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To see the works of Henri de Toulouse-Laturec and his contemporaries on view now at the Driehaus Museum, visit the L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters exhibition site

There is perhaps no other artist as closely associated with Paris’s ‘Beautiful Age,’ the Belle Époque, than Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. His art of the late 19th century captured the colorful whirlwind of a raucous, modernizing city, from raunchy cabaret promotions to provocative brothel scenes. He was drawn to the avant-garde performers and prostitutes at very edge of society; an outsider himself, his own experiences informed his subjects.

 

The Outsider Aristocrat

Lautrec was born Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, a descendent of one of the oldest and most prestigious French families, on an estate in Albi in southern France. He was his parents’ first child and came from generations of counts and viscounts, but would nonetheless live the life of an outcast as a dwarf. Between the ages of 13 and 14, he broke each of his legs in turn. Neither fully healed and the legs ceased growing, presumably because of a genetic disorder caused by inbreeding in his aristocratic family—his parents were first cousins. Lautrec therefore grew into adulthood with the foreshortened legs of a child below a normal-sized torso. He stood at 4 feet, 8 inches tall, and used a cane to walk with difficulty for the rest of his life.

Photograph of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec at approximately age 3.

Photograph of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec at approximately age 3.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in 1894, at the age of 30.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in 1894, at the age of 30.

Mocked for his physical appearance and prevented from participating in the sports and outdoors activities appropriate for a boy of his background and which he longed to do, Lautrec coped using alcohol. He drank copious amounts, especially the alarmingly potent absinthe. He even hollowed out his walking cane in order to fill it with liquor and always have a drink close by. Highly intelligent and always bitterly aware of how a normal, pleasurable, successful life in society remained out of his grasp due to his deformity, he developed a stinging wit. “I will always be a thoroughbred hitched up to a rubbish cart,” he said.

He also escaped into the world of Parisian brothels, where he surrounded himself with prostitutes. Although known for his louche behavior, he didn’t spend time with these women for sexual pleasure alone. He found a kind of camaraderie in their common status as outsiders. Lautrec was drawn to these women and even adopted them as a kind of family. Fellow painter Édouard Vuillard commented,

 

“Lautrec was too proud to submit to his lot, as a physical freak, an aristocrat cut off from his kind by his grotesque appearance. He found an affinity between his own condition and the moral penury of the prostitute.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec wearing the feathered hat and boa of Jane Avril (daughter of a courtesan, Moulin Rouge dancer, and close friend), ca. 1892.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec photographed wearing the feathered hat and boa of Jane Avril (daughter of a courtesan, Moulin Rouge dancer, and close friend), ca. 1892.

The Sympathetic Artist

Lautrec learned to draw as a child while bedridden with various illnesses. He favored horses as a subject; his father kept a full stable of them in Albi. In 1882, Lautrec moved to Paris at the age of 18 to study art in the studios of Léon Bonnat and Fernand Cormon. At Cormon’s he met other young members of the avant-garde, including Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh and French writer and painter Émile Bernard. Lautrec settled in Montmartre, and became a legendary fixture of the bohemian neighborhood over the next 20 years.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). A Woman and a Man on Horseback, 1879-81. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). A Woman and a Man on Horseback, 1879-81. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). At the Moulin Rouge, 1892/95. The Art Institute of Chicago.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). At the Moulin Rouge, 1892/95. The Art Institute of Chicago.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901).  Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Although Lautrec was an outsider in society and at the fringe of the Paris art world among the avant-garde, he would meet with wide acclaim and financial success through his posters, prints, and illustrations for journals and magazines. His first poster for the Moulin Rouge, The Dance at the Moulin Rouge featuring the striking, bawdy can-can dance of La Goulue (“The Glutton”), catapulted him to overnight success. This and the many so-called commercial works to follow inspired his contemporaries to view posters as fine art; arguably, Lautrec’s greatest masterpieces were advertisements for the famous Moulin Rouge and other eager clients in the entertainment business.

Lautrec didn’t merely observe Paris’s hot spots for the sake of his work. His art and life were inseparable, and he was a celebrated customer at the very brothels and cabarets whose prostitutes and performers he immortalized in his art. The Moulin Rouge even reserved a special front-row seat for him in the nightclub in addition to displaying his paintings. Lautrec formed close relationships with some of Paris’s greatest actresses, singers, and dancers; they were his muses, and, in return, he their publicist. Performers whose careers were supported by his exuberant posters and occasional portraits include American dancer Loië Fuller, French dancer and close friend Jane Avril, and French diseuse Yvette Guilbert. Paul Leclercq, a friend of Lautrec’s, described a typical scene at the Moulin Rouge that captures the spirit of Belle Époque Paris and the harmony between Lautrec’s personal life and work:

“In the midst of the crowd, there was a stir, and a line of people started to form: Jane Avril was dancing, twirling, gracefully, lightly, a little madly; pale, skinny, thoroughbred, she twirled and reversed, weightless, fed on flowers; Lautrec was shouting out his admiration.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Jane Avril, 1899. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Jane Avril, 1899. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Jane Avril, 1893. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Jane Avril, 1893. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Miss Loïe Fuller, 1893. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Miss Loïe Fuller, 1893. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lautrec was a master lithographer, tossing away artistic convention for his own vision and making exceptional use of all the latest innovations in color, texture, and printing. And like many artists of his generation, he drew heavy influence from the Japanese prints that were entering Paris for the first time at the end of the 19th century. He borrowed techniques like outlined areas of flat color, shifts in perspective, cropped compositions, and unusual angles.

One of Lautrec’s most notable achievements is his Elles series. Through these 50 paintings, Lautrec lifted the curtain on the intimate inner lives of the prostitutes he knew. The paintings depict the women in moments of solitude and repose. They aren’t romantic, floating feminine types; nor are they laughing, flirting, bawdy prostitute types; rather, they are real flesh-and-blood individuals. Through these paintings, the viewer enters an introspective, private moment that makes the women seem breathtakingly human.

Much of Lautrec’s work, and the Elles series in particular, reveal an artist who understood, even favored, the people who were consigned to the fringes of society. He showed deep sympathy for them, capturing qualities that they held in common with the rest of humanity, rather than emphasizing what set them apart as outsiders.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Elles (portfolio cover), 1896. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Elles (portfolio cover), 1896. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). The Sofa, ca. 1894-96. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). The Sofa, ca. 1894-96. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Woman Before a Mirror, 1897. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Woman Before a Mirror, 1897. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unfortunately, Lautrec led a lifestyle that far outstripped his body’s ability to cope. He boldly declared at the age of 24, “I expect to burn myself out by the time I’m forty.” He died earlier than his prediction—at the age of 36 in 1901, from the combined effects of alcoholism and syphilis. He left behind a body of work that included 737 canvases, 275 watercolors, 363 prints and posters, 5,084 drawings, ceramics and stained glass work, and an uncounted number of lost works. These, and the spirit of Belle Époque Paris they immortalize, are his legacy which resounds today.

 

 

Resources
“Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec.” The Art Story: Modern Art Insight
“Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec,” by Cora Michael, Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 2010. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/laut/hd_laut.htm
“Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge.” Exhibition June – September 2011, The Courtauld Gallery, London. http://courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/what-on/exhibitions-displays/archive/toulouse-lautrec-and-jane-avril-beyond-the-moulin-rouge
Toulouse Lautrec in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Colta Feller Ives. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1996.

 

This poster for Joseph Bardou Company, or JOB, a Parisian manufacturer of cigarette papers, unabashedly celebrates the sensuous delights of smoking. The young woman’s eyes are closed with pleasure as the lighted cigarette sends a smoky arabesque curving around the image. Her hair cascades around her shoulders and arms, dominating the picture frame. Her white dress, low-cut and gently loose around her body, communicates a freedom only a few women would have enjoyed in the 1890s.

The poster designer, Alphonse Mucha, was a Czech-born artist in his late 30s. He moved to Paris in 1887 seeking fame. There he mastered French Art Nouveau, an avant-garde style that stretched and elongated decorative lines and text into sinouous, vine-like tendrils that seem straight out of a fairy tale. In Mucha’s posters of women—from big-star performers like Sara Bernhardt to imaginary parisiennes—he often applied that Art Nouveau style to their wild, flowing, abundant tresses. These glamorous, larger-than-life posters helped define the place of the female in advertising in the industry’s earliest days.

Job is probably one of Mucha’s best known advertising posters. And it was radical at the time in its depiction of this glamorous woman enjoying freely an activity once reserved for men alone.

There is plenty of evidence that in ancient times, women might have smoked as openly as men. Tobacco was an integral part of Mayan religious rituals, for example. But sometime between then and the 17th century, female smokers in France, Britain, and America came to be seen as, at best, backwards or socially deviant, and at worst, vulgar and immoral. Appalachian mountain women, Breton peasants, or lower-class prostitutes smoked pipes; uneducated factory workers used snuff; and eccentric Bohemians smoked little cigars. In reaction to these stereotypes, a widespread social attitude dictated that respectable women shouldn’t dare associate themselves, however indirectly, with this supposedly unladylike activity. Wild claims about smoking abounded—it gave women mustaches, some said; it made them go insane; said others. In some American school districts, female teachers could be fired for smoking, while no such prohibition existed for men. In 1908, New York passed a law outright prohibiting women from smoking in public.

Women who did smoke—or wore pants, or worked, or rode bicycles—were satirized in cartoons in France and America as the ‘femmes nouvelles,’ or new women. It wasn’t a compliment. These women were breaking down boundaries that held rigid ideas of masculinity and femininity in place, and not everyone welcomed these bold changes.

Left: Postcard depicting a woman in the French region of Brittany, smoking a pipe. Right: Historic photograph of a woman in the Appalachian region of the United States, smoking a pipe.

Left: Postcard depicting a woman in the French region of Brittany, smoking a pipe. Right: Historic photograph of a woman in the Appalachian region of the United States, smoking a pipe.

French lithograph (1840) showing women playing billiards and smoking with men. Based on the time period, this image would indicate they are prostitutes or morally loose women.

French lithograph (1840) showing women playing billiards and smoking with men. Based on the time period, this image would indicate they are prostitutes or morally loose women.

Satirical cartoons about women smoking often indicated a deeper fear about gender roles. Here, a man does laundry while caring for the baby, while his wife and other women women smoke, play cards, and discuss the workday ahead.

Satirical cartoons about women smoking often indicated a deeper fear about gender roles. Here, a man does laundry while caring for the baby, while his wife and other women women smoke, play cards, and discuss the workday ahead.

Cartoon from the 1890s showing a bohemian woman riding a bicycle and smoking a cigarette, wreaking havoc. The sentiment is that women would not be able to handle the same freedoms as men, and would endanger society.

Cartoon from the 1890s showing a bohemian woman riding a bicycle and smoking a cigarette, wreaking havoc. The sentiment is that women would not be able to handle the same freedoms as men, and would endanger society.

 

But in Job, Alphonse Mucha makes smoking seem—well, sexy. This is no old-fashioned rural woman puffing on a little pipe, but an illustrious beauty enjoying a rebellious pleasure. In the early years of the 20th century, when women began agitating for equal rights, smoking—a male activity heretofore held back from women—became a way to subvert those oppressive social norms. By the 1920s smoking was seen as a chic, enlightened activity claimed by independent women who loved to socialize, dance in clubs, and enjoy their freedoms.

Other advertisements and photographs appeared around the same time, many of which were ushered along by a burgeoning tobacco industry that saw women as an untapped market with great potential. These helped continue to transform the smoking taboo into an act that proclaimed your independence, eased stress, and helped you lose weight. In 1929, Lucky Strike Cigarettes hired ten beautiful debutantes to walk, lit cigarettes boldly in hand, in New York’s Easter parade. Others hired famous admirable women, like Amelia Earnhardt, for advertisements. Moves like this followed Mucha’s Job posters in a radical redefining of what smoking could be for women—not deviant, but glamorous.

 

Another poster for Job cigarette papers by Alphonse Mucha, this one from 1897.

Another poster for Job cigarette papers by Alphonse Mucha, this one from 1897.

Aleardo Villa, "Cigarrillos Paris: Son Los Mejores."

Aleardo Villa, “Cigarrillos Paris: Son Los Mejores.”

A 1900 advertisement for Ogden's Guinea Gold Cigarettes, showing a woman on a bicycle in a more positive light. This New Woman is empowered and confident.

A 1900 advertisement for Ogden’s Guinea Gold Cigarettes, showing a woman on a bicycle in a more positive light. This New Woman is empowered and confident.

A highly successful 1929 campaign for Lucky Strikes promoted cigarettes as a way to lose weight.

A highly successful 1929 campaign for Lucky Strikes promoted cigarettes as a way to lose weight.

Audrey Hepburn (1929 - 1993) smoking using a long, slender cigarette holder. The actress and icon smoked heavily from the age of 15, and her drinking and smoking habits were seen as part of her sexual allure.

Audrey Hepburn (1929 – 1993) smoking using a long, slender cigarette holder. The actress and icon smoked heavily from the age of 15, and her drinking and smoking habits were seen as part of her sexual allure.

 

Today, of course, we have a new smoking taboo in our culture. But rather than being based on an arbitrary idea of what is appropriately feminine and masculine, this taboo is based on medical research showing the devastating health effects smoking has on all of us—men and women alike.

 

Resources
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Women and Smoking,” 2001 Mar. A Report of the Surgeon General, Office on Smoking and Health.
Daily Mail, “Tobacco Traces on Mayan Flask Proves Race Did Smoke,” Gavin Allen, 11 January 2012.
Mucha Foundation, Poster for ‘Job’ Cigarette Paper (1896).
POPSUGAR, The History of Women and Smoking, Colleen Barrett, 11 June 11 2012
Stanford School of Medicine, Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising

 

 

The Broadside

The history of the poster starts with black-and-white broadsides in the 1600s, which evolved in the wake of the printing press. These one-sided sheets of paper were a quick way to mass-distribute information. Shopkeepers propped product announcements in their windows; governments called people to action in the event of war; public decrees were quickly distributed. A wanted poster of the old American West would be a classic example of a broadside. The Declaration of Independence is also a famous example; printed as a broadside, news of the victorious revolution spread quickly throughout the American colonies.

dunlap_broadside

The first 150-200 copies of the Declaration of Independence were broadsides, printed by John Dunlap of Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.

chi-fire-broadside

This broadside announced a meeting to take action against the Great Chicago Fire on October 9, 1871. Image via the Chicago History Museum.

A broadside from the 1800s, showing addition of a single color and illustrations to highlight the informational text.

A broadside from the 1800s, showing addition of a single color and illustrations to highlight the informational text.

A Turning Point

Broadsides were an ephemeral form—easily printed, distributed for quick impact, read for the information they contained, and then tossed away. But as time passed and technology advanced, the broadside evolved. Typefaces got a little more interesting—larger, more decorative. Images were added to grab a viewer’s attention.

And then a turning point came in the 19th century in Paris. The poster transcended its role as attention-getting carrier of practical information. It became beautiful. It became desirable. It transformed the gray urban commute into a pleasurable stroll punctuated by cheerful color. It became the passion of a group of aficionados who avidly collected these posters, preserving them from the short life cycle of ephemera. In short, the poster became art.

So how did it happen?

There are a number of factors: the rise of the middle class in Paris with more expendable income for collecting, advances in technology that allowed for larger and more complex poster designs, a multicultural milieu with artists of all types mingling and sharing ideas in Paris’s bohemian neighborhoods, a city redesign that included street furniture designed specifically for posters, and more.

But one of the central factors is the reinvention of lithography, the process by which many posters were made before they became fine art.

And Jules Chéret is the one who reinvented it. Chéret is widely known as the father of the modern poster, and it is in his footsteps that the rest of the major artists in the Driehaus Museum exhibition, L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters, followed.

Jules Chéret (French, 1836 - 1932)

Jules Chéret (French, 1836 – 1932)

Jules Chéret

Chéret was born in 1836, the son of a French typesetter in Paris. He briefly studied drawing, then started training at age 13 in lithography, working as an apprentice and journeyman in Paris and London for 17 years. He got his break when perfume manufacturer Eugène Rimmel hired him as a designer. Soon after he started his own lithographic printing firm in Paris, firmly believing that lithography would soon replace his father’s letterpress industry as the premier printing technique.

Card for Eugène Rimmel, designed by Jules Chéret.

Card for Eugène Rimmel, designed by Jules Chéret.

Jules Chéret's first major poster commission was this one for Jacques Offenbach for his 1858 production of "Orpheus in the Underworld."

Jules Chéret’s first major poster commission was this one for Jacques Offenbach for his 1858 production of “Orpheus in the Underworld.”

Lithography

Lithography wasn’t new. It was invented in 1798 by a Bavarian actor and playwright, Alois Senefelder, to reproduce his scripts. Senefelder’s printing process is simple to understand if you keep in mind that oil and water don’t mix. To make a lithograph, you take a greasy or waxy crayon and draw images or words onto a large, smooth limestone surface. Then you douse the surface of the stone in water and roll it with ink. The greasy drawing repels the water and soaks up the ink, while the wet areas without any drawing repel the ink. So when you press the stone—with considerable force—onto a piece of paper, it transfers the inky images and text onto that paper.

If you wanted a color lithograph, also called a chromolithograph, things got a little more complicated. You had to prepare as many stones as you want colors. It was laborious and the stones were incredibly heavy, so lithographs remained pretty much monochromatic well into the 1860s. If color was utilized at all, it was a little splash as a highlight to the heavily crammed text, and not a core part of the visual design.

litho-stone

An artist drawing on a lithographic stone.

litho-designhistory

Illustration of printing a lithograph. Image via DesignHistory.org.

 

The Artistic Poster

Given the lack of design consideration, low quality, and disposability of earlier commercial lithographs, lithography got a reputation as an unworthy artistic medium. To say that you were making lithographic art in the 19th century would be like printing a full-page advertisement in a glossy beauty magazine today and calling it your chosen artistic medium. It isn’t impossible. It would simply be difficult for many to imagine elevating this medium we associate with makeup advertisements to the realm of museum collections. It was the same with lithography. It suffered from its association with quick and commercial information. There was nothing daring, original, or beautiful about lithography.

That is, until Jules Chéret. Visionary artists often take an idea or form that already exists and transform it so completely that it appears new and original. This was the case with Chéret, who appeared unconstrained by the negative associations with lithography and decided to use it for colorful, cheerful, and vivaciously French artworks. In 1884 Chéret organized the first group poster exhibition in art history, ushering in an era of these images being accepted—and enthusiastically celebrated—as fine art, and in 1886 he published the first book on poster art. Chéret would also eventually work with printing houses that catered to collectors who wanted poster art for their own.

Chéret made advances to lithography in the mid-19th century that others would soon imitate. He designed his own lettering, taking advantage of the fact that the lithograph, as opposed to the printing press, allows for the artist to draw freehand on the stone’s surface. The text therefore became a part of the poster’s overall design. Chéret also reduced the amount of text, leaning heavily on the image to communicate about a product or event. He also simplified the chromolithographic process by using three primary colors: three stones inked with red, yellow, and blue. By making these colors semi-transparent, he could layer them and create different shades. Finally, Chéret approached the limestone in a painterly way, using animated brush lines, crosshatch, stipple, soft watercolor-like washes, and areas of flat color. A fellow chromolithographer, André Mellerio, heralded this fine art of the street, calling the new color poster “the distinctive art of our time.”

Chéret’s creative advances transformed the world of advertising. His posters featured cheerful, lightly clad, often eight-feet tall beauties who became known as Chérettes. Chéret’s women were inspired by the well-heeled, garden-party women of Rococo paintings, a glorious age in France immortalized by artists like Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Jean-Antoine Watteau. These alluring women showcased the pleasures of Paris to tantalizing effect, including music halls, theatres, performers, beverages, medicines, and lamp oil.

Folies-Bergère: La Loïe Fuller, 1893.

Folies-Bergère: La Loïe Fuller, 1893.

Yvette Guilbert: Au Concert Parisien, 1891.

Yvette Guilbert: Au Concert Parisien, 1891.

Théâtrophone, 1890.

Théâtrophone, 1890.

Chéret was recognized in his own time as ‘the king of the poster’. One art critic remarked that “there was a thousand times more talent in the smallest of Chéret’s posters than in the majority of the pictures on the walls of the Paris Salon.” He was often imitated, and an entire generation of artists would follow and build on his work. One of them was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. To acknowledge his debt to the older artist, Lautrec sent Chéret a copy of every poster he produced.

After creating more than a thousand posters in Paris, Chéret retired to Nice in the south of France, where a museum was established in his honor in 1928, four years before the artist died at the age of 96. The Musée des Beaux-Arts Des Nice, as it’s called today, still stands as a testament to the artist’s transformation of the world of fine art.

 

 

 

Resources
Eskilson, Stephen. Graphic Design: A New History
Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Jules Cheret.” Updated July 21, 2009. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jules-Cheret
Graphic Design History’s “History of Posters” series, designhistory.org
Hamilton, Sarah Elizabeth. From Publicity to Intimacy: The Poster in Fin-de-siecle Paris
Ives, Colta. “Lithography in the Nineteenth Century,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan The L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters, essay by Jeannine Falino. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum. The Monacelli Press, New York, 2017.
Museum of Modern Art, gallery labels on works by Jules Chéret (moma.org/collection)
Museum of Art. October 2004. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lith/hd_lith.htm
“A Brief History of Broadsides,” Tavistock Books, blog.tavisbooks.com/?p=12

 

To see more of Sarah Bernhardt and other stars of the French Belle Époque poster, including Yvette Guilbert, Loïe Fuller, and Jane Avril, visit the special exhibition L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posterson view beginning February 11, 2017An entire exhibition gallery is devoted to these celebrated stage performers and the poster artists who made them unforgettable.

Join the discussion about Sarah Bernhardt’s exciting life and legacy in this winter’s book club at the Driehaus Museum, Saturday, February 25! Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt by Robert Gottlieb is the foundation of our discussion about this captivating woman who, despite her scandalous and obscure beginnings, transformed herself into the darling of Paris and one of the most respected actresses who ever lived. For more details and to purchase tickets, click here

 …

Young and stunning, with sculpted eyebrows and a head of rich brunette curls, French actress Sarah Bernhardt first captured the ardor of Paris’s theatre-going elite in the 1870s. The rest of the world’s attention inevitably followed. Admiring critics, resorting to poetic metaphor, likened her voice to pure gold, a nightingale, silver dawn, the stars and moon, and murmuring water.

She was in a class all her own—the Marilyn Monroe of the French Belle Époque. “There are five kinds of actresses,” declared American writer Mark Twain. “Bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses—and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.”

However gifted and alluring she was, stardom like Sarah’s isn’t made in a vacuum. One of the most captivating aspects of her presence actually occurred offstage, along the open boulevards of Paris. Striking promotional posters by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha catapulted Bernhardt from well-respected actress to international icon at the turn of the century, and have proved as lasting memories of her electric mystique. In turn, Bernhardt made Mucha a major success in the lively Parisian art world.

L: Sarah Bernhardt, about 20 years old in ca. 1864 (Photo by Nadar).  R: Alphonse Mucha, self-portrait in his studio, TK.

Sarah Bernhardt, about 20 years old in ca. 1864 (Photo by Nadar). Alphonse Mucha, self-portrait in his Paris studio, early 1890s (The Mucha Trust).

The pair met serendipitously. Alphonse Mucha, a struggling Czech illustrator, was temping at the massive Paris printing firm Lemercier & Compagnie just after Christmas in 1894, while all the steady professional artists were away celebrating the holidays with their families.

Sarah Bernhardt approached Lemercier, desperate for a poster to promote her show debuting just after the New Year at the Théâtre de la Renaissance, a Greek melodrama called Gismonda. She was director and lead actor, playing a widow of the Athenian nobility who pledges herself to a commoner. Bernhardt needed the poster immediately, so Mucha, despite his lack of poster experience, was asked to draw something up for the esteemed actress. He came up with a stylized, monumental, full-sized portrait of the actress in a glorious empire-waist dress and gold-embroidered drapery, her face in dignified profile and crowned with orchids, grasping a palm branch. The lettering was architectural and exotic, mimicking Byzantine mosaic work. Mucha did what creatives in advertising firms still do today: take a real female human’s likeness and reveal a goddess.

Gismonda, 1894. Alphonse Mucha (Czech, 1860-1939).

Gismonda, 1894. Alphonse Mucha (Czech, 1860-1939).

 

Bernhardt absolutely loved it. A week later, billposters had plastered Mucha’s image all over Paris and Bernhardt had offered Mucha a six-year contract to design posters, stage sets, and costumes for her. Posters for La Dame aux Camélias (1896), Lorenzaccio (1896), La Samaritaine (1897), Médée (1898), La Tosca (1898) and Hamlet (1899) followed. Mucha designed them all with the same elongated, full-length format, almost like altarpieces—with Bernhardt in place of a saint. It’s no surprise she became known to her fans as ‘la Divine Sarah.’

posters1

Lorenzaccio, 1896 (left) and La Samaritaine, 1897 (right). Alphonse Mucha (Czech, 1860-1939).

 

posters2

The Tragic Story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, 1899 (left) and La Tosca, 1899 (right). Alphonse Mucha (Czech, 1860-1939).

Mucha’s images held Bernhardt’s likeness before the public imagination, and her fascinating performances burned her there. She is still considered one of the greatest actresses to have ever lived. “Something seemed to burn within her like a consuming flame,” said George Tyler, an American producer. “On the stage she loved and cried, not only with her soul, but with all her body,’ said Jules Lemaître, a French critic.

Sarah Bernhardt was born Henriette-Rosine Bernard, the illegitimate daughter of a Dutch Jewish courtesan, in about 1844. Her ambitions as a teenager to become a nun ceased when her mother’s lover put her onstage, where she found another kind of calling. She performed in works by some of the greatest playwrights of past and present: Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Jean Racine, Eugène Scribe, Voltaire, and Victorien Sardou. She played Cordelia, Cleopatra, Adrienne Lecouvreur, Phédre, Joan of Arc, Desdemona, Marguerite Gautier, and, daringly, Hamlet, as one of the first known women to perform the title role in Shakespeare’s tragedy. She appeared in silent films and lent her face to advertisements. She toured in Europe, the United States, Canada, South America, Australia, and the Middle East. She owned her own theatre, the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, producing and directing plays as well as acting in them, and training young actors. She toured onstage and acted on film sets well into her 70s, and never retired—she was in the midst of a film project when she died. A few fragments of film and audio survive: here she is as Hamlet (video); as Elizabeth Queen of England (video); in Le Samaritaine (audio); and Phédre (audio).

Bernhardt was arguably the world’s first international star, setting a course for celebrity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Predictably, her personal life was the subject of much fascination, and her adventures did not disappoint: there was an affair at age 20 with a Belgian prince resulting in an adored illegitimate son, Maurice; a duel proposed by gentlemen defending her honor from journalists; marriage to a foreign man 12 years her junior; an affair with a 27-year-old leading man at age 66; other affairs with the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), Victor Hugo, and other famous men. She injured her knee during a dramatic moment in a performance in Rio de Janiero and, as gangrene set in a year later, wrote another of her lovers, a great doctor, demanding her own leg’s removal.

Photograph by William and Daniel Downey, London.

Photograph by William and Daniel Downey, London.

1882. Photograph by Nadar.

1882. Photograph by Nadar.

1885. Photograph by William Downey.

1885. Photograph by William Downey.

1891. Photograph by Napoleon Sarony.

1891. Photograph by Napoleon Sarony.

 

1922. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

1922. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

In March 1923, Bernhardt died in Paris. She was 78 years old. Her death induced a worldwide lament. The L.A. Times published a somber announcement: “There is but one sentence today on the lips of Paris – ‘Bernhardt is dead.’ It has been uttered alike by concierges and Cabinet ministers, midinettes and princesses. One hears it spoken softly in cafes and whispered in churches.”

Her funeral, as you’ll see in this video, was a grand, majestic affair. Hundreds of thousands of devoted fans thronged the boulevards of Paris to mourn and pay their respects. For those unable to attend, one might purchase a memorti mori of ‘Divine Sarah,’, an Ophelia-like funereal photograph taken decades years earlier, in which the young actress poses, eyes closed and hands clasped, in the coffin she kept in her room.

Sarah Bernhardt posing in a coffin, late 19th century.

Sarah Bernhardt posing in a coffin, late 19th century.

 

c. 1880. Photography by Sarony.

c. 1880. Photography by Sarony.

In death, as in life, Alphonse Mucha’s masterpieces–in which Sarah is monumentally, vibrantly alive–secured this great performer’s immortality in the cultural imagination.

 

Resources

Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt’s Leg,” History Today, by Richard Cavendish, 2 February 2015.

Jewish Women’s Archive: Sarah Bernhardt,” by Elana Shapira

Face of Great Actress Subtle Even in Death,” LA Times, March 23, 1923

The Mucha Foundation, “Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt’s Dramatic Life, Onstage and Off,” NPR book review of Sarah by Robert Gottlieb, September 24, 2010, by Glenn C. Altschuler.

 
 

World’s Fair Puck

Lindsey Howald Patton —  November 1, 2016 — 1 Comment

In 1893, Chicago put on a fair that would awe the world. The World’s Columbian Exposition, so called in honor of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, displayed the most fascinating innovations and arts of the period in one grand place. The fair organizers envisioned a 630-acre park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted of New York Central Park fame, filled with bone-white neoclassical buildings by such eminent architects as Henry Ives Cobb, Richard Morris Hunt, Charles McKim, and Louis Sullivan.

Jackson Park itself was a wonder, and it also exhibited wonders. Visitors saw life-size reproductions of Columbus’s three ships, a 1,500-pound Venus de Milo made entirely of chocolate, a 70-foot tower of light bulbs, an 11-ton block of Canadian cheese, and the world’s first Ferris Wheel. The ‘Street in Cairo,’ a re-creation of the medieval city, immersed fairgoers in exotic Egyptian dance, architecture, and animals. Other cultures were likewise on display in attractions such as the Turkish Village, Dutch Settlement, Indian Village, Esquimix Village, Japanese Ho-o-den, Old Vienna, and German Village. Eadweard Muybridge showed the world’s first moving pictures, Louis Comfort Tiffany stunned with his magnificent chapel, and Frederick Pabst won a blue ribbon for his beer.

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The Grand Basin. The World’s Columbian Exposition, Jackson Park, Chicago, Illinois, 1893.

 

Puck—the first successful humor magazine in the United States, and at the peak of its popularity—also joined the world’s fair fray.

Puck positioned itself not only on the cutting edge of satire in America, but also on the cutting edge of printing technology. As the first magazine to print brilliant full-color cartoons each week, Puck showed off the emerging technique of chromolithography. So the fair organizers invited Puck founder Joseph Keppler and his partner, Adolph Schwarzmann, to give fairgoers an open-air demonstration of their process.

 

Joseph Keppler, founder of Puck magazine.

Joseph Keppler, founder of Puck magazine.

 

Keppler and Schwarzmann left New York for Chicago, launched a special World’s Fair Puck edition, and produced it on-site in Jackson Park, displaying their irreverent editorial style and chromolithographic technique for the fair’s nearly 26 million visitors. The fair organizers awarded Puck a central location in one of the “cheerful little pavilions” between the Horticultural Building and Women’s Building. Each week from May to October, they produced twenty-six issues from their McKim, Mead & White-designed Puck Building, while the parent magazine continued its regular weekly production schedule in New York.

Cover of the May 1, 1893 edition of World’s Fair Puck featuring a politely welcoming Puck. The caption reads, “GREETING. Will you walk into my workshop? Do not pass it on the fly, /—For to see how Puck is printed will delight your mind and eye: /And I only hope the people of the world will give to me /A welcome half as hearty as their welcome here will be!”

Cover of the May 1, 1893 edition of World’s Fair Puck featuring a politely welcoming Puck. The caption reads, “GREETING. Will you walk into my workshop? Do not pass it on the fly, /—For to see how Puck is printed will delight your mind and eye: /And I only hope the people of the world will give to me /A welcome half as hearty as their welcome here will be!”

Puck Building. Image from digitized record of The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: A Photographic  Record, Photos from the Collections of the Avery Library of Columbia University and the Chicago Historical Society by Stanley Appelbaum, 1980.

Puck Building. Image from digitized record of The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: A Photographic
Record, Photos from the Collections of the Avery Library of Columbia University and the Chicago Historical Society by Stanley Appelbaum, 1980.

 

 

At just twelve pages, World’s Fair Puck was about a third of the size of regular Puck. But each page packed just as powerful a satirical punch, with a few favorite themes that were revisited again and again.

 

The Country Boy in the Big City

The idea of an unwitting Midwestern “hayseed” bumbling around in the cosmopolitan world of Chicago provided plenty of laughs for readers.

But Keppler often backed the working classes against the rich, and couldn’t resist taking a shot at the fair organizers’ ticket prices. Labor unions had petitioned for the exposition to open on Sundays so working class families could attend. Even after a series of lawsuits resulted in the organizers’ agreement to the deal, few of Chicago’s factory workers could afford the price. World’s Fair Puck pointed out that “had you taken a microscope to aid you last Sunday, you would hardly have found a trace of the Workingman, whom Sunday-opening was expected to benefit.”

In a twist on this class theme, World’s Fair Puck poked fun at Midwesterners in general, depicting them as uncouth compared to high society in the Eastern U.S. In one issue, a Chicago hostess interviews a new butler. “Well, if, as you say, you lived in all the fin de siècle Boston houses, perhaps you may do for me,” she says. “But I must test you with a few questions first.” Her question reveals her inexperience, however: “In arranging the table for a ladies’ luncheon party, where would you put the toothpicks?”

 

Chicagoans Versus New Yorkers

Chicago and New York competed fiercely with one another to host the World’s Columbian Exposition, so this theme was especially in force before the fair opened. The cartoon below represents the tussle between Chicagoans and New Yorkers for the prestigious honor, a Lady Liberty figure at center representing the fair. She stands between Chicago—the cowboy, left—and New York—the statesman, at right. Her preference for the statesman, with his carefully laid plans, is clear. But the wild Chicago cowboy lassos the reluctant World’s Columbian Exposition and ropes her in. The smoke from his gun contains the words “Wind.” New Yorkers thought smooth-talking Chicago politicians were ‘full of hot air,’ as the saying goes, resulting in the nickname the “Windy City.”

“Between the Rip Snorting and the Slow-Going Wooers.” Puck, C.J. Taylor.

“Between the Rip Snorting and the Slow-Going Wooers.” Puck, C.J. Taylor.

 

Anthropological Encounters

World’s Fair Puck made much of the inevitable strangeness and intimacy of Americans coming face-to-face for the first time with people brought from as far as Egypt, Benin, Java, or Alaska.

The fair made these exotic people into a kind of living diorama, showcasing their crafts, dress, architecture, and diet. World’s Fair Puck took easy shots when joking about the cultural differences, often leaving political correctness far behind. For example, one cartoon depicted a large Eskimo woman roasting in her furs during the hot Chicago summer, while a man from Dahomey (a now-defunct African monarchy), with only a leaf skirt and battle shield, shivers. Romance—and a costume swap—ensues, with the title “A Climatic Change.”

 

"A Climatic Change:  A Romance Antipodeon of the World's Fair." World's Fair Puck, 1893.

“A Climatic Change: A Romance Antipodeon of the World’s Fair.” World’s Fair Puck, 1893.

 

Others were blatantly racist. The cartoon below, entitled “Darkies’ Day at the Fair,” is an example of prevailing racism that placed people of color at the bottom of the social hierarchy and enforced cruel stereotypes.

 

“Darkies’ Day at the Fair (A Tale of Poetic Retribution).” Frederick Burr Opper, World’s Fair Puck, 1893. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

“Darkies’ Day at the Fair (A Tale of Poetic Retribution).” Frederick Burr Opper, World’s Fair Puck, 1893. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

 

 

Hurrah for the Red, White and Blue!

Other World’s Fair Puck cartoons put biting humor aside for a moment to celebrate what brings us together. The Fourth of July and closing ceremonies were two occasions for patriotism, as you see in the cartoons below.

 

“Hurrah for the Red, White and Blue!” Joseph Keppler, World’s Fair Puck, July 3, 1893.

“Hurrah for the Red, White and Blue!” Joseph Keppler, World’s Fair Puck, July 3, 1893.

 

“Grand Finale of the Stupendous Spectacular Success, ‘Uncle Sam’s Show.’” Frederick Burr Opper, World’s Fair Puck, 1893. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. The cartoon shows people from all over the world, including Africa, Italy, and Japan, joining hands with America to celebrate the end of the fair. In the text below, Uncle Sam sings: “It’s done, it’s done! The show and fun / We’ve had for six months past; / I’ve made the world stare / At my wonderful Fair, / And swear that nothing could compare / With the beautiful, wonderful things seen here -- / But the end has come, at last. / And now, it’s over, we thank you all / For giving so hearty a curtain call; / And you all agree with me, I guess, / That it’s been a howling, big success!” Then the “chorus of all nations” sings, “For he’s a jolly good fellow.”

“Grand Finale of the Stupendous Spectacular Success, ‘Uncle Sam’s Show.’” Frederick Burr Opper, World’s Fair Puck, 1893. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. The cartoon shows people from all over the world, including Africa, Italy, and Japan, joining hands with America to celebrate the end of the fair. In the text below, Uncle Sam sings: “It’s done, it’s done! The show and fun / We’ve had for six months past; / I’ve made the world stare / At my wonderful Fair, / And swear that nothing could compare / With the beautiful, wonderful things seen here — / But the end has come, at last. / And now, it’s over, we thank you all / For giving so hearty a curtain call; / And you all agree with me, I guess, / That it’s been a howling, big success!” Then the “chorus of all nations” sings, “For he’s a jolly good fellow.”

 

World’s Fair Puck would be the final innovation in Joseph Keppler’s career, although the parent magazine stayed in circulation until 1918. He worked at a feverish pace during the fair, amid working conditions that weren’t exactly ideal. Like the other Columbian Exposition buildings, the Puck Building was made of plaster, only meant to be a temporary, albeit grandiose, shelter for editorial and printing activities that summer. It was uncomfortably hot inside, and the tensions arose between writers and artists who were working while on public display. Keppler never recovered from the strain of the fair. He become ill with, according to his obituary in The New York Times, “a nervous disorder due to overwork,” and died in his home on the Upper East Side in February 1894.

 

 

RESOURCES
“Joseph Keppler and ‘Puck’” by Anne Evenhaugen. Smithsonian Libraries Unbound, December 12, 2012.
https://blog.library.si.edu/2012/12/joseph-keppler-and-puck/#.V2Gx-5MrKHo
“Death of Joseph Keppler, A Noted Caricaturist and Part Owner of Puck.” The New York Times, February 20, 1894. 
PUCK: What Fools These Mortals Be! by Michael Alexander Kahn and Richard Samuel West, 2014.
Coming of Age in Chicago: The 1893 World’s Fair and the Coalescence of American Anthropology by Ira Jacknis, Donald McVicker, and James Snead. University of Nebraska Press, 2016.
Perfect Cities: Chicago’s Utopias of 1893, by James Burkhart Gilbert. University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Popular Culture and The Enduring Myth of Chicago, 1871-1968, Lisa Krisoff Boehm. Routledge, 2004.
“The World’s Columbian Exposition”, The Chicago Historical Society, 1999. www.chicagohs.org/history/expo/html.
World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, made available by the Paul V. Gavin Library Digital History Collection – Illinois Institute of Technology.
Zinc Sculpture in America, 1850-1950 by Carol A. Grissom. Associated University Presse, 2009.

Frederick Walton, Gilded Age Inventor

Standing on the shoulders of the Industrial Revolution, the Gilded Age spawned an astounding number of inventions that profoundly changed life inside the American household. Those last few decades of the 19th  century will always be known as a great era of invention. Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb and built the first power station; he also gave us the phonograph for listening to music and the kinetoscope for watching motion pictures. Alexander Graham Bell created the telephone. Eastman Kodak produced the first camera for amateurs. Dr. John Pemberton sold the first bottles of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. John Kellogg accidentally discovered flaked cereal and changed American breakfast forever.

Frederick Walton isn’t as famous as Edison or Kellogg, but his defining invention is just as ubiquitous as Frosted Flakes. Walton, an inventor from England, gave the world linoleum.

Walton started his career working with his father and brother in a small family workshop where they manufactured India rubber (natural rubber made from the sap of the rubber tree, and a favored waterproof industrial material).

In 1855, Walton happened to notice the way a used can of oil-based paint would develop a thick, leathery ring around the lid. The flaxseed oil in the paint seemed to slowly oxidize and harden over time. “It occurred to me that…I could use it as a…waterproofing material, similar to [natural] india rubber,” Walton wrote. After figuring out how to fast-track the natural oxidization process by boiling the oil, he began to experiment with the material’s durability, attempting to dissolve the plastic-like oxidized oil in a solvent, or seeing how it took to water, oil, or heat. It was—as you know, if you’ve ever had a linoleum floor—impervious. It was also cheaper than India rubber.

In 1863, Walton took out a patent for the “Improvement of the Manufacture of a Wax Cloth for Floors”. He used straightforward Latin for the name of his new material—flax, also known as linseed (Latin: linum), and oil (Latin: oleum). The ingredients and process he outlined in this and subsequent patents—oxidized linseed oil mixed with coal dust, cork or sawdust and resin, and pressed into sheets with electric rollers—are almost identical to that of 21st-century linoleum. In 1864, Walton launched the Linoleum Manufacturing Company in Staines-Upon-Thames.

2008-02-22_092738-Treehugger-linoleum

Statue of linoleum workers on the high street of Staines-Upon-Thames, England, commemorating the workers of Walton's factory.

Statue of linoleum workers on the high street of Staines-Upon-Thames, England, commemorating the workers of Walton’s factory.

Factory workers inlaying linoleum flooring.

Factory workers inlaying linoleum flooring.

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Linoleum became increasingly recognized as an inexpensive and easy-to-clean decorative material for dining rooms, passages, and kitchens. This illustration from the 1920s advertises an attractively painted linoleum rug.

This illustration from the 1920s advertises an attractively painted linoleum rug.

Linoleum became increasingly recognized as an inexpensive and easy-to-clean decorative material for dining rooms, passages, and kitchens. So what was initially meant for commercial and industrial use—protecting factory floors, for example—migrated into European and American households. Subsequent linoleum companies hired artists to paint decorative designs on the flooring surface, eventually integrating pigments in the manufacturing process. Molds and stencils created texture and inlaid patterns for hallways or carpet surrounds, until the material hit the height of popularity as 20th-century kitchen flooring.

 

From Linoleum to Lincrusta

Linoleum may have been a practical material, but Lincrusta-Walton would be a beautiful one. Walton patented this material, thinner than linoleum and beautifully sculpted with artistic patterns, in 1877. Again, the term is Latin, lin for linseed oil and crusta for a hardened material like plaster or stucco.

LIN_02

Walton outlined a manufacturing process similar to that of linoleum—oxidized linseed oil  blended with wood fiber, gum, resin, and paraffin wax and spread onto a canvas or paper backing. But once embossed by rollers and skillfully painted after installation, this new material could pose as hand-tooled leather, repoussé metal, carved wood, or ornate plasterwork—all coveted top-end home finishes during the Gilded Age. (Business-minded Walton was well aware from the beginning of Lincrusta’s copy-cat abilities; the first patterns he designed were imitations of Cordovan leather, a Renaissance mark of prestige.) Lincrusta was far less expensive than what it imitated, and as a new middle class of Americans with disposable income began to design and build grand homes in New York, Boston, and Chicago, provided an expanded palette for interiors striving for extravagance. By 1885, Beck & Co.—a Connecticut firm licensed by Walton’s firm—offered 150 different patterns of Lincrusta inspired by Egyptian, Greek, Persian, Moorish, Japanese, Medieval, Renaissance, Louis XIV, and Eastlake motifs.

Lincrusta would be purchased unpainted in an embossed pattern.

Lincrusta would be (and is still today) purchased unpainted in an embossed pattern, such as this one featuring  acanthus leaves.

 

Lincrusta wainscoting painted to resemble wood in an 1890 Boston home.

Lincrusta wainscoting painted to resemble wood in an 1890 Boston home.

Lincrusta lost none of the practical applications it shared with linoleum, however, and advertisements called it the “indestructible wallcovering.” Indeed, it proved waterproof, easy to clean, insect-resistant, and less prone to warping or cracking over time. Decorators and tastemakers enthusiastically recommended Lincrusta be applied to walls as dados, fills, and friezes.

 

Lincrusta at the Driehaus Museum

The Dining Room of the Nickerson Mansion (Fisher Period, ca. 1900).

The Dining Room of the Nickerson Mansion (Fisher Period, ca. 1900).

Lincrusta took the American nouveaux riche by storm, appearing in six luxury cabins aboard the fated ship RMS Titanic, in the White House, and John D. Rockefeller’s New York home.

For their new mansion in 1883, the Nickersons blended the latest in building technologies, such as fireproofing and indoor plumbing, with the latest in fashionable interior design.  Lincrusta featured prominently in the Dining Room and Smoking Room of the residence. In the Dining Room, the wall fill above the elaborately carved oak wainscoting emulates Spanish leather. Its design—embossed and scrolling leaves, painted burgundy and highlighted with gold by master artisans on-site—is inspired by the Renaissance. In the Smoking Room, the Lincrusta frieze featured a Japanesque pattern of red, black, and gold chrysanthemums.

When restoration of the Nickerson Mansion commenced in 2004, the Lincrusta in the Dining Room showed damage from objects hung on the walls, including framed paintings and stuffed animal heads.

When restoration of the Nickerson Mansion commenced in 2004, the Lincrusta in the Dining Room showed damage from objects hung on the walls, including framed paintings and stuffed animal heads.

 

Detail of the Japanesque chrysanthemum pattern on the Lincrusta upper frieze in the Nickerson Mansion Smoking Room.

Detail of the Japanesque chrysanthemum pattern on the Lincrusta upper frieze in the Nickerson Mansion Smoking Room.

During the 2004-08 restoration of the Samuel M. Nickerson Mansion, conservators found the Lincrusta had survived. But a hundred years’ worth of grime, salt, and nicotine stained its surface, and decorations (the Nickersons hung paintings, and the mansion’s second owners, the Fishers, displayed stuffed animal heads on the walls) had damaged it further. Late 19th-century advertisers had perhaps exaggerated Lincrusta’s strength; the material is actually more brittle and delicate than the hard materials it emulated. Care needed to be taken with cleaning so as not to damage it further. Parma Conservation, a Chicago firm, designed a unique solution to meticulously lift the grime without damaging the painted surface. Fill for missing areas was cast from molds taken from the intact Lincrusta, then painted to match. Today, the Lincrusta is luminous, complementing the sheen of the beautifully restored wood paneling in both rooms, as it did in 1883.

 

The Dining Room of the Nickerson Mansion after restoration.

The Dining Room of the Nickerson Mansion after restoration.

 

 

“Take one step inside the Nickerson Mansion and its splendor is obvious. Yet behind every architectural detail there are hidden stories. They are the stories of the craftsmen and artisans who created the carved mantles, tiled mosaics, scrolled marble capitals, and elaborately painted decorative schemes on the walls and ceilings within the house. It would be almost impossible today to find artisans capable of producing such exquisite details—the necessary skills are all but extinct.”  (Peter Schoenmann, Head Conservator of Paintings and Murals, Parma Conservation)

 

Resources
“Lincrusta-Walton: Can the Democratic Wallcovering be Revived?” Bruce Bradbury. The Old-House Journal, Vol. X No. 10, October 1892.
“Linoleum,” Bonnie Wehle Parks Snyder. Twentieth-Century Building Materials: History and Conservation. Edited by Thomas C. Jester (Getty Publications, 2004).
“Linoleum: A Chiswick Invention,” Ralph Parsons. Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal No. 5 (1996).
“Added Dimensions,” Lynn Elliott. Old House Interiors, Summer 2004.
“Conservation of Lincrusta-Walton Wall Coverings at the Nickerson House,” The Richard H. Driehaus Museum. http://www.driehausmuseum.org/pdf_documents/Driehaus_Museum_Lincrusta.pdf

This post is part of a series exploring the stories behind the Driehaus Museum’s latest exhibition, With a Wink and a Nod: Cartoonists of the Gilded AgeFor information on visiting the exhibition, click here

puck-logo

The Puck of Puck magazine isn’t exactly Bacchus from ancient myth. Nor does he really resemble the “knurly limed, faun faced, and shock-pated” creature from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Rather, he looks like cherub dressed as up a Gilded Age dandy—complete with a top hat and frock coat. The coat is left wide open to expose his chubby nude figure, and in his hands he holds the keys to Puck’s reign of American humor: a fountain pen and a hand mirror.

This is how Puck appeared in Puck magazine. This is also how he appears on the Puck Building exterior in New York City. Two gilded statues of this mischievous character still stand sentry outside the historic building, where, from 1887 to 1916, Puck turned out page after satirical page.

 

puck-statue

Statue of Puck above the Puck Building entrance. Image via The Bowery Boys: New York City History (boweryboyshistory.com), 24 April 2009.

The Austrian-born publisher of Puck, Joseph Keppler, commissioned the building in 1885. He’d launched an English-language version of his small German satirical magazine seven years ago, and Puck had become a milestone in the history of American humor, with circulation hitting 80,000 in the early 1880s and climbing to 90,000 by the end of the decade. Riding the tide of success, Keppler, along with printer Adolph Schwartzmann and lithographer J. Ottman went in together on a property on the edge of the great publishing district of New York City. They hired German-born New York architect Albert Wagner to envision what would become one of the most iconic buildings in Lower Manhattan. The seven-story structure occupied an entire city block. King’s Handbook of New York City called it “the largest building in the world devoted to the business of lithographing and publishing, having a floor area of nearly eight acres.”

Albert Wagner worked out a design for Keppler that reflected a distinctly German style of Romanesque and Renaissance Revival architecture, called Rundbogenstil. The repeating arches—Rundbogenstil literally means “round-arch style”—and intricate brickwork are hallmarks of this short-lived but popular late nineteenth-century style. Romanesque Revival’s popularity is tied to Henry Hobson Richardson (a New York architect known in Chicago for the Glessner House), but Wagner’s Romanesque Revival is different from Richardson’s. Richardsonian Romanesque is a tad heavier, with rusticated stone and squat columns, while Rundbogendstil has smooth facades and an elegant lightness.

puck building 1888

Puck Building Exterior, 1895, from King’s Photographic View of New York, via Daytonian in Manhattan. (daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)

Haas Puckbldg sketch

Puck Building, Richard Haas, 1971. Image via The Old Print Shop, New York, oldprintshop.com.

puck building west

The massive brick building was constructed in three phases—the original structure was finished in 1885-86, expanded in 1892-93 to make more room for Puck printing, and altered in 1899 to make up for the intrusion of Lafayette Street into its footprint. Wagner closely supervised all three stages, giving cohesion to the building’s overall design. Seemingly endless arches of varying heights define three vertical sections of the façade, the richly colored brick contrasted by polished gray granite blocks, brownstone, and ornamental ironwork.

Little is known about Albert Wagner. He settled in New York in 1871 and worked for Leopold Eidlitz, a prominent Bohemian architect who may have passed his passion for Rundbogendstil on to his protégée. While Wagner never became as famous as Eidlitz, he kept up a busy stream of commissions for residential, commercial, and industrial buildings during his career. He died in 1898, leaving his firm and the final touches on the Puck Building’s last addition in the hands of his relative Herman Wagner.

The Puck team advertised their arrival in the neighborhood with typical tongue in cheek, topping off the building with statues of their mascot, larger than life and gleaming with gold leaf. Sculpted by Henry Baerer, the German-born artist known for his stern-faced bust of Beethoven in New York’s Central Park, the largest Puck statue stands above the building’s main entrance on Houston and Mulberry Street. (Another, smaller Puck is stationed above the Lafayette entrance.) The chubby sprite holds a hand mirror—the better to reflect society’s follies with—as well as a fountain pen. At his side hangs a book inscribed with his character’s jest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “What fools these Mortals be!”

Puckbldg

Keppler, Udo J., , Artist. Puck: “Congratulations, Mr. President; they wanted you” / Keppler. N.Y.: J. Ottmann Lith. Co., Puck Bldg., November 9, 1904. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2011645584. Illustration shows Puck reaching from the Puck Building to the White House to congratulation Theodore Roosevelt for winning the presidential election; they are shaking hands.

NYU_Puck_Building (1)

The building housed the Puck editorial team and the J. Ottmann Lithography Company, which produced the groundbreaking full-color images for Puck ‘s front cover, back cover, and centerfold. They were joined by a number of other businesses, including a bookbindery, hat frame manufacturer, electrotyping company, and hat shop on the ground floor.

790px-Puck_Building

Puck printed its last issue in 1918. So what is the Puck Building today? In 1980, Kushner Companies acquired the building for office and retail space. And in 2011, they got approval from the Landmarks Commission to transform the upper floors of the Puck Building into six penthouses—think Italian marble baths, mahogany-framed windows, William McIntosh floor patterns, televisions inside the mirrors. Luckily, the renovation preserved elements of the building’s original identity. The barrel-vaulted brick ceilings and architectural columns were left exposed, and Puck Penthouse’s brand style even borrows from the magazine’s masthead.

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PuckPenthouses2

Puck Penthouses (Image via Curbed New York)

PuckPenthouses

Puck Penthouses (Image via Curbed New York)

 

Want to learn more about the magazine printed in the Puck building during its heyday? Puck‘s illustrations changed the shape of American humor. Join us for next week’s exhibition lecture with Janel Trull, curator of the exhibition With a Wink and a Nod: Cartoonists of the Gilded Age, on Thursday, September 8.

 

 

 

SOURCES
Finn, Robin. “Penthouses for the Puck Building.” The New York Times, Sept. 19, 2013.
Gaiter, Dorothy J. “Restored Puck Building Opens Today.” The New York Times, Apr. 20, 1983.
PUCK BUILDING, 295-309 Lafayette Street, Borough of Manhattan. Landmarks Preservation Commission, April 12, 1983, Designation List 164. LP-1226. Accessed via Neighborhood Preservation Center. (neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/1983PuckBuilding.pdf)
Puck Penthouses, puckpenthouses.com
“The Puck Building—Houston and Lafayette Streets”, Daytonian in Manhattan. 19 Jan 2011. http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/puck-building-houston-and-lafayette.html

Branson: “Why do the rituals, the clothes, and the customs matter so much?” 

The Dowager Countess:Because without them we would be like the wild men of Borneo.”

Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII, had a brief reign from 1901 to 1910, but it was a decade marked by peace and prosperity at the height of the British Empire. The Edwardian period was indeed a “Gilded Age,” both in England and America. Yet social relationships were strictly defined, and interactions among and between the classes were governed by a series of complex and rigid rules—what we would call “manners”. The etiquette of the Edwardian era was second nature to the people who lived during this period, but to us it’s the fascinating behavior of a unique cultural moment.

King Edward and Queen Alexandra.

King Edward and Queen Alexandra.

Edwardians never, for example, shook hands. Women never removed their gloves in public. Men removed their hats in the presence of a superior, but not for a member of the lower classes. An Edwardian hostess carefully predetermined every aspect of a dinner party—not only the menu and seating arrangements, but even topics of conversation during the meal.

Alastair Bruce with actor Hugh Bonneville on the set of Downton Abbey.

Alastair Bruce with actor Hugh Bonneville on the set of Downton Abbey.

These are just a few of the kinds of details Alastair Bruce, historical advisor to Downton Abbey® (as well as films such as The King’s Speech and The Young Victoria), has to remember as he works with actors. It’s his job to ensure they mind their Edwardian manners perfectly, from ramrod-straight posture to perfectly starched collars.

Through the lens of Bruce’s work on Downton Abbey, as seen in the PBS documentary The Manners of Downton Abbey, let’s take a look at Edwardian etiquette and how it reigned in every corner of daily life.

 …

Servants & Masters

The servants of Downton. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

The servants of Downton. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

“You are a footman, and a footman wears gloves,” says Mr. Carson, the butler of Downton Abbey, in a tone that brooks no argument. The footmen were like the peacocks of an Edwardian country house, impressive to look at and always on display, whether greeting guests at the doorstep or serving them in the dining room. Nearly always well-dressed young men, the footmen represented crisp formality and quiet grandeur on behalf of the entire estate. A tall or particularly good-looking footman would even earn a higher salary than the other members of the household staff.

However necessary the footmen and other servants may have been, they were never, however, thanked. Notice how the Crawleys and their aristocratic peers never say, “Oh, thank you!” to the servants when they bring a cup of tea, lace up a corset, or open a door? This isn’t ungratefulness, however, but simply a matter of practicality, explains Alastair Bruce in The Manners of Downton Abbey. The servants did everything for their masters, and if thanks were given, it would be necessary to say them at least sixty times a day. That would be, as the English say, tiresome.

Etiquette wasn’t just reserved for the relationship between servant and master. A unique set of rules also governed a hierarchy within the servant class itself. The butler and housekeeper were at the head of this group in terms of dignity, authority and earnings. Then came the cook, valets, ladies’ maids, and footmen; last of all were the parlor maids, laundry maids, kitchen maids, dishwashers, and stable grooms. Even among one group of servants you would have minor differences. The first footman served the meat, for example, the choicest course; while the second footman served a minor sauce or side. The under cook was considered an apprentice to the chef, while the kitchen maids were only assistants. The order in which servants sat at their own downstairs dining room table reflected this microcosm of the class system.

 …

Socializing

An afternoon tea outdoors, image via Code of the Gentleman.

An afternoon tea outdoors, image via Code of the Gentleman.

All social interactions, formal or informal, were occasions that required a complex set of rules to govern behavior. Take a look at this list taken from instructions for giving a formal afternoon tea in 1904—it just scratches the surface of expectations and norms for this period.

 

  • Cards must be issued as invitations three weeks in advance.
  • Men should wear a long frock coat with single or double-breasted waistcoat to match; gray trousers; white linen; light tie; silk hat; gray gloves; patent leather shoes.
  • Awnings and carpet should be provided from curb to house.
  • A footman must meet guests as they arrive at the curb to open their carriage doors, and another should open the front door “the moment a guest appears at the top step.”
  • Guests should leave their cards in the tray in the hall before entering the drawing room. The butler then announces them as they enter. Those who cannot attend should send their cards by mail or messenger to the hostess, timed to arrive during the afternoon tea.
  • On entering, women precede the men.
  • The hostess should be just within the drawing room door to receive the guests. If she has daughters who have come out in society, they should receive the guests, then mingle with them “to help to make the function a success.”
  • The hours are from 4 to 7 p.m. Guests should not come at the opening hour, nor stay until the last moment.

 

Even in casual or unplanned moments, including with friends and family, it was important to keep oneself under control. The British are famously described as having a “stiff upper lip,” showing no inappropriate bursts of affection or anger. Alastair Bruce coaches the actors of Downton Abbey, especially those who play characters who most want to uphold the traditional way of life (including Lady Mary, her grandmother the Dowager Countess of Grantham, and the butler Mr. Carson), never to slip on this point. They can’t pat someone’s shoulder, offer a hug, clink glasses, or even say “I love you,” no matter how natural it would seem. Controlled politeness must govern their every word and expression. As William Ernest Henley put it in his classic Victorian poem, “Invictus,” “I am the captain of my soul.”

 …

Courtship and Chaperons

Lady Edith dines alone with a married man. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Lady Edith dines alone with a married man. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Lady Edith commits a bold indiscretion when she dines unchaperoned with (married!) magazine editor Michael Gregson in Season 4 of Downton Abbey. She’s defying some of the most stringent rules of all, those which governed the interactions between men and women. The American queen of etiquette, Emily Post, declared in 1922, “Absolutely no lady (unless middle-aged—and even then she would be defying convention) can go to dinner or supper in a restaurant alone with a gentleman.”

“As a matter of fact,” Post writes, “the only young girl who is really ‘free,’ is she whose chaperon is never very far away…but a young girl who is unprotected by a chaperon is in the position precisely of an unarmed traveler walking alone among wolves—his only defense is in his not attracting their notice.” Young single women could also not receive male guests in her own home, dine out, go to the theatre, go motoring for a significant distance, or go to a party without a chaperon present.

 …

Debutantes

Lady Rose performs a curtsey for her presentation at the Royal Court. Downton Abbey®, 2013. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Lady Rose performs a curtsey for her presentation at the Royal Court. Downton Abbey®, 2013. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Debutantes being presented to Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.

Debutantes being presented to Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.

 

Young women were introduced to society in their mid- to late-teens, after completing their education and being deemed ready for marriage. The aristocratic debutantes would apply to appear in a royal court presentation as her official entrance into society. Wearing a white dress with a three-yard train and adorned with the required three feathers, the young woman carried a bouquet and curtsied before Alexandria, Edward VII’s queen. (Just as Lady Rose was presented to Queen Mary and King George V, Edward’s son and successor, in the 2013 Christmas special of Downton Abbey.)

After her debutante event, the young lady would attend “the season,” a round of London mansion parties beginning after Christmas and ending in mid-summer. These affairs, with their abundance of married chaperons, provided appropriate places for men and women to meet one another without causing scandal. After the Edwardian period, the significance of the debutante season waned, and austerity forced many wealthy families to relinquish their ‘town’ homes in the big city.

 …

Love & Marriage

Lady Mary between two suitors, one newly wealthy in business, the other inheritor of the Downton land and estate. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Lady Mary between two suitors, one newly wealthy in business, the other inheritor of the Downton land and estate. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Lady Mary marries Matthew, inheritor to the Downton fortunes. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

Lady Mary marries Matthew, inheritor to the Downton fortunes. Downton Abbey®. © Carnival Films / MASTERPIECE

 

Formal hairstyle inspiration from the Edwardian era.

Formal hairstyle inspiration from the Edwardian era.

 

A wedding reception in 1905.

A wedding reception in 1905.

 

For well-heeled Edwardians, marriage was a practical arrangement. Rather than love, the reason for marriage often had to do with the acquisition or preservation of land. Land was the lifeblood of aristocratic wealth and secured one’s high station in society. For the same reasons, marriage may also be a pairing of two important families. The character Richard Carlisle in the first season of Downton Abbey was wealthy, but he had made his money as a newspaperman. While the penniless Lord Gillingham—who comes from a well-established bloodline—would be viewed as a more appropriate match for Lady Mary Crawley in Season 5. Whether for practicalities or love, marriage was eagerly awaited by young women; it represented their only chance for independence and a home of their own.

Courtship was not, however, permitted among the servants. Even the architecture made sure of it, as there were no rooms for a couple to live in and work in the same house together. To marry, a woman had to leave domestic service, a kind of forced independence that set her to work on her own household.

 

 …

 

When the First World War broke out, marks of the lavish Edwardian period began to fade. With shocking speed, the old traditions—and traditional manners with them—became things of the past. Although interactions in England had been governed by these rules for centuries, the total social upheavals caused by war and industrialization wiped them away. As country houses in England fell into financial straits and were demolished or abandoned, the old, formal ways of life they represented were replaced by modern norms determined by a new and daring generation.

 

 

 

Resources
Edwardian Promenade, “The Court Presentation,” by Evangeline Holland, December 7, 2007. http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/etiquette/the-court-presentation/
Green, Walter Cox. A Dictionary of Polite Etiquette: A Guide to Polite Usage for All Social Functions. Brentano’s, New York: 1904.
PBS, The Manners of Downton Abbey documentary
PBS, “Manor House” www.pbs.org/manorhouse/
Emily Post, Etiquette, 1922. Chapter XIX. “The Chaperon and Other Conventions.” http://www.bartleby.com/95/19.html
Treble, Patricia. “Downton Abbey’s Master of Edwardian Manners,” Maclean’s, December 31, 2014. http://www.macleans.ca/culture/television/downton-abbeys-master-of-edwardian-manners/
Victorian Domestic Servant Hierarchy and Wage Scale: The hierarchy of British domestic servants in a large manor in 1890 and their wages. http://www.waynesthisandthat.com/servantwages.htm

In the early decades of the 20th century, the fictional Crawley family of Downton Abbey® hosted grand dinners and fretted about the Great War. At the same time, the real Fisher family was doing the same—right here in this Gilded Age mansion the Driehaus Museum calls ‘home.’

In many ways the Fishers were foils to the Crawleys of Downton. The Fishers lived in America, the Crawleys in England. The Fishers dwelled in an urban palace built in 1883 by another prominent family, while the Crawleys inherited their ancient country estate from a long line of genteel landowners. Lucius George Fisher had everything to gain from the Industrial Revolution, the technical inventions of which made his career in the paper industry soar; Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, saw his own way of life rapidly disappearing in the wake of new changes.

And yet the Fishers and Crawleys shared the same world. Inspired by the era of our current Dressing Downton exhibition, we’ve been digging into our archives for this special blog post in order to share, for the first time, the story of the Nickerson Mansion’s second owners who lived here between 1900 and 1916.

 …

Illustration of the mouth of the Chicago River in 1831. From Chicago: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press.

The mouth of the Chicago River in 1831. Illustration from Chicago: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press.

Lumberyards on the Chicago River, about 1870.

Lumberyards on the Chicago River, about 1870. From Chicago: A Biography, The University of Chicago Press.

 

Chicago appeared out of nowhere.

As one New England newspaper put it back in the mid-1800s, it seemed to rise “like an exhalation from the morass upon which it was built.” Lucius George Fisher, Sr., the father of the man who would one day purchase the Nickerson House, came from Vermont to see the spectacle in 1837. There were just a few thousand pioneering citizens in the brand new city then, and it was in the middle of a financial crisis. He kept traveling, eventually landing in Beloit, Wisconsin—a city which he named, and where he made his own name. He played a leading role in all of the city’s major businesses and institutions—from the railway to the bank, newspaper, post office, local government, and police force.

His only son was also named Lucius George Fisher, born in Beloit in 1843. He was educated there and about to enter Beloit College when gold fever hit him, along with the rest of America. Lucius, Jr. convinced his father to let him go west with a wagon and team of oxen. He stayed on the frontier until he moved to New York City in 1861 to work as a clerk in a hardware store. The Civil War broke out that same year, and in 1863 Fisher was mustered with the 84th Regiment of the New York Infantry National Guard. The regiment was discharged after 100 days, so Fisher signed up for the navy and did administrative work aboard the US steamer Wyandack until the war was over in 1865.

By then Fisher’s parents had moved to Chicago, where his father invested in downtown real estate. Fisher joined them there and started working as a porter in the Rock River Paper Company. He ascended quickly, and within five years, he managed the whole paper bag operation. Fisher would stick with the paper industry for the rest of his career. He incorporated his own company, the Union Bag and Paper Co. in the 1870s, and it grew exponentially as he absorbed other manufacturers around the Midwest.

The Union Bag & Paper Company, 3737 S. Ashland Ave., Chicago.

The Union Bag & Paper Company, 3737 S. Ashland Ave., Chicago.

Like his father before him, Fisher invested in Chicago real estate. He owned a 160-acre tract on the south side of the city, between Seventy-ninth and Eighty-third Streets and Cottage Grove and South Park Avenues. When the World’s Columbian Exposition fairgrounds were designated nearby, the land became worth $1 million—equivalent to $266 million today. He leased the land to the fair in 1892 for the building of 600 three-story houses, to be used as visitor accommodations. Perhaps more famously, Fisher invested in real estate closer to the city’s commercial center as well. He commissioned world’s fair architect Daniel H. Burnham to design the Fisher Building, which still stands at 343 S. Dearborn Street. Its 18 stories of orange terra cotta and glass, made it  one of the tallest buildings in the world when completed in 1896.

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From around 1885, Fisher and his wife of fifteen years, Katherine, lived in a new red brick Victorian home on Ellis Avenue in Chicago’s Oakland neighborhood. It featured stained glass windows, built-in bookcases, large secluded back garden, and an elegant ballroom on the third floor. The lakeside community was populated, in the late 19th century, with other illustrious members of Chicago society. Many of them were entrepreneurs and industrialists who found it convenient to the stockyards, rail terminal, and factories on the South Side. But around the turn of the century, increasing pollution and immigrant neighbors made the area seem less desirable for some. These residents began migrating north, and the Fisher family also began looking for a new home.

Samuel M. Nickerson, recently retired president of First National Bank of Chicago, had constructed a gorgeous Italianate mansion on the north side of the Chicago River in 1883. The mansion at 40 East Erie Street was reported to be the most expensive and luxurious residence in Chicago at the time of its construction, featuring three stories, more than 17 different kinds of marbles from around the world, capacity for 11 live-in servants, and a grand Sculpture Gallery. Nickerson was 70 years old, and originally from Massachusetts. He wished to go live permanently in his summer home on Cape Cod, so he negotiated a $75,000 purchase—over $2 million in today’s dollars—with Lucius George Fisher for the mansion and many of its contents.

The FIsher's 1885 residence on 4036 Ellis Avenue. (Google Streetview, 2014)

The FIsher’s 1885 residence on 4036 Ellis Avenue. (Google Streetview, 2014)

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Front elevation, Samuel M. Nickerson House. Burling & Whitehouse, architects.

The Samuel M. Nickerson House, 1883.

The Samuel M. Nickerson House, 1883.

The Fishers moved into the Nickerson House in the summer of 1900. The census recorded the home’s inhabitants as Lucius and Katherine, both in their 50s; their four children Lucius, Jr. (age 28), Alice (age 26), Ethel (age 17), and Katherine (age 14); Katherine’s sister Francis Eddy; and three female servants from Germany, Minnesota, and Sweden, respectively.

The Fishers kept most of the original furniture, which had been crafted to match the interior design. But their tastes had little else in common with the Nickersons’ clusters of Victorian objets d’art, competing wall and upholstery patterns, and plenteous furniture. The new century came with a new, streamlined aesthetic. By now Chicago’s Prairie School of architecture, with its horizontal lines and air of simplicity, had come into full swing. Fisher hired Prairie School architect George Washington Maher (1864–1926) to redesign Nickerson’s former Sculpture Gallery to his own liking. He re-envisioned the space as a Trophy Room and filled it with game animals, weaponry, rare books, and a mural of hunting scenes along the curved cornice. Among the crowning achievements of the new design was a massive fireplace, with iridescent Art Nouveau tilework, roaring lacquered cherry lion heads, and massive moose head above the mantel. The other striking feature was a stained glass dome featuring autumnal trees, which has been carefully restored and is on view today.

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If Theodore Roosevelt, with his zeal for hunting large game, had anything to do with defining early 20th century masculinity in America, then Lucius George Fisher’s aesthetic would have fit it perfectly. The heads and bodies of wild game weren’t confined only to the Trophy Room; rather, they featured prominently as a defining decorative feature of the house. The Trophy Room displayed sea turtles, a 12-point buck, African antelope horns, birds both local and exotic, and a magnificent tiger skin rug. The first and second floor Halls featured bear rugs—one with the head still attached—and the heads of bison, buffalo, walrus, reindeer, and bighorn sheep lining the walls. The Dining Room featured a large silver fish bolted to the Lincrusta, an owl, and another grand moose head. Historic photographs, taken for fire insurance purposes, also feature a few hairy and indistinct mysterious animals on andirons and floors, including sheepskin throws and something that looks like a porcupine on the floor of the Drawing Room.

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Perhaps a remnant of Fisher’s young days on the western frontier seeking gold, the few objets d’art often depicted the American West. A prominent bronze bust in the Smoking Room depicted a Native American chieftan, for example, and a blanket covering an upstairs divan was woven with the colorful triangles of the Southwest. He was not otherwise a major art collector as Nickerson had been before him, although he did purchase the Greek statuary from the 1893 world’s fair and donate it to Beloit College for its permanent collection.

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Like the rest of Chicago in the early 20th century, the Fishers were confident in their success and enjoyed sharing it. One newspaper item from Christmastime 1902 mentions that the Fishers were the first to kick off that party season with a dinner and dance, and the “big Erie Street house…was decorated in American beauties and Christmas grace.” Few records survive of the other grand parties they certainly hosted in their urban palace in Near North, but previous special occasions, such as debutante receptions in their Ellis Avenue home, prove they were central characters in the city’s elite social class. The society pages in the Chicago Daily Tribune detailed costumes—“Mrs. Fisher wore an apple green and brown brocade gown trimmed with lace, Miss Fisher wore a white crêpe de soie with large white satin sleeves and lace bertha”—and menus—“chocolate, coffee and ice-cream in the billiard room” and “egg-nog in the dining room.”

Fisher Family History-Katherine Fisher to Marry Homer Dixon-Trib6Sept1906

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Lucius George Fisher lived in the Nickerson House for a total of 16 years. In August 1910, he and his wife were traveling in Germany visiting the famous baths of Carlsbad, when Katherine died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 61. Fisher returned with her body by ship, and the news came as a shock to the whole family. Fisher himself died on March 16, 1916, inside the Erie Street mansion.

The estate was divided between the three sisters, and Fishers’ youngest daughter Katherine and her husband, Homer Dixon, occupied the mansion after his death. The 1920 census paints a picture of a lively, full household with 33-year-old Katherine at the head. At the time the Dixons had seven children under the age of 11, as well as 11 live-in servants, mainly Scandinavian immigrants.

Thirty-two prominent Chicago families purchased the residence from the Dixons and donated the building to the American College of Surgeons. The rest, of course, is history.

 

 

When you see the fashions on display in Dressing Downton™: Changing Fashion for Changing Times, you step into a broader cultural tale about the vast changes sweeping the world in the first decades of the 20th century.

Everything that once seemed permanent began to change. Corsets started disappearing from women’s wardrobes. The indomitable aristocratic elite began struggling to make ends meet. A younger generation redefined everything from good manners to falling in love. This tension between the traditional and the new forms the crux of the drama of Downton Abbey®, as seen through the lives of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, their daughters, and their domestic servants. And the greatest share of the changes took place in the lives of women. From going out with men unchaperoned to trying out cigarettes, women took for themselves a greater share in the public sphere.

Let’s go back to that tumultuous time and explore a few of the cultural phenomena of the 1910s and 20s. Here’s what everyone was talking about, both in England, the world of Downton Abbey, and here at home in Chicago.

 

Loosen That Corset!

In the early 20th century, women’s fashion was perhaps the biggest sign that things were changing. Bodices relaxed, waists dropped, and hems rose. Clothes became looser, freer, and less restrained with every passing year, and paralleled the increasing freedom women had in society. In the exhibition, you’ll see how the dresses of Downton Abbey’s younger generation (especially Lady Sibyl, Lady Edith and Lady Rose) reflected these changing times, while women like the Dowager Countess adhered firmly to tradition.

The Dowager Countess of Grantham represents the 'old guard' in fashion and tradition on Downton Abbey. ©Carnival Films / Masterpiece

The Dowager Countess of Grantham represents the ‘old guard’ in fashion and tradition on Downton Abbey. ©Carnival Films / Masterpiece

Downton Abbey's Lady Edith wears a 1920s flapper-influenced evening gown with a dropped waist and long necklace. ©Carnival Films / Masterpiece

Downton Abbey‘s Lady Edith wears a 1920s flapper-influenced evening gown with a dropped waist and long necklace. ©Carnival Films / Masterpiece

The three Crawley sisters of Downton Abbey wear breezy afternoon gowns, hats, and gloves. ©Carnival Films / Masterpiece

The three Crawley sisters of Downton Abbey wear breezy afternoon gowns, hats, and gloves. ©Carnival Films / Masterpiece

Downton Abbey's Lady Sibyl models exotic Turkish-style harem pants, much to the shock of her parents and grandmother. ©Carnival Films / Masterpiece

Downton Abbey’s Lady Sibyl models exotic Turkish-style harem pants, much to the shock of her parents and grandmother. ©Carnival Films / Masterpiece

For more on the latest fashions, take a look at a blog post from our last exhibition about the harmony of artistic clothing and jewelry in the early 20th century.  

Working Women

It was Lady Edith who dared to begin work outside the home in Season 3 of Downton Abbey. It’s 1920, and she takes a job as a newspaper columnist. It scandalizes her elders, who expected her to marry a well-heeled man and make her home her domain. In their eyes, her role should have been as a high society hostess, with entertaining and domestic servants her most important callings.

While women of the lower classes worked in factories or in large country houses like Downton during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, a new phenomenon was the necessity or desire of a woman of the middle and upper classes to work.

Firstly, the war years demanded practicality. In America, England, and the Continent, women went to work because they were needed there while men fought on the front lines. And when the war was over, recession meant that many of them wanted to stay and continue earning with newfound technical skills.

Work was also then, as today, one of the central battlegrounds for another type of war—one for women’s equal rights. Lady Edith represents a new wave of women who wanted to work beyond the domestic spheres previously reserved for them, whether to exercise creativity, earn better money independently of their husbands or fathers, or contribute to the public good of society.

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Lady Edith Crawley of Downton Abbey, in professional attire.

Lady Edith Crawley of Downton Abbey, in professional attire. ©Carnival Films / Masterpiece

Women working in the Leys Malleable Castings Company in England, 1930s. Image via The Daily Mail.

Women working in the Leys Malleable Castings Company in England, 1930s. Image via The Daily Mail.

Meet Me at the Movies

English photographer Edward Muybridge's studies of a horse in motion, 1878.

English photographer Edward Muybridge’s studies of a horse in motion, 1878.

The first famous moving image was captured by British-American scientist Edward Muybridge in the 1870s. He set up cameras along a racetrack and put together second-by-second snapshots of a galloping horse. But a movie would need many more pictures than Muybridge took, and a handful of ingenious inventors around the world made real “cinématographe” possible in the late 19th century.

At first England and France led the world in early filmmaking. The French magician Georges Méliès famously made the leap from early documentary-style shorts to narrative filmmaking, and enjoyed enormous popularity with the film Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) in 1902.

Back in the US, Edwin Porter’s twelve-minute film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was the industry’s first big blockbuster. It ushered in the silent film era, as investors began confidently building movie theaters for this new American pastime. Silent film showings often featured live music just as theatrical plays would have, while the narrative was expressed through mime or notecards.

As the European countries were strained by impending war, America took first place in the film industry. Chicago was filled with avid moviegoers from the start. The first issue of Chicago-based magazine The Show in 1907 proclaimed this city as a world leader in moving picture rental and patronage, and Chicago possibly had more movie theaters per capita than any other US city. The 1910s and 20s saw the construction of gorgeous “movie palaces,” such as The Chicago Theatre, the Oriental, and the Uptown, some of which are still preserved today.

The Uptown Theatre in Chicago. Image courtesy the Theatre Historical Society of America, via WBEZ's Curious City.

The Uptown Theatre in Chicago, which opened in 1925 advertising “An Acre of Seats in a Magic City.” Image courtesy the Theatre Historical Society of America, via WBEZ Curious City.

One of the Downton Abbey housemaids reads an issue of Photoplay, an influential movie publication founded in Chicago in 1911, this issue featuring silent film star Louis Brooks on the cover. (Louise Brooks Society, via The Examiner, “Downton Abbey and Louise Brooks”)

One of the Downton Abbey housemaids reads an issue of Photoplay, an influential movie publication founded in Chicago in 1911, this issue featuring silent film star Louis Brooks on the cover. (Louise Brooks Society, via The Examiner, “Downton Abbey and Louise Brooks”)

Silent film star Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

Silent film star Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

Some of the most famous films from the era are Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Birth of a Nation, and The General. The era’s stars, from Charlie Chaplin to Louise Brooks, Greta Garbo, and Buster Keaton, are still remembered.

“Lucky” Girls

While smoking cigars or cigarettes was acceptable for men before the early 20th century, a woman smoking was a severe faux pas. A 1901 article in The New York Times warned that the habit among women was “a menace in this country.” It was a social rule so powerful it even leaked into law. One New York policeman, spying a woman smoking in a car in 1904, pulled the automobile over and ordered her to put the cigarette out. The gender division was even built into Victorian architecture, with a separate smoking room for men to enjoy their recreational activity together while women retreated to the drawing room or parlor.

But in the early 20th century, along with increased educational opportunities and the suffrage movement, modern women started crossing that divide. Some embraced smoking as a symbol of freedom—a freedom to enjoy men’s freedoms. A march in New York in 1929, an event in which the American Tobacco Company participated through the early public relations genius Edward Bernays, saw women marching for equality with cigarettes in hand. “Group of Girls Puff Cigarettes as a Gesture of ‘Freedom’,” the headline read.

Advertisers started targeting this untapped market. Lucky Strikes featured glamorous illustrations of Miss America, or encouraged women to keep slim by reaching “for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet.”

Advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes.

A 1929 advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes, declaring it is now socially acceptable for women to smoke.

All That Jazz

In Season Four of Downton Abbey, rebellious Lady Rose falls for the jazz entertainer Jack Ross. His character is based on a number of jazz stars whose careers took them on a tour of Europe, such as Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson or Will Marion Cook. With its emphasis on spontaneous forms, jazz was the perfect antidote for the stuffy, formal life so many young people were trying to shed.

Jack Ross, a jazz entertainer on Downton Abbey.

Jack Ross, a debonair jazz entertainer on Downton Abbey. ©Carnival Films / Masterpiece

Resources
Downton Abbey, PBS Masterpiece. 
Elliot, Rosemary Elizabeth. “‘Destructive but sweet’: cigarette smoking among women 1890­-1990,” University of Glasgow, October 2001. 
Film,” The Encyclopedia of Chicago.
History of the Motion Picture,” Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Hudson, Pat. “Women’s Work,” BBC, March 29, 2011. 
Lee, Jennifer. “Big Tobacco’s Spin on Women’s Liberation,” October 10, 2008. 
Myers, Marc. Why Jazz Happened, University of California Press, 2013.
Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising, “Tobacco Advertising Themes: Targeting Women” 
Striking Women, “Women and Work: The Interwar Years, 1918-1939.”