Class, gender, and philanthropy in the New York Society of Decorative Art, 1877-1902
Barnes Shaw, Ruth G.
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The New York Society of Decorative Art (1877–1902) was founded in the years following the American Civil War to assist women in need by offering art needlework and other handicraft classes in the hopes that this education would result in respectable and remunerative work for women within the decorative arts. During the Society’s inception, nothing quite like it existed at the time, for it claimed to be both a charitable organization and an instructional facility for the revival of art needlework, china painting, and various other handicrafts. The tensions and contradictions within the NYSDA’s mission and among its membership reflected the signs of the times during which it operated, thus providing us with a glimpse of the social, cultural, and economic landscape of the years between 1877 and 1902 in urban America. The purpose of this study is to analyze the New York Society of Decorative Art in its cultural, social, and economic context decade by decade, while exploring the tension between the arts and philanthropy. I shall focus on the socially-defined class and gender roles within the NYSDA, while examining the complex and dichotomous relationships that existed among the members of this organization. What is the connection between gender, class, aesthetics, and philanthropy, and how does it play out within the NYSDA during its extraordinary twenty-five year existence? This study further seeks to illuminate the gendering and class hierarchy of art and design, the notion of "high art" versus "low art," and the consequences of women’s traditional work (specifically handicraft) as it ventures out of the customary domestic sphere and enters the marketplace. I address class obligation, or noblesse oblige , as it applies to culture and aesthetics, and the promotion of high culture through art education. Finally, I wish to understand the legacy of the NYSDA in order to ascertain whether the ideals the Society promoted continue to permeate contemporary American thought and values. I argue that the original mission of the New York Society of Decorative Art was ambiguous from the onset, vacillating between that of a women’s art and design school and one of a women’s benevolent society. This tension was never resolved. I also posit that although the Society created a much needed pecuniary outlet for women’s handicraft—while reclaiming traditional women’s art forms—it continued to assess women-produced goods in terms of male-dominated "fine" or "high" art which was (and perhaps still is) considered superior to female-oriented "low" art, or craft. In this regard, the NYSDA perpetuated the myth that "women’s work" of any kind remains inferior to that of men, creating a gendered, and classed, hierarchy within the arts. This being said, the NYSDA allowed and encouraged women to become artists while gaining a pecuniary avenue for self-expression. These very limits of socially predetermined gender roles, and the sexual division of labor fostered one of the most significant benefits that women gained from engaging in handicrafts: a sense of community developed through a self-help network of friends taking part in a common activity, and the recognition of their creativity. I thoroughly examined the Annual Reports of the New York Society of Decorative Art from its inception to its dissolution, as well as personal papers, letters, autobiographies, and numerous other primary sources to complete this study. It is through this archival research, coupled with various secondary sources that compliment this information, that I reached my conclusions in this body of work.