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.