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The Women of Tiffany Studios: Clara Wolcott Driscoll Made Visible

Renée M. Sentilles, Henry Eldridge Bourne Professor of History, Case Western Reserve University
February 21, 2020
Installation image of visitors looking at Tiffany stained glass lamps.

Tiffany in Bloom: Stained Glass Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany installation image. Courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Tiffany in Bloom: Stained Glass Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany offers visitors a chance to view a vivid display of 20 Tiffany lamps recently acquired through a generous bequest to the museum. Focusing on Louis Comfort Tiffany’s passion for stained glass as a way to bring Nature’s splendid color into the home, this exhibition explores Tiffany’s vivid designs in relation to emerging artistic and craft movements at the turn of the 20th century. This exhibition also highlights Ohio native and CIA graduate Clara Driscoll, one of the women artists in Tiffany Studios.

On Saturday, 2/29, the CMA will host a discussion with Renée Sentilles, professor of history at Case Western Reserve University, Mark Bassett, instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and Stephen Harrison, curator of Tiffany in Bloom, about women artists in Tiffany Studios, including Clara Driscoll, in the context of women’s changing roles in the early 20th-century workplace. Learn more about Clara Driscoll’s story in the essay below.

Tiffany in Bloom: Stained Glass Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany installation image. Courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

In 1888, 27-year-old Clara Wolcott and her younger sister, Josephine, moved from Cleveland to New York City to take jobs in the celebrated Tiffany glass factory. Clara’s story is highlighted as exceptional in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s exhibition Tiffany in Bloom: Stained Glass Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany, because she would go on to design many of the firm’s iconic lampshades, windows, and desk items. Her Wisteria lampshade alone is still so beloved that one can now buy knockoffs from numerous vendors, including Home Depot. But until recently, that lampshade was simply known as being by Tiffany. Because of the 2005 discovery of a collection of Clara’s letters home, we now know that lampshades were designed and executed by women industrial artists. Until then, Clara and her fellow workers were invisible.

In the larger outline of her life, Clara Wolcott Driscoll was one of many. She embodied what became known as a “New Woman” or “modern girl,” terms adopted in the Progressive period (1880–1920) to designate women actively participating in urban life. Some of these New Women were married mothers who worked in public reform and the Suffrage movement, but many others were young unmarried women who migrated from rural areas to factories and cities in search of opportunity. Taking off in the 1880s, this massive migration was driven by several factors, most prominently the evolution of women’s education, which led to the creation of colleges, art institutes, and professional schools; the explosion of magazine culture, which sold images of New Women as alternately glamorous, serious, and fun; and a loss of opportunities in rural areas that made wage labor in the cities the most viable route out of poverty.

For women like Clara and Josephine, who grew up in a family of six with a widowed mother who struggled to provide, cities like Cleveland and New York offered a sparkling future for enterprising young women. Soon the urban population of unmarried women outnumbered those of unmarried men. From 1880 to 1930, the national female labor force increased by 307 percent, by which point half of all single women were earning wages. In major cities the increase was more acute; in Chicago, for example, the female labor force increased more than 1,000 percent in the same period.[1]

Women’s history books tend to focus on jobs in sweatshops, department stores, and offices, for these were the most visible new opportunities for women, but Clara was one of many women working invisibly in the commercial and industrial arts. Since the 1830s, educators of middle-class (or aspiring to be middle-class) girls had pushed cultivation of artistic skill as an important part of the genteel female curriculum, along with French, piano, and fancy sewing. So it is not surprising that women were employed at many firms, from book design and publishing to pottery, china, and glassmaking. These artists rarely received public recognition of their work; they were an invisible workforce.

Like most of these unmarried women flocking to cities, Clara and Josephine lived with other single women and men in large boarding houses. The respectable ones had strict rules to protect the reputations of their inhabitants, but they also provided group meals and maintained communal spaces that created a sense of family. Josephine eventually returned to Cleveland to become a teacher, but Clara chose to remain in New York with her family-like cadre of female artists and friends.

Tiffany in Bloom: Stained Glass Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany installation image. Courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

In 1890 Clara married and became Clara Driscoll, and by Tiffany policy she was required to leave her job. His policy against hiring married women was no doubt in part a nod to its larger cohort of male workers, who were unionized and opposed to married women competing for what was called the “family wage,” a sum paid to married men with the understanding that they supported a family. But it was also a means of asserting that working for Tiffany was a respectable choice for a good middle-class woman, on par with teaching, nursing, and office work — all fields open to only unmarried women. Most wage-earning women did hope to marry, not only for personal reasons, but because marriage was the surest route to economic stability. But when her husband died in 1892, Clara returned to Tiffany Studios as Clara Driscoll and began the most consequential period of her life as an artist and a manager.

It speaks to Clara’s exceptional ability that unlike so many women working in the commercial arts, she was not entirely invisible. When her dragonfly lampshade won a prize at the 1900 world’s fair, she was cited as the designer. Perhaps Tiffany allowed for that recognition in appreciation of Clara’s formidable managerial talents; she not only designed incredible works in glass and metal but also ran a department of 35 with enviable dexterity. Letters to her mother and sisters reveal a woman with a keen sense of both aesthetics and the bottom line.

Tiffany apparently paid unmarried female workers the same as unmarried male workers, which was quite unusual. For most women, even working full time meant living below subsistence. Indeed, dating — socializing with men in public places — developed a means for many young women to eat. Most wage-earning women were in the needle trades, or less skilled work than that done by Clara and her female co-workers, and they were paid barely enough for board and clothing.

The reaction of the Tiffany union to the success of the female department, however, was quite typical. In 1903 the all-male union of glassworkers threated to strike if Tiffany did not shut down the female branch. They clearly perceived Clara and her workers as a threat to their dominance. Tiffany supported the women — presumably because he saw that firing some of his most talented workers would harm his company. Tiffany and the union reached a compromise by capping the number of female employees at 27 and consigning the women to creating lampshades and “small luxury goods,” which were mostly desk items. As we know from the exhibition, these talented women excelled within those limitations.

Meanwhile, Clara enjoyed what can only be described as a fulfilling, vibrant social and personal life. After returning to Tiffany Studios in 1892, she shared an apartment with exceptional commercial artists Alice Gouvey and Louise Minnick. In 1898 she moved to a boarding house filled with “industrial designers, artists, actors, and actresses, schoolteachers and at least one businessman.”[1] Letters to family indicate days of bike rides, picnics, and visits to art galleries, and evenings at the theater and attending entertainment venues with the men and women of her boarding house. Eventually, the boarding house friends pooled resources and rented a summer cottage in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, where they vacationed for several years. She was in her mid-40s, unmarried, and having a fantastic time.

Tiffany in Bloom: Stained Glass Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany installation image. Courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

This window on Clara’s life raises something largely overlooked in women’s history: were there many women like Clara, enjoying a vibrant single life in their middle years? The traditional story is that unmarried women flocked to the cities to work and hopefully marry. Clara did that, but she also did so much more. Clara was exceptional in her artistic ability, but the evidence provided by her letters suggests that she was surrounded by women living similarly independent, fulfilling lives.

Clara eventually married again, in 1909, to one of her friends at the boarding house, Edward Booth, and left Tiffany Studios for good. By all accounts they enjoyed a busy and happy life together, until she passed away 35 years later, at age 82.

She is remembered now as Clara Driscoll, because that is the name she used when producing her greatest artwork. There is no doubt that Clara Driscoll was exceptional and left the world a lasting gift in her work. But as Clara Wolcott Driscoll Booth, she was a multifaceted woman who but for the recently discovered cache of letters would have remained invisible.

[1] Joanne Meyerowitz, Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earner in Chicago, 1880–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 4–5.

[2] Martin Eidelberg, Nina Gray, and Margaret K. Hofer, A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls (New York: New York Historical Society, 2007), 135.