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Clara Driscoll Shattered Tiffany Ceilings

Clara Driscoll parlayed her passion for nature and artistic training into a stellar career at Tiffany Studios in the late 1800s. At a time when women were still fighting for the right to vote and to wear pants, she lead the Tiffany Girls who were the creative force behind many of the company’s greatest works. Although she achieved some accolades in her time, she was largely forgotten until early 2006.

Driscoll wrote extensive chain letters to her mother and sisters through the turn of the century when she worked at Tiffany Studios. The letters, which were the equivalent of a Facebook page, were saved by several generations of descendants. Through the letters, we learn about the inner workings of Tiffany where Driscoll produced many signature designs. We also get a first-hand glimpse of a New Woman venturing into the world.

Following are just a few things worth knowing about Clara Driscoll.

#1 Clara Driscoll Was Encouraged To Pursue Her Dreams

Unlike many females of the Victorian Era, Driscoll and her three sisters were strongly encouraged to pursue higher education. She was born Dec. 15, 1861 in Tallmadge, Ohio. Her father died when she was 12, leaving her mother to raise four girls. With an aptitude for art, she attended design school in Cleveland, Ohio where she worked for a furniture maker.

She later enrolled in the New Metropolitan Museum Art School in New York. In 1887 she landed a job at the Tiffany cutting glass for windows and mosaics. She married shortly after and left her position. She returned when widowed roughly a year later. Still in her 20s, she managed a department of six Tiffany Girls who were responsible for selecting and cutting glass. Over time, she became responsible for 35 female employees.

#2 Round Robin Letters Were Her 19th Century Facebook Page

Much of what we now know about Clara Driscoll’s life and the inner workings of Tiffany Studios comes from the copious chain letters she wrote at least once a week from 1888 to 1909.

The letters were addressed to Dear Ones.” Like a Facebook page they made the rounds to her mother, three sisters and aunt. Each added comments, Round Robin style. The letters averaged a dozen pages and some included photographs or sketches.

Driscoll wrote about her professional life in detail, including interactions with Louis Comfort Tiffany. She also wrote in some detail about her many designs as they progressed.

Driscoll embodied the New Woman of the late 1800s, emerging as an independent being. She wrote about life as a single woman making her way in the professional world. She also detailed her experiences in the social and cultural activities of New York City. Among them were visits to theater, symphonies, operas and Tiffany Balls.

She seemed most at peace during her weekends spent at a beach cottage at Point Pleasant New Jersey. She dreamed of buying a place there one day.

#3 The Exhibition: A New Light On Tiffany

 It wasn’t a surprise that Tiffany employed women in his studio (although only unmarried ones). He believed they were more color-sensitive than men. But the magnitude of their influence on Tiffany Studios was not so clear.

In 2002 George A. Kemeny and Donald Miller published Tiffany Desk Treasures. In it, they named Clara Driscoll as designer of the iconic Dragonfly series.

In 2005, Martin Eidelberg, professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University published The Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany. A descendant of Clara Driscoll approached him with a box of Clara Driscoll’s letters that fleshed out the story of Driscoll’s place as a designer.

Unknown to Eidelberg, independent scholar Nina Gray had also been studying a collection of Driscoll’s letters. Both ended up at Kent State University where they had independently contacted an archivist to review another cache of her letters.

They teamed with New York Historical Society’s Vice President and Museum Director, Margaret K. Hofer. Together they curated an extraordinary exhibition at the New York Historical Society (November 27, 2006) titled “A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls.” They published a book by the same name in 2007.

Driscoll was recognized as the head of the “Women’s Glass Cutting Department” at Tiffany Studios. But their work reveals that she generated many iconic designs and product lines including the Wisteria, Dragonfly and Peony lamps and goods. A New Light on Tiffany features more than 50 Tiffany lamps plus windows, ceramics, enamels and mosaics, historical documents and archival photographs.

According to Eidelberg, Tiffany and Driscoll were kindred spirits in their love for nature and the aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts movement. They had a close working relationship, meeting at least once a week to review designs. Through her letters we know that Tiffany praised her. Even so, the company literature credited Tiffany solely with all designs.

#4 She Received Some Public Accolades In Her Day

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has an excellent collection of Tiffany works. According to VMFA, Clara Driscoll enjoyed some important  public accolades in her time. These included:

  • 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago – several of her works were featured in the Women’s Building. Among them were an Undersea Lamp Base and Wisteria Lamp
  • 1894-News article mentions Driscoll as head of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department.
  • 1899-Driscoll’s Dragonfly shade was exhibited at the Grafton Galleries in London.
  • 1900 Paris Exposition – Driscoll won a medal for one of her Dragonfly lamps.
  • 1904 (April)-New York Daily News article includes Driscoll in an article about women earning $10,000 or more annually. In it, she is credited as a lead designer of some of Tiffany’s best selling pieces.
  • 1902-Her Dragonfly shade is shown at the Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts in Turin, Italy.

#5 Thomas Edison and Louis Comfort Tiffany Were Colleagues

Edison’s innovations opened a new world of possibilities to Louis Comfort Tiffany and his Studios. In 1884, Edison and Tiffany worked with Steele MacKay on the Lyceum Theater at Broadway and 22nd Street.

Late in 1879, Edison unveiled the first practical electric circuit and incandescent bulb that could last for 40 continuous hours. It’s not a stretch to imagine the chemistry when Tiffany first saw Edison’s exposed light bulbs. The new electric lamps and bulbs opened a world of possibilities for Tiffany Studios.

As a side note, Edison also took full credit for the inventions that emerged from his laboratory in New Jersey where he was known as the “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” Like so many inventions, the light bulb was an excellent example of a product that represented decades of work by many people. Frederick de Moleyns of England was granted the first patent for an incandescent lamp in 1841. Black American inventor Lewis Latimer invented a longer-lasting filament. But it was Edison who took full credit.

#6 The Tiffany Girls Faced Opposition From Male Cohorts

Clara Driscoll’s letters reveal that she grappled with male peers. While the Tiffany Girls did the creative work of designing and glass selection and cutting, the men did the dirty work of leading and soldering in a different department. The men belonged to the Glaziers Union, but females were not allowed to join. Even so, Mr. Tiffany paid the women equally for their work.

Early in 1903 the men threatened to strike, in part as an attempt to undermine the influence of Driscoll’s department of 35 and to stop them from making windows and shades. Tiffany maintained the women’s rights, but negotiated a settlement with the union in which he capped Driscoll’s department at 27 women.

#7 Clara Driscoll’s Letters Inspired A Work Of Historical Fiction

Clara Driscoll’s letters inspired bestselling author Susan Joyce Vreeland (1946 –2017) to write Clara and Mr. Tiffany. (202). Vreeland explores Clara Driscoll’s dilemma. As a creative force at Tiffany Studios, Clara struggles with her desire for artistic recognition and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that she faces as a professional woman in the late 1800s.

Newly widowed Clara asks for her old job back, and Tiffany puts her in charge of the women’s department. While Tiffany displays the luminous works that earn him a place on the international artistic stage, Driscoll works behind the scenes in his New York studio. Because Tiffany did not employ married women, Clara Driscoll must decide what makes her happiest–the professional world or her personal world.

While diving into the inner workings of the Tiffany Studios, Vreeland also lets readers look through a first-person lens at life for an independent woman at the turn of the century. Boarding house etiquette, Bohemianism, bicycling as a feminist statement, weekends at a beach cottage, and society life in New York City are all drawn from primary sources.

#8 A Few Highlights From Clara Driscoll’s Round Robin Letters

She Worked With Loie Fuller(January 15, 1862 – January 1, 1928) was an ingenious performing artist. Her extraordinary dances combined billowing silk fabrics with multi-colored lighting and visionary staging techniques of her own design. Her performances inspired many artists including Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Cheret.

“She is trying experiments with effects of light through colored glass and spent most of the morning trying to show me what she wanted. I am making three little screens for her, through which the light is to be thrown upon her and greatly magnified. When dancing she looks like a beautiful fairy spinning and floating in the air.”

“My amazement was simply unbounded to see that she was a little fat, dumpy, short necked middle aged woman, with most insignificant and plain little features.”

The Dragonfly Designs-While Tiffany received credit for the design of the dragonfly series, the letters tell a different story.

“This Dragon fly lamp is an idea that I had last Summer…. It is for an electric light and is going to be dragon flies with gauze wings– eyes made of glass beads cut in two, the split hole in the bead making the light in the eye–and the bodies made of metal. I want to submit the idea to Mr. Tiffany.”

July 30, 1902-Today we got an order for forty more dragon fly [sic] lampshades, twenty conventional peony globes, and five more wisteria lamps. That makes twenty wisteria lamps in all, and as they are my design and sell for $250 apiece, I feel quite pleased.

Tiffany Girls Visit Point Pleasant-The letters offer a unique perspective into the lives of independent women in the Victorian Era.

Aug. 5, 1898-Someday when I am rich I am going to buy a little place down at Point Pleasant…A ride through the woods by the sea and down to the beach before breakfast. The birds were singing and everything was dripping with dew. I found I could swim a short distance and then cold salt water was exhilarating beyond anything I know. A campfire and supper on the beach, watching the double rainbow. A sail on the river by moonlight, and two others in the daytime. A long walk, a long trolley ride by the sea, and a flower gathering trip. We put on our bicycle skirts as soon as we got there and did not exchange them for anything but nightgowns all the time we stayed. (Queen’s Historical Society)

Bicycles Offered Greater Independence-In 1896 Susan B. Anthony said that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.”

“As I was crossing the street an old lady, instead of going across–she had plenty of time–waited for me to pass between her and the lamp post, a distance of about two yards. I knew that such nicety was impossible to me and that it was either the old lady or the lamppost. So although the former would have been softer and more comfortable for me, I heroically chose the lamp post.”

The Butterfly Lamp-Clara Driscoll’s passion for nature emerged in full bloom in the butterfly series.

“Like that field of them on Mr. Root’s land. This in mosaic will be the lamp, and a cloud of little yellow butterflies which you know look exactly like the primrose blossom, in a network of gold wire made in beautiful lines like lines of smoke–is to be the shade.”

Deep Sea Base/Fish Shade-The base was exhibited in the Women’s Hall at the Columbian Exposition 1893.

“Today I thought how nice it would be to make a lamp with a mosaic base instead of a metal or glass vase…. I am anxious now to use some ends of shells that have been polished and made to look like beautiful pearls. … And I would design a shade that should be made of ambers and greens like the tanks at the Fisheries Building at the World’s Fair. It would look like a globe of fish with light showing through.”

Wisteria Lamp

“Today we got an order for…five more Wisteria lamps. That makes 20 Wisteria lamps in all, and as they are my design and sell for $250.00 apiece I feel quite pleased.”

Feb. 12, 1902-I have had a production streak and the days have not been long enough to work in. Of course it will not last but I have evolved three really good things in the last week that ought to be a financial as well as an artistic success. Also two more wisteria lamps have sold–that are not yet commenced so we have an order for six more, which makes fifteen in all at $350 each. All of which goes down to my credit, it being my design. I mean to try one more new and original lamp of the expensive class this year, but so far it is vague and worrisome. I have an idea but it is indefinite and I am afraid not as good as the wisteria. I am letting it stay on a shelf in my mind to see if it will grow or ‘rot.’ (Kent Historical Museum)

Inkwells

“Last week I took down the first one of my cheap novelties for this year all ready to go to the factory. A small inkwell to be of cast metal with a little place for a rich medallion of inlaid glass, which we are to do by hand, and the other a pen tray to go with it. The cost counting in the metal work will enable them to sell…for ten dollars apiece.”

Driscoll With Jospeh Briggs-working together at Tiffany Studios on East 25th St. She sent this home with a letter.

“I thought it would be nice for you to have a picture of me at work in my apron and sleeves with my head workman in attendance. It is exactly the way we look every day.”

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