Friday, March 10, 2017

A Partner in Collecting: Emma B. Hodge

Publicity photo of Emma B. Hodge
After Alice T. Miner herself, the individual who probably did the most to shape the way the museum looks today is Emma B. Hodge. Her influence is most evident in the ceramic collection, which Alice acquired under her mentorship, but she also donated books, textiles, Japanese prints, and ephemera such as Valentines. An early collector of American folk art, Hodge also played an important role in the Art Institute of Chicago as a patron and a donor.

Emma Blanxius was born in 1862 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the daughter of Christian and Amelia Petterson Blanxius. Like Alice, Emma came from a large family and had three older sisters. By 1870, the Blanxius family had moved to Chicago and as a teenager Emma—whose parents were both immigrants from Sweden—joined the Freja Society, a Swedish and Norwegian choral group. Through the Freja Society she met Walter Hodge, an English immigrant working in a dry-goods store. They were married in 1879 and had three children.

Frank Gunsaulus (left), Emma Hodge (second from right),
and other Central Church Choir members at Heart’s Delight
The 1900 census shows that by that time Hodge was a widow living with her children, her mother, and her sister Jene (both also widowed). She supported her family as a professional musician, singing in the choir of the Central Church in Chicago. This nondenominational church had been established in 1875 and was as much a theatrical venue as it was a religious one. Music was a focal point of its services, and in 1879 it had moved into the newly built Central Music Hall, a multi-use building that held shops and offices along with an auditorium. Emma Hodge had previously been a member of the Plymouth Congregational Church choir, but when its pastor, Frank W. Gunsaulus, moved to Central Church in 1899, she came with him. In addition to singing at church services, the Central Church quartet performed widely throughout the United States, often accompanying Gunsaulus in “musical lectures.”

Quilts from Emma Hodge’s collection on display at
the Art Institute of Chicago, 1915
It’s not clear if Alice Miner originally met Emma Hodge through her friendship with Frank Gunsaulus, or the other way around, but the three of them shared interests in collecting books, ceramics, textiles, and other decorative arts, and were early supporters of the Art Institute of Chicago. Between 1912 and 1915, Hodge and her sister, Jene Bell, lent and then donated over one thousand pieces of American and English ceramics to the Art Institute in honor of their mother Amelia. Hodge also became interested in collecting textiles, particularly quilts and samplers. To Hodge, quilts represented “the story of American women from Jamestown and Plymouth down; the story of their thoughts and hopes and dreams, as well as the skill of their fingers.” Though Hodge and her fellow Colonial Revival-influenced collectors tended to romanticize the past, they also were some of the first people to recognize quilts, samplers, and other women’s work as art.

Embroidered Russian towel
Art Institute of Chicago,
gift of Emma Hodge (1919)
Emma Hodge also understood the power of art and museums to shape public opinion. In 1918 she organized an exhibit at the Art Institute of textiles from Armenia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Russia—all areas that experienced profound suffering during World War I. As one newspaper reporter observed, knowledge of what was currently happening in those regions “looms like a ghost at the feast of enjoyment of color and design.” The beauty of the textiles stood in contrast with the suffering of their makers, and helped to humanize people who might otherwise have seemed distant and foreign to Americans. By generating sympathy for those ravaged by the “war machine,” the exhibit also had the potential to encourage support for organizations like the Red Cross.

Hodge’s 1918 textile exhibit was held in Gunsaulus Hall, a recently opened addition to the Art Institute which had been funded by a $50,000 gift from William and Alice Miner. Even as the Miners turned more of their attention to Chazy and Heart’s Delight Farm, they remained connected to Chicago’s art world through friends like Emma Hodge. As for Emma, she became nationally known as an expert in antiques, and was the frequent recipient of queries from people who believed—or hoped—that they were the owners of some rare and valuable piece. As her obituary notice in the Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago stated, “It was often her uncheering task to reply that these cherished possessions were worth little or nothing, a duty she accomplished with rare tact and kindness.” Until the end of her life in 1928, she remained an “enthusiast and delver into the historical past,” and an “unfailing and patient adviser of the new collector.”


In 1924, Emma Hodge presented Alice Miner with a massive scrapbook of newspaper clippings, programs, photographs, and other material about herself and their mutual friend Frank Gunsaulus. Much of the information in this post comes from the scrapbook. Information was also drawn from Judith A. Barter and Monica Obniski, For Kith and Kin: The Folk Art Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago (2012). 

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