April 3, 1897 – When the Doors First Opened….

As preparations are being finalized for the fifth annual Arts & Crafts Chicago Show and Sale, I cannot help but reflect on the role such shows and exhibitions have played in the history of the Arts & Crafts movement.

While no one has been able to provide the definitive answer to the question “Who designed the first piece of Arts & Crafts furniture?” determining when the first Arts & Crafts exhibition was held in America is a bit easier.

April 3, 1897.

On that date 160 exhibitors assembled in Boston’s Copley Hall for the first Arts & Crafts exhibition organized by the Society of Arts & Crafts with the stated purpose of “promoting the goals of design reform.”

Each exhibitor had been closely scrutinized and their work evaluated by a jury of prominent design reformers. While efforts had first been made to hold such an exhibition in New York City, designer Candice Wheeler, an associate of L.C. Tiffany, remarked that they “as usual, found that Boston is more ready to act in matters which are purely in the interest of art than New York.”


The 160 exhibitors displayed approximately 1000 items before the general public. The exhibition catalog attempted to, whenever possible, identify the designer, the craftsperson and the exhibitor for each object. The items were classified under nearly two dozen categories, including furniture, architecture, metalware, textiles, prints, pottery and jewelry.

Had we been transported back in time to the night of April 3, 1897, however, many of us might be disappointed. The vast majority of the designers and manufacturers whom we collect today were more apt to have been standing in line outside the doors than exhibiting in a booth. It was just 1897. Representatives of William Morris, however, who had died the previous year, shipped carpets from London; not far away a booth of wallpapers designed by Charles Voysey drew a steady crowd of admirers.

Keep in mind, too, that this was no antiques show.

And while the exhibition was considered a rousing success and spawned numerous additional exhibitions, both in Boston and across the country, it did have its critics. The editors at House Beautiful magazine dubbed it a “fancy bazaar,” while another reviewer complained that the furniture on display was nothing more than “a literal reproduction of fixed historic styles.”

Nevertheless, detractors aside, the first Arts & Crafts exhibition in America set the tone for the dissemination of ideas, the rejection of mass-production and the encouragement of individual, creative designs that continues to characterize the Arts & Crafts movement.

Since that first night in Boston, the Arts & Crafts designers have been showcased at exhibitions ranging from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair to Gustav Stickley’s exhibition in 1903 to Elbert Hubbard’s annual conventions on the Roycroft campus. And, after a hiatus of more than fifty years, the practice resumed with the opening of the historic Princeton exhibition in 1972 and has continued ever since with lectures, symposiums, conferences and shows.

The next one will be held on May 29-30 in Oak Park, Illinois, not far from the home, studio and many of the finest buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Take advantage of this opportunity and judge for yourself how well those early proponents of design reform in Boston got us all started down the right path.


For more information on the Arts & Crafts Society of Boston, please see Beverly Brandt’s new book entitled The Craftsman and the Critic.

And for information on the fifth annual Arts & Crafts Chicago Show and Sale, please go to http://www.ArtsandCraftsChicago.com.