Built in 1887-88 by Daniel H. Burnham and John Root, the Rookery is an example of what came to be known as the “Chicago Style.” In the years after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, a new style of commercial architecture emerged, which combined modern building techniques (metal framing, elevators, plate glass) with more traditional ones (brick facades, elaborate ornamentation). The twelve-story Rookery was a transitional building, which had both an interior steel frame and load-bearing exterior walls made of red marble, terra cotta, and brick.

The central staircase as it appears today
(Wikimedia Commons)
Inside, Root and Burnham designed a two-story central court to serve as the building’s focal point and to provide daylight to interior offices. In the days before electricity became common, getting enough light into large office buildings was difficult. In 1905, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to renovate the court, during which time the space was opened further, and some of the dark wrought-iron decorative elements were replaced with white marble. A second renovation was carried out in 1931, but the building has since been largely restored to its ca. 1905 appearance.

William would have become familiar with the Rookery as an employee of the Hutchins Refrigerator Car Company, which had its offices in the building in the 1890s. When he decided to go into business for himself, in 1897, William rented his own space in the Rookery, Room 355. Though William himself was often on the road, selling his railroad gear, the Rookery remained the company’s headquarters for many years, with the offices under the capable management of Nettie M. Goldsmith and Maude F. Back.

Exterior detail
(Wikimedia Commons)
The Rookery was right in the heart of Chicago’s downtown business district, putting William in close proximity to other businessmen—not to mention seven different railroad stations. It was also close to a number of William and Alice’s favorite places, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, Marshall Field and Co. department store, Central Church, and the Palmer House Hotel.

So why was the building called “The Rookery”? The name actually predates the current building, and was applied to the old City Hall building that was on the site prior to the Great Fire. Crows and other birds liked nesting on its exterior walls, and observers naturally drew parallels between the rooks outside and the (c)rook(ed) politicians inside. When the new building was constructed, the old name stuck.

More information about the Rookery Building can be found at the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s website. And don’t forget to wish William Miner a happy 153rd birthday today!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Recent Acquisitions: Little Brother

Little Brother, ca. 1872-74
Little Sister, ca. 1872-74
Also new to the Alice this season is “Little Brother,” who joins “Little Sister,” already in the collection. Little Brother is the gift of Walma Masters of Plattsburgh, and we are delighted to be able to reunite the siblings. Both prints are hand-colored lithographs produced by the firm of Currier and Ives in the 1870s.

Awful Conflagration of the Steam Boat Lexington, 1840
Although there were many companies producing lithographs during this period, Currier and Ives of New York was the most prolific and popular, turning out probably as many prints as all other American companies combined. Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888) started the business in 1834; James Ives (1824-1895) joined the firm as its bookkeeper in 1852 and entered into partnership with Currier in 1857. Neither of them were artists, so they relied upon the work of professional artists to create the original drawings.

Currier and Ives’ goal was to make art accessible to the broad public. They 
Black Eyed Susan, 1848
called themselves “Printmakers to the People,” and thanks to the development of new printing technologies, it was now possible to produce large numbers of inexpensive and colorful prints. A small print could be purchased for as little as 20 cents, while larger prints cost between $1 and $3—well within reach of most Americans. Their images depicted all aspects of American life: newsworthy events (disasters were particularly popular), politics, sports, home life, religion, views of cities and landscapes, trains and ships, and portraits of children and beautiful women.

Beautiful Dreamer, 1860s
Collecting Currier and Ives prints is still a popular pastime, but interestingly, it seems that the prints that are most sought after today are the ones that were least popular in their own time. Modern collectors are most interested in the railroad, hunting, and historical scenes, but in the 19th century, the sentimental scenes of children, women, domestic life, and devotion were most popular. Visitors to the Alice today have mixed reactions to the prints of children hanging in the Child’s Chamber; some find them cloyingly sweet while others find them creepy. But in their own time, many people considered them genuinely beautiful and moving.

Currier and Ives went out of business in 1907, after the deaths of both partners, but their prints have become iconic images of America and are still being reproduced on greeting cards, calendars, candy boxes, and even ceramics. For more information on Currier and Ives and other American lithographers of the 19th century, check out

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Recent Acquisitions: The Glass Blower by Jules Grosjean

Although the Alice T. Miner Museum is no longer actively working to collect new items, it does still occasionally receive donations with connections to the Miners and the community. One such item was recently given by Dr. and Mrs. Raymond Charles Dilzer of Plattsburgh—a bronze sculpture of a glass blower by the French artist Jules Aimé Grosjean. Dr. Dilzer inherited this sculpture from his uncle, Charles M. Harrington, who was Alice Miner’s attorney and the executor of her estate. But as it turns out, this piece has an even more direct connection to Alice.

The Glass Blower actually originally belonged to Alice and William Miner, and appears in a photograph taken of their home in Chicago around 1904. Alice presumably bequeathed it to her friend and attorney Charles Harrington, who then gave it to his nephew, who donated it to the Alice! 

Detail of photograph

Charles M. Harrington was an important figure in the North Country during the first half of the 20th century. He was born in Plattsburgh in 1890, the son of Richard L. and Eunice (Morhous) Harrington. He graduated from Plattsburgh High School in 1910, then attended Cornell Law School. Harrington served in France during World War I and was awarded the Silver Star. Returning to practice law in Clinton County, he served in the state assembly, as a county judge, and as chair of the Clinton County Republican Party. He was also a member of the Plattsburgh State Teachers College Council, and Harrington Hall is named after him.

Grosjean’s Monument aux Morts

The sculptor Jules Grosjean was born in 1872 in the small town of Vesoul, in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France, and studied with the Beaux-Arts sculptor Louis-Ernest Barrias. During his lifetime, Grosjean was probably best known for his work on a monument to the dead of the 1870-71 war with Prussia, erected in the town of Gray in 1901. For this monument, Grosjean created a bronze sculpture “represent[ing] a dying soldier pointing towards the German border with words of encouragement to a schoolboy who stands beside him. The lad has put down his books and picked up the soldier’s rifle.” Grosjean died when he was only 34, just as he had been awarded a commission to create a memorial to another artist from Vesoul, Jean-Léon Gérôme.

We’re delighted to be able to reunite the Glass Blower with the other items we have from the Miners’ Chicago home.

Photo of the Miner home in Chicago, ca. 1904, showing Grosjean sculpture above fireplace

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Railway Men, Unite!

Some of William Miner’s convention badges
In the 19th century, railroads were the biggest business in the United States. W.H. Miner, Co., was just one of the hundreds of companies running railroad lines, building locomotives and railcars, and manufacturing the parts that went into building those cars. Because of the huge scale of the railroad industry, and its vast geographical range, “railway men” began very early on to create organizations that would help coordinate their activities. These associations worked to create standardized rail gauges, time zones, traffic signals, and  freight rates, and in many cases were the driving force behind the legislation of new safety features, like air brakes and automatic couplers.

Since there were so many different aspects to the railroad industry, it’s no surprise that there were dozens of specialized associations, from the American Association of Baggage Traffic Managers to the Association of American Dining Car Officers to the Railway Signal and Communications Suppliers Association. William Miner was a member of a number of railroad organizations, and the collection of pins in the Miner Room serves as a memento of the meetings and conventions he attended.

William Miner was a member of the Railway Supply Manufacturers’ Association, the American Railway Master Mechanics Association, the Master Car Builders Association, and the Car Inspectors and Car Foremen’s Association. The ARMMA took as its object “the advancement of knowledge concerning the principles, construction, repair and service of the rolling stock of railroads,” while the MCBA’s goal was “to procure uniformity in car construction, secure the most economical results in the interchange of traffic between the railroads of the country.” To this end, in 1879 the MCBA published The Car-Builder’s Dictionary, which defined and illustrated every part used in the construction of railway cars (the book is still being updated and is now known as The Car and Locomotive Cyclopedia).

1908 Convention scenes, published in the July issue of
Railway Master Mechanic magazine
There was a good deal of overlap in membership and goals among these organizations of car builders, and they frequently held joint conventions. These meetings were as much about pleasure as they were business, and as such were generally held in resort towns such as Mackinac Island, Michigan; Saratoga Springs, New York; and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Photos of the 1908 Convention of the MCBA and ARMMA, held in Atlantic City, show the attendees enjoying the delights of the Boardwalk (sadly, William doesn’t appear in any of them, though we know he was there). The members also had the opportunity to hear reports on a variety of exciting topics, such as mechanical stokers, brake shoes, the apprenticeship system, and the “best system of washing out and refilling locomotive boilers.”

William returned to Atlantic City at least one other time, in June 1922, for the Railway Supply Manufacturers’ Association’s annual convention, which was held in conjunction with the meetings of the American Railway Association Mechanical Division, the Air Brake Appliance Association, and the Air Brake Association. As the Railway Review reported, “It is expected that the combined meeting will constitute one of the largest gatherings of railway men ever held.” The Pennsylvania Railroad offered a special train from Chicago to Atlantic City for attendees.

Young’s Million Dollar Pier, ca. 1911
A key part of this event was the displays by railroad supply companies (including W.H. Miner), exhibiting their products. This exhibition was held at the Million Dollar Pier, one of Atlantic City’s biggest entertainment complexes. Originally built in 1906 by Colonel John L.Young, the Million Dollar Pier was 1700 feet long and contained (in addition to the Exhibit Hall) a theater, aquarium, roller skating rink, and the World’s Largest Ballroom. While William would have frowned upon some elements of Atlantic City’s nightlife—illegal liquor and gambling—he undoubtedly enjoyed the opportunity to meet with business acquaintances and make some new customers for W.H. Miner, Co. Perhaps Alice joined him on this excursion, and they strolled the Boardwalk together, taking in the sights and sounds of the east coast’s most popular leisure destination.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Shades of the Past: Silhouette Artist John Miers

Silhouette by Miers, said to be a portrait of
Margaret Ruskin
We generally associate the silhouette with an image cut out of black paper, but in the 18th and early 19th centuries, there were many other methods for producing “shades” or “profiles.” Indeed, since black paper was not commercially available until the late 1820s, many artists preferred to paint silhouettes on paper, ivory, glass, or plaster. The master of painting on plaster, and one of the most prolific and accomplished silhouette artists of the period, was John Miers.

The Alice’s collection includes one silhouette by Miers—the profile of a young woman with a fashionable short haircut. Alice T. Miner purchased this silhouette from the antique dealer T.H. Telford of Grasmere, probably during the trip she made to England in 1937. Telford identified the sitter as Margaret Ruskin, the mother of critic John Ruskin. There is some doubt about the accuracy of that identification, but it is nonetheless a charming portrait and a very fine example of Miers’s work.

An early Miers silhouette, ca. 1783-84
John Miers was born in 1758 in Leeds, England, the son of a coach painter. By 1781 he had set up his own business painting silhouettes, and between 1783 and 1788 traveled to various towns in Scotland and the north of England to offer his services. On October 26, 1784, Meirs placed this advertisement in the Manchester Mercury:

“J. MIERS Begs Leave respectfully to inform the Ladies and Gentlemen of MANCHESTER, That he has invented a new Method of taking the most exact Likenesses in Miniature Profile. He has succeeded beyond his most sanguine Expectations, in remedying the Defects with which the common uncertain Method of reducing Shades have universally been attended; and has been honoured by all who have seen his Performances, with the most flattering Encomiums, for giving the true Proportion and most animated Expression of the Features.” The cost was a “trifling” 5s. to 7s. 6d. (To put that in perspective, 5 shillings was a respectable week’s wages for a working man in the 18th century.)

A “Method of taking Profiles,”
Lady’s Monthly Museum,
October 1799
What exactly Miers’s remarkable method entailed is not recorded, but since he advertised that the sittings took only two or three minutes, it must have involved a machine of some kind. A variety of devices existed to trace profiles and then reduce them in size, generally using a pantograph. Miers boasted that his method was unique, because “in proportion as the Profiles are reduced, they invariably acquire increasing spirit and animation, a circumstance directly opposite to every other previous invention.” This made his likenesses ideal for “wearing in rings, pins, lockets, bracelets, faux montres, &c.”

In 1788, John Miers and his family (which eventually would grow to eleven children, many of whom became artists themselves) arrived in London, and in 1791 they moved to 111 Strand, which was to remain their home and place of work for many years. The Strand was the home of many fashionable shops as well as government buildings, and Miers drew his clientele from the well-to-do middle and upper classes, and even nobility and royalty, including King George III.

The label on the back of “Margaret Ruskin’s” portrait indicates that it was made during this early London period, between 1791 and 1809. After 1800 Miers produced few profiles, and most of the portraits made after that time were probably executed by his equally talented assistant, John Field (1772-1848). It is likely that the silhouette in the Alice’s collection was made by Field rather than Miers himself.

John Miers left a fortune of £20,000 upon his death in 1821, so he was obviously very successful as an artist and businessman. Miers offered his customers silhouettes in a wide range of sizes which could be adapted for various purposes. Once a likeness was made, it could be infinitely reproduced. He even offered the option of copying other artists’ silhouettes, and if one wished, having them updated by being “dress’d in the present Taste.”

A view of the Strand, ca. 1800

An excellent resource for learning more about British silhouettes (and the source of the information about John Miers in this post) is Profiles of the Past.

Friday, August 28, 2015

From Alice’s Scrapbook: The Man Who Sat on His Hat

Among the notable figures from the world of the arts who make appearances in Alice Miner’s scrapbooks, the Pre-Raphaelites are perhaps the most prominent. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of English painters, poets, and critics, formed in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The official Brotherhood eventually numbered seven members, but many other figures were associated with the group—John Ruskin, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, Algernon Swinburne, Christina Rossetti, William Morris—all of whom appear in the scrapbooks.

Painting by D.G. Rossetti, depicting a scene from
the Arthurian legends
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in reaction to what the members felt was the unimaginative and artificial painting produced and promoted by the Royal Academy of Art. They were inspired by the Italian art of the 14th and 15th centuries, the period before the High Renaissance and especially before the time of Raphael, hence their name.

By the 1840s, industrialization had been in full swing in Britain for several generations, and its effect on individuals and the environment was becoming clear. The Pre-Raphaelites looked back to the middle ages as a time when art and handcraft were closely linked, when people lived in small, rural communities, and when work, craft, and religion were still integrated. While this was certainly a romanticized vision of medieval England, it ultimately led some members of the group, notably William Morris, to espouse Socialism as a solution to the ills of industrial capitalist society.

Morris (right) with Burne-Jones, 1874
William Morris is perhaps best known today for his textiles and wallpapers, but he was a master of many crafts (including manuscript illumination, embroidery, dyeing, and bookbinding) as well as being a poet and novelist. Morris was quite unconventional in his dress, lifestyle, and politics, rejecting many of the trappings of Victorian society. “Many years ago,” one author reported, “he sat accidentally upon his silk hat and crushed it; he has never worn one since. His subsequent career may be said to have consisted, metaphorically speaking, in the crushing of silk hats generally, as well as other symbols of our artificial society.”

Morris was born in 1834 to a prosperous family living on the outskirts of London. He attended Exeter College, Oxford, where he met his lifelong friend Edward Burne-Jones and discovered the writing of John Ruskin. After college, in London, the two friends met Rossetti and were swept into the circle of the Pre-Raphaelites.

One of Morris’s textile designs
In 1861, Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and three other partners formed Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. The company, known as the Firm, hoped to reform British craftsmanship and bring interior decoration into the realm of fine arts. An article on Morris from 1891, clipped by Alice Miner, describes his philosophy. Industrialization had destroyed the environment “all for the purpose of producing things neither beautiful nor desirable in themselves, not because they were needed, but in order that profit might be made out of their sale.” Household furnishings should be useful or beautiful—preferably both—and they should be made, so far as was possible, by skilled craftsmen using the techniques of the pre-industrial era. According to Morris, “no artistic work is really worth anything, in which the design is not executed by intelligent workmen who recognize the idea of the designer.”

There are definite similarities between Morris’s ideas—which would produce the Arts and Crafts movement—and the ideas behind the Colonial Revival, and it’s not surprising that Morris was a figure of interest to Alice. Just as the proponents of the Colonial Revival wanted to incorporate elements of early American life into modern homes, Morris hoped to revitalize Victorian Britain with what he saw as the best parts of the past.

As Morris biographer Fiona MacCarthy notes, he was not interested in simply reproducing the past. “Medievalism for its own sake would have bored him. Through his researches into old methods and approaches he hoped to salvage something important for the present.” As Morris said himself of his approach to the past, “Let us study it wisely, be taught by it, kindled by it; all while determining not to imitate or repeat it, to have either no art at all, or an art which we have made our own.”

Saturday, August 15, 2015

From Alice’s Scrapbook: A Diva of the Golden Age of Opera

The first halftone photo to appear
in an American periodical, 
December 2, 1873.
In his history of American magazines, published in 1957, Frank Luther Mott wrote, “In these latter days, when everyone has his picture in the paper now and then, it is hard to understand the passion for portraits that was general in the nineties. But it was possible then, for the first time, for middle-class readers to collect portraits of the great; and thousands of them did.” If that was the case in the 50s, it’s even more so now, when photographs are ubiquitous and inescapable. But when Alice was collecting pictures for her scrapbooks, the technology that allowed magazines and newspapers to reproduce photos was new.

This was the halftone printing process, which broke down an image into a series of dots of varying sizes—it’s the same principle that newspapers still use today, which you can see if you look closely at a printed black-and-white photo. The technique was first developed in the 1870s, and newspapers and magazines very quickly began replacing engravings with photos. Photographs could be transmitted by wire and printed more or less instantly, while engravings had to be produced by hand. A skilled engraver like Timothy Cole of The Century might be paid up to $300 for a page-size woodcut, whereas a halftone could be purchased for less than $20. By the early 1890s, it was clear that halftones would soon replace engravings entirely.

Photo of Max Alvary as Siegfried
from Alice’s scrapbook
Notable figures from the world of art, literature, music, drama, politics, and science were popular subjects for magazine photography. Some magazines even published series of portraits of famous men and women on pages that were printed on only one side so they could be cut out and pasted into scrapbooks without destroying the page. Alice saved many images from Munsey’s Magazine, which ran a regular section called “The Stage” featuring photos of the stars of the theater and opera. Alice was a regular theatergoer and though she may not have had an opportunity to see grand opera in the 1880s and 1890s, it was clearly something she was interested in.

Alice’s scrapbooks contain photographs of some of the great figures of opera in the late 19th century, including Edouard de Reszke, a Polish bass known for the role of Méphistophélès in Gounoud’s Faust, and the great Wagnerians Max Alvary and Rosa Sucher. Also featured is the dramatic soprano Lillian Nordica, who was one of the most celebrated American opera singers of this period.

Photo of Lillian Nordica
from Alice’s scrapbook
Lillian Allen Norton was born in 1857 in Farmington, Maine and received her musical education at the New England Conservatory in Boston. After she graduated at the age of 18, she went to Milan for further study, and first performed there in 1879 as Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Now known as Lillian Nordica, she performed in St. Petersburg, London’s Royal Opera House, and at the Bayreuth Festival, where she created the role of Elsa in Lohengrin.

In 1891, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and in 1898 she first appeared in what would become one of her most celebrated roles: Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walkure. As she told a reporter from the New York Herald, this was a “most trying role. Most of it ranges so low that it is best suited to a mezzo soprano; yet the Walkure Shout requires a high soprano. Yes, you must be so note perfect in that role that nothing can disconcert you.”

While Nordica enjoyed great fame and fortune in her professional career, her personal life was troubled. She was married three times, all unhappily (she was about to divorce her first husband when he disappeared in a mysterious hot-air balloon accident), and by the 1910s was in poor health. Nonetheless, she set off in 1913 for an Australian concert tour. Her ship ran aground on a coral reef and was stranded for three days in the Gulf of Papua. Nordica contracted pneumonia, from which she never really recovered, and she died in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1914.
Coca-Cola advertisement, ca. 1906,
featuring Lillian Nordica

Lillian Nordica’s childhood home in Farmington is now open as a museum, and the town celebrates Nordica Day every year on August 17, which commemorates the day in 1911 on which the diva performed for her home town.

Additional photos and information can be found at the Maine Memory Network’s online exhibit, Lillian Nordica: Farmington Diva.

You can listen to a recording of Brünnhilde’s battle cry, captured live at the Metropolitan Opera in 1903.

Friday, August 7, 2015

From Alice’s Scrapbook: The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine

Poster advertising the April 1895
issue of The Century
 The late nineteenth century was the great age of American magazines. Along with daily and weekly newspapers, periodicals made up the majority of Americans’ regular reading material. In addition to hundreds of specialized academic, professional, business, and religious magazines, there were dozens of popular general-interest publications aimed at middle-class audiences. These magazines combined fiction (both short stories and serialized novels) with current events, travel writing, history, biography, and literary criticism, and were generally lavishly illustrated.

The model of this type of magazine, and the one from which Alice Miner most frequently saved articles for her scrapbook, was The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. Founded in 1870 by poet and essayist Josiah Gilbert Holland, entrepreneur Roswell Smith, and publisher Charles Scribner, and originally called Scribner’s Monthly, the magazine aimed to cultivate high morals, respect for culture, and faith in American progress as it informed and entertained its readers.

Portrait of Richard Watson Gilder
by Cecilia Beaux
In 1881, the magazine changed its name to The Century and came under the editorship of Richard Watson Gilder, who would head it until his death in 1909. (At this point, the magazine no longer had any connection with Charles Scribner, and confusingly, another publication called Scribner’s Magazine was started in 1887.) The Century grew exponentially in popularity under Gilder, and it was at this time that Alice became a regular reader. 

Richard Watson Gilder took his responsibilities as an editor very seriously, knowing, as he wrote, that the magazine reached “an audience of not much less than a million of people” each month. He was careful never to include anything that might cause offense and even his own contemporaries sometimes found him excessively prudish. But he also had great faith in the power of art to elevate and transform society, and The Century set the standard for other magazines in its attention to culture. 

Alice and other readers of the magazine in the 1880s and 1890s would have had the opportunity to read serialized novels by some of the most important authors of the day: William Dean Howells, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Henry James, George Washington Cable, and Mark Twain, among many others. These fiction pieces were accompanied by Edmund Clarence Stedman’s poetry criticism and in-depth studies of major literary figures such as Dante, Keats, and Tennyson.

Engraving by Cole of a 14th-c.
Italian fresco, saved by Alice
in her scrapbook.
The Century also became famous for the quality of its illustrations, particularly those that accompanied its articles on the fine arts. In 1883 the magazine sent Timothy Cole (who had almost single-handedly revived the dying art of wood engraving) to Europe to create a set of engravings of Italian, Dutch, Flemish, Spanish, and English Old Master paintings. At this time, when only a very few cities even had art museums, most people rarely had opportunities for viewing original works of art. The Century’s skillful engravings thus played a very important role in the art education of its readers.

In a way, The Century was a victim of its own success. By the 1890s it had a number of competitors that modeled themselves on The Century—but cost less. Munsey’s Magazine, founded in 1889, initially cost 25 cents but in 1893 reduced its price to a dime in order to compete with the new McClure’s Magazine. The Century, by comparison, cost 35 cents an issue. With Americans facing an economic crisis as a result of the Panic of 1893, these inexpensive magazines seemed like a good alternative. While still addressing serious topics (McClure’s became famous for publishing Ida Tarbell’s exposé on Standard Oil, for example), the new monthlies were more lighthearted in tone than Gilder’s CenturyMunsey’s advertised itself as “a magazine of the people and for the people, with pictures and art and good cheer and human interest throughout.” 

The dozens of articles that Alice saved from The Century between 1882 and 1895 show that she was making a concerted effort to educate herself about literature, music, travel, history, and art long before she became a collector, and even before she moved to Chicago. Like many women with cultural aspirations living in small towns, she turned to magazines as resources she could trust to tell her what she needed to know. 


Mark J. Noonan, Reading The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine: American Literature and Culture, 1870-1893 (Kent State University Press, 2010).

Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1865-1885 (Harvard University Press, 1938).

Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1885-1905 (Harvard University Press, 1957).

Digitized issues of The Century are available through Google Books.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

“Writing with Scissors”: The Scrapbooks of Alice Miner

A page from one of Alice’s scrapbooks
In the years after the Civil War, the American reading public found itself nearly overwhelmed by a flood of inexpensive printed matter. Daily newspapers, weekly journals, and monthly magazines constantly rolled off the printing presses and could be purchased for as little as a penny each. These publications were cheap and disposable, yet they contained much valuable information. The problem was, how to keep up with all this information and be able to find it again when you needed it? Anyone who’s ever found, then lost, a bit of information on the internet will sympathize with this problem. Just as we use bookmarks, RSS feeds, Pinterest, and Tumblr to organize digital information, nineteenth-century readers came up with their own solution to information overload: the scrapbook.

Just about everyone made scrapbooks—men and women, young and old, black and white, rich and poor—and Alice Miner was no exception. The museum’s archives hold three handsome cloth and leather-bound scrapbooks full of articles dating from the 1880s to the early 1900s. Alice saved articles and illustrations from Chicago’s daily papers and from monthly magazines like The Century, Scribner’s, The Critic, and Review of Reviews. Most of the items she collected related to the world of fine art, literature, and history, with occasional forays into religion and current events—thus giving us some useful insight into Alice’s interests in the years before she began the Colonial Collection.

A commonplace book kept by the Rev. Thomas
Austen in the 1770s, in the collection of the
Harvard University Library
The post-Civil War scrapbook has its antecedents in two earlier forms: the commonplace book and the friendship album. Commonplace books were used by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century readers to keep a record of their reading by copying out passages of texts; the technique of keeping a commonplace book was part of the curriculum at many colleges into the nineteenth century. Friendship albums, popular in the early nineteenth century, were portfolios of drawings, prints, verses, and signatures that circulated among friends.

As printed matter became more widely available in the second half of the nineteenth century, clipping and saving pieces of text emerged as an alternative to copying them out by hand. Many Americans began making scrapbooks during the Civil War, as a way of keeping a record of the momentous historical event they were living through. In the 1880s, technological changes in printing, paper-making, and transportation vastly increased the number and geographical range of newspapers and magazines. In 1880, there were 850 English-language daily papers; by 1900 there were 1,967. The large city daily papers might easily have half a million readers each.

An Agricultural Report repurposed as a scrapbook
“Many beautiful, interesting, and useful thoughts come to us through the newspapers, that are never seen in books, where they can be referred to when wanted. When they are gone they are lost.” So wrote E.W. Gurley, the author of Scrap-books and How to Make Them, a comprehensive guide to scrapbooking published in 1880. Gurley gave detailed instructions for choosing a book (he recommended repurposing old U.S. Patent Office Reports), finding and sorting articles, making one’s own glues, and finally pasting the clippings into the scrapbook (“Some will think that anyone can paste a slip of paper in a book, but every one can’t do it properly until they have learned how”). Once the scrapbook was completed, it could be used like any other book: “Read and re-read the best of them; study them and memorize their useful and pleasant thoughts, and you will never regret the time occupied in making your SCRAP-BOOKS.”

Page from Alice’s scrapbook with written
notation added
Historian Ellen Gruber Garvey notes that scrapbooks played an important role for “people in positions of relative powerlessness,” who used their books “to make a place for themselves and their communities by finding, sifting, analyzing, and recirculating writing that mattered to them.” For example, “African-Americans wrote histories unavailable in books by making scrapbooks of clippings from both the black and the white press....In massive compilations—dozens or even hundreds of volumes, in some cases—black people asserted ownership of news and culture.”

For people who, for whatever reason, did not express themselves in their own writing, scrapbooks became a way of “writing with scissors.” Though Alice Miner obviously was highly literate and did write letters and diaries, most of them have not survived to the present day. Her scrapbooks, then, are an important piece of “writing” that helps to fill in our knowledge of her early life. The magazines she read, the articles she saved, and the ways she chose to organize them, all tell us something about her inner life, as well as the way she wished to present herself to the world. In future posts, we’ll take a closer look at Alice’s books.


E.W. Gurley, Scrap-books and How to Make Them: Containing Full Instructions for Making a Complete and Systematic Set of Useful Books (Author’s Publishing Company, 1880).

Susan Tucker, Catherine Ott, and Patricia P. Buckler, eds., The Scrapbook in American Life (Temple University Press, 2006).

Carl F. Kaestle and Janice A. Radway, eds., A History of the Book in America, vol. 4 (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Ellen Gruber Garvey, Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 2013).