A Trip Back in Time

My latest little journey took me back to Syracuse, New York.

The only thing unusual was that my travel date was March 23, 1903.

And the woman who made it possible for me to make this little journey was a librarian by the name of Barbara.

Ever since February of 1988 when I first began hosting the annual National Arts and Crafts Conference at the Grove Park Inn, I have always been curious about an earlier Arts and Crafts conference. It opened on March 23, 1903 and was the brainchild of two influential people: Gustav Stickley and Irene Sargent.

In 1903 Gustav Stickley was in his third year as the founder of United Crafts, the original name he had chosen for his new furniture business, one he started at age 42 after a string of financially successful but personally unrewarding business ventures. In 1901 he had hired Irene Sargent, a distinguished professor of language at Syracuse University, to write most of the introductory text for his first catalogs. We still do not know how the dusty furniture maker from the factory district met the formidable university professor from up on the hill, but the unlikely match worked, and Irene Sargent accepted the position as editor of Stickley’s magazine The Craftsman.

And on March 23, 1903 it was Irene Sargent, not Gustav Stickley, who walked to the podium of the lecture hall in Stickley’s downtown office building and welcomed the two hundred notable guests who had been invited to the opening night reception, seminar, and sneak preview of the Arts and Crafts show.

And it was Barbara, the Syracuse librarian, who responded to my inquiry last week by catching my contagious curiosity and finding for me several obscure newspaper reports of the evening’s event, attended in part by “the most cultured women of the city, who gave their approval to the artistic exhibits, and on every side it was said that the display was of the highest standard of excellence.”

Of course, it didn’t hurt that — in addition to the finest craftsmanship which Stickley’s band of woodworkers could produce in the winter of 1902-1903 — the exhibit also included pottery by Grueby, Robineau, Rookwood, Merrimac, Volkmar, Artus Van Briggle, and Newcomb College, bronze candlesticks, lanterns, and hammered copper bowls by Chicago’s Robert Jarvie and Jessie Preston, and a wide assortment of handwoven textiles, hand-illuminated and hand-bound books, leatherwork, jewelry, Kalo silver, artistic photography and original art, plus work by Arts and Crafts societies in Boston, Dayton, and Chicago, as well as cottage industries in Berea and Asheville.

“The Craftsman Building glowed with subtle, enchanting color,” one writer noted, “and abounded in objects of good and beautiful design. The enterprise was accepted by the community as an educational effort . . . held in memory as the work of a man who labors unceasingly in the cause of good art and honest labor.”

All sound familiar?

Of course, in 1903 these were all “new” works, whereas when those same makers are exhibited at the Grove Park Inn this February, they are now classified as antiques. But, of course, we also have fifty of the country’s finest contemporary craftsfirms exhibiting their work as well, some of which will undoubtedly still be collected a hundred years from now.

And so it is that history again repeats itself.

Much to our benefit.

Until next Monday,

Thank a librarian.