Fair Ladies

Columbus is persona non grata these days, of course, but a hundred years ago and more his day was big in Salem and elsewhere, and the Columbian Exposition of 1893 was even bigger. The Essex Institute was charged with furnishing an entire room in the Massachusetts State building, a first-floor reception room no less, and so a committee was formed (led by two women, Mrs. Grace A. Oliver and Mrs. H.M. Brooks) to choose the Salem items which would go to Chicago: the complete catalogue of their choices is here. (How cool would it be to reproduce this room? I bet it would be a classic expression of Colonial Revivalism.) While I as looking through it (for probably the 100th time!), I noticed that Salem items were included in other exhibits as well, including the Education, Transportation, Liberal Arts, Fine Arts, Government, and Justice buildings, and the “Woman’s Building” of which I had never heard! So I read all about it.

Prints and Postcards of the Woman’s Building, Smithsonian and University of Maryland Digital Collections.

After the organizers of the Exposition agreed to a separate woman’s building (and not to an African-American one), a Board of Lady Managers was created to choose its design, content and programs. Bertha Palmer, the president of said board, insisted that the building be designed by a female architect, and Sophia Hayden, a new graduate of MIT’s pioneering architectural program, was chosen, based on the conformity of her design to the overall aesthetics of the  “White City”. Poor Miss Hayden: this would turn out to be her first and last commission, as she experienced some sort of mental breakdown during the accelerated construction process. The official program lists the exhibits, which follow the general fair’s lead in their mix of handicraft and fine arts, but were made exclusively by women. Large murals were commissioned for the interior “Gallery of Honor”, including Mary Cassatt’s “Modern Women” triptych which was destroyed at some point in the deconstruction of the fair, and thus only exists in photographs. Lucia Fairchild Fuller’s Women of Plymouth, seen below in a photograph by Amanda Brewster Sewall, has survived, fortunately: it was “lost” for a century or so, but “discovered” on the walls of the Blow Me Down Grange Hall & The Attic Antique Shoppe in Plainfield, New Hampshire, where Fuller and her family lived.

Lost Cassatt and “found” Fuller: from the Blow Me Down Grange Hall and Attic Antique Shoppe facebook page.

Somewhere in that cavernous Gallery of Honor were the three works of Salem artist Harriet Frances Osborne (1846-1913), including her etching of Chestnut Street, below. I zoomed in on as many photos as I could find and could not find them. She also had a portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Massachusetts Building, making her one of the most exhibited Salem artists in Chicago—-I think only Ross Turner had more. I’ve been meaning to get to Harriet’s diaries in the Phillips Library for a while, but the pandemic and the book have made that impossible. So I don’t have much to tell you other than that she was an art teacher at Miss Cleveland’s School in the famed “Studio” on lower Chestnut Street: on the right in her etching. This must have been a major highlight in her life, and I wish I could say more to illustrate or confirm that hypothesis, but I’m at a loss for now: Harriet, part II in 2021, I promise! I’m not even sure if she made it to Chicago, but I hope she did.

Miss Osborne’s Chestnut Street, courtesy Historic New England; Maud Howe Elliott’s Art and Handicraft in the Woman’s Building (1894) from its Alice Morse Earle-esque cover, really conveys the “spirit” of the Woman’s Building; a few more recent books on the Woman’s Building.


5 responses to “Fair Ladies

  • Stephen

    Very well done article! t clearly required a lot of work and research. I have a few original postcards from this exhibition, and was happy to get more background information. Thank you from Church Street. And Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Louis Sirianni

    Fascinating!  I had no idea about the “Women’s Building”,even though having studied the architecture of the Columbus Exposition in Chicago.

    Poor Columbus….. all revisionist history is not true [as we know today, some who garner influence are not concerned with lying.. Someday Columbus may gain back a portion of his glory.

  • Nancy O Almquist

    Dear Donna,

    Any chance that Harriet Frances Osborne 1846-1913 is one and the same as Hannah Frances Osborne 1846-1914 with somehow a mix up of her first name? Hannah Frances was an Aunt to my grandfather Maurice Machado Osborne. She lived and had a studio at the corner of Federal and Carpenter St.s. She did lovely pastel portraits of my grandfather and his younger sister that our family still owns. Hannah’s mother was also named Hannah and maybe she adopted Harriet as a nickname?

    The fact that there are diaries intrigue me. I’ve tried to find works of hers, but I was using Hannah. If she called herself and the public knew her as Harriet, no wonder I haven’t been able to find any works by her.

    • daseger

      I did find the Hannah name and the Machado connections but all other references are to Harriet! Thoroughly confused! Obviously her diaries will help; they’re at the Phillips Library, of course.

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