Friday, October 8, 2021

1893 World's Columbian Exposition #6: The Women's Building

Tapestries, banners and paintings were hung in the main
hall of the Women's Building at the World's Columbian Exposition

 The Women's Building was an important feature of the 1893 Fair, designed to show the international accomplishments of female artists on an equal basis with men's work. We've found no evidence that any patchwork quilts were shown there. Crickett Harmer came to the same conclusion in her paper Forgotten at the Fair: Quilts at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition.

She noted: "A striking absence of quilt exhibits or individual quilts mentioned in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition." She interviewed quilt historians Xenia Cord and Merikay Waldvogel who emphasized quiltmaking's popularity at the time, particularly crazy quilts, but noted the absence in fair records.

The Women's Building designed by Sophia Hayden

Bertha Honore Palmer (1849-1918)
 married a wealthy Chicago merchant and hotel owner

Crickett Harmer considers the attitudes of  two aesthetes in charge of the Women's Building: Bertha Honore Palmer and Candace Thurber Wheeler. Bertha Palmer was leader of the "Board of Lady Managers," who planned and conducted the women's exhibits. 

Candace Thurber Wheeler (1827-1923)

Candace Wheeler, a leading advocate of arts and crafts design principles with one-time design partner Louis Comfort Tiffany, was in charge of the interior design of the Women's Building and brought her vision to rooms like the library, an Arts & Crafts version of Beaux Arts classicism.

Library ceiling mural by Dora Wheeler Keith, Candace's daughter

With more than a hint of Orientalism in the East Indian Tea Room

Both taste-makers were determined that the displays remain free from the mundane, the everyday crafts fair goers might dismiss. Cricket Harmer quotes Bertha Palmer:
"We want to keep this exhibit very choice. We must keep the standard up to the highest point. No sentimental sympathy for women should cause us to admit second-rate things into this gallery.” 

Apparently the Board chose 458 articles of art to display in the Women's Building. A search through the catalog reveals no quilts or coverlets, but many embroidered articles.

Cushion from a Swedish designer using the sunflower,
a favorite Arts & Crafts image.

Embroidery as textile decoration was considered the ultimate Arts & Crafts technique and one Wheeler advocated with new designs. Printed cottons and machine-made silk brocades were second rate. Patchwork...anathema.

Design from Vienna's Working Women's Society

Under "spreads" a French piece

Palmer and Wheeler probably succeeded in their goal of uplifting American taste (uplifting in their view), creating a fashion for Arts & Crafts line, form and color that affected interior decoration and needlework for decades.
Embroidered pillow in Arts & Crafts style that flourished
in the early 20th century

All manner of textiles in the Women's Building Reading Room.

Ignoring crazy quilts, however, was not going to
make them go away.

If we are going to find crazy quilts or any other form of patchwork bedcovering we'll have to look in other fair displays.
Tomorrow: Quilts in the state buildings.

1 comment:

  1. I've enjoyed this series so much! In all this wonderful research, I truly wish someone would come across 50 bolts of those fabulous 1890 neons! When your "Ragtime" came out I should have realized how fleeting the popularity would be and scarfed up all I could. Maybe it will make its way around again before my fingers finally fail me. Thanks for these great posts. Looking forward to #7.