Written by Ina Bort
Our last post explored the biography of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, the doyenne-turned-activist we believe commissioned this plate’s manufacture. Today we explore the first of two likely scenarios where this and similar plates may have been used: The suffrage conferences Alva organized at Marble House, her Newport estate, in 1909 and 1914.
Ever conscious of her new role as suffrage publicist, Alva identified Marble House as the ideal venue for the late August 1909 event as she considered Newport, Rhode Island, the “summer-publicity center of the nation.” By this time she had formed her own suffrage organization, the Political Equality Association, under the umbrella of the National American Women Suffrage Association.
News coverage, welcomed by Alva, began well in advance to pique interest. She gave an interview to the New York Times on August 13, announcing the speakers and explaining how the funds to be raised—via sale of $1 and $5 tickets—would be “devoted entirely to the campaign.” The $1 ticketholders could hear the suffrage lectures, but even luckier $5 ticketholders would also gain access to the never-before-open-to-the-public interior of Marble House. Alva brilliantly deployed the mystique of her architectural triumph to maximize revenue for the cause:
Until now, I have always felt that it was best not to open Marble House to public view because it has been used as my private residence . . . I am departing from the rule simply because I believe the step may tend to increase interest in the crusade for ‘votes for women.’
Coverage of the conference was extensive. The Times described the throngs in attendance—approximately 1,000 people—and the illustrious speakers, who included Mrs. Julia Ward Howe (then the oldest living suffragist) and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, one of the movement’s most respected leaders. The aristocratic spirit of the gathering infused the Times’ articles, which mentioned the solid turnout by “the cottage colony,” and breathlessly reported sightings of Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, Mrs. Howard G. Cushing, and others of their ilk. The Delineator likewise emphasized the glitterati:
[They] came in automobiles that lined Bellevue Avenue in clouds of floating chiffon. . . . Bailey’s Beach and the Casino were deserted. Everybody was here – debutante and dowager and the latest divorcée. Women, the jewels at whose throats would have financed a reform, trailed carelessly over the lawn . . . The next day all the world that read the newspapers knew that society was going in for suffrage.
Known also as the Conference of Great Women, the 1914 conference was well publicized, too; the speakers included Alva’s daughter Consuelo, the Duchess of Marlborough, who all clamored to see.
Reliable secondary sources, including The Preservation Society of Newport County, situate the “Votes for Women” plates at these conferences, most specifically placing them at the 1914 conference. One suffrage memorabilia collector, Kenneth Florey, surmises the plates were used at the 1914 conference “in conjunction with the opening of a new Chinese Tea House on Belmont’s estate at Marble House and the simultaneous return of her daughter, Consuelo, from England.”
It is wonderfully tempting to envision Newport’s finest savoring lunch served on these plates, as they sat at tables strewn across the picturesque grounds of Marble House, and partook, if for a summer’s day, in a revolution. But Florey ultimately concludes that “There is a certain air of mystery surrounding the dinnerware ordered by Mrs. Alva Belmont . . . in terms of when it was used.”
Rather than solve that mystery, we will, in our next and final post, only deepen it. We will leave behind the posh seaside lawns of Marble House and elbow our way into the bustling, cramped “suffrage lunchrooms” Alva established for working women in midtown Manhattan. Stay tuned.
- Sylvia D. Hoffert, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: Unlikely Champion of Women’s Rights (Indiana University Press, 2012), p. 76
- “Lectures at Marble House: Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont Will Show Her Home for the Suffragists’ Cause,” New York Times, Aug. 8, 1909, p. 4. See also: “Glories of Marble House Attract Many,” New York Times, August 20, 1909.
- “Suffragist Armory at Mrs. Belmont’s,” New York Times, Aug. 13, 1909, p. 7.; “Suffragists Meet at Marble House,” New York Times, Aug. 25, 1909, p. 1.
- Mabel Potter Daggett, “Suffrage Enters the Drawing Room,” The Delineator, (R.S. O’Laughlin, H.F. Montgomery, Charles Dwyer, eds.), Vol. 75 (1910).
- “Mrs. Belmont Plans Newport Campaign,” New York Times, May 4, 1914, p. 9.
- “Votes for Women,” in The Newport Gazette: The Preservation Society of Newport County, Number 118, May, 1989, p. 8.