To celebrate the opening of our newest special installation Nature Illuminated: A Tiffany Gallery Preview, the exhibition’s curator who is also the Curator of Decorative Arts here at New-York Historical, Margaret K. Hofer, has signed on as this week’s guest blogger. Her post continues this month’s theme of New York women’s history and illuminates the story of Clara Driscoll, one of Tiffany’s forgotten designers.
This Women’s History Month is a fitting time of year to pay tribute to unsung women who left their mark on history. At the New-York Historical Society, as we make plans for our dazzling new Tiffany Lamp Gallery, slated to open in late 2016, the supreme talents of Tiffany designer Clara Driscoll (1861–1944) are very much on our minds. Until New-York Historical revealed her story in the 2007 exhibition A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls, Driscoll’s achievements were virtually unknown. Thanks to the discovery of caches of letters held at the Kent State University Library and the Queens Historical Society, her important story has now been shared with audiences far and wide.
A native of Tallmadge, Ohio, Clara Wolcott came to New York in 1888 to pursue an artistic career. Shortly after completing her studies at the Metropolitan Museum Art School, she landed a job at the Tiffany Glass Company (later Tiffany Studios) cutting glass for windows and mosaics. She married a year later, and according to the custom of the time, left her job to assume the duties of a proper Victorian housewife. After her husband’s untimely death, Driscoll returned to Tiffany’s and assumed a managerial position directing the six-person Women’s Glasscutting Department. Whether due to her leadership or the boom in the stained glass window industry, Driscoll was soon managing a thriving department of 35 young women, who referred to themselves as the “Tiffany Girls.”
Driscoll’s letters, written to her mothers and sisters back in Ohio, provide a rare first-person account of the activities at Tiffany Studios, whose corporate records do not survive. From them, we learn that she flourished under the direction of “Mr. Tiffany,” with whom she shared an artistic vision that included a love of nature and an appreciation of beautiful materials. Although Louis C. Tiffany was the artistic genius behind the creative endeavors of Tiffany Studios, it is clear that Clara and the other women who labored anonymously behind the scenes made substantial contributions. Clara began experimenting with lamps around 1898 and was probably responsible for introducing leaded shades. Tiffany seized on her idea, charging Driscoll and the women’s department with the design and execution of all the leaded-glass shades with nature-inspired themes. She conceived many of the most iconic Tiffany lamps, such as the Dragonfly and Wisteria. The Tiffany Girls played an essential role in creating shades, selecting glass from an infinite variety of opalescent sheet glass, cutting the individual segments using templates, and wrapping them with copper foil. The men’s department executed the “dirty work” of actually assembling the lampshades, soldering the cut and foiled pieces of glass together on wooden molds.
Working women of Driscoll’s era endured many challenges. Although she and the other women at Tiffany Studios were better off than their counterparts working in factories or as domestic help, they had their share of struggles. Driscoll found it frustrating leading a department of young women, as her employees were forced to resign once they married and she was continually losing talented workers. Rivalries between the men’s and women’s departments were fierce, as men making windows, mosaics, and leaded shades were unionized and the women were not (for the simple reason that the lead glaziers and glass cutters union did not admit women). While the men enjoyed the protection of the union, the women had to continually prove themselves to preserve their jobs. Louis Tiffany valued his female employees and paid them on the same scale as the men, which must have rankled them. In 1903, the men threatened to strike in order to take away the women’s right to make windows. Tiffany held firm, and in the end reached a settlement with the union that allowed the women to continue their work on windows, shades, and mosaics, but capped the number of women in Driscoll’s department at 27.
In 1909, matrimony beckoned again and Clara became Mrs. Edward Booth, leaving Tiffany Studios for good. Her material legacy of stunning designs continues to delight lovers of Tiffany lamps, and her story of perseverance and achievement at a time when women had not yet won the right to vote has broadened our understanding of both Tiffany Studios and working women in turn of the 20th century New York. Driscoll’s story has resonated so powerfully with women of the early 21st century that it has inspired not one but three recent novels about her life.