Sometimes there are events in history you just can’t let go of.
Mine took place on March 23, 1903.
The location was the Craftsman Building in downtown Syracuse, where Gustav Stickley hosted the first of what I like to call his Arts and Crafts Conferences. Actually, he called his an “Arts and Crafts Exhibition,” but since it was more than simply a show, it must have felt like a conference to those 200 converts who assembled in the lecture hall that evening to hear the first of the two week’s seminars.
Had you and I been among those curious first-time attendees, we would have paid our twenty-five-cent admission to stroll around the exhibition hall, anxious to pick out something to proudly display on our oak sideboard.
And who might we have chatted with, besides a proud but slightly nervous Gus in his three-piece wool suit and his new designer, the wispy architect Harvey Ellis?
Perhaps their friend 36-year-old Bill Grueby, standing proudly amid his display of matte green vases and bowls, a few decorated with yellow flower buds or thick, applied leaves. Or maybe manager Mary Sheerer, potter Joseph Meyer, or one of their fifteen talented female decorators from Newcomb College Pottery. Young Artus Van Briggle most likely was too ill to travel from Colorado, but he and his wife Anne did ship a crate of their early art pottery to sell at Stickley’s show.
Porcelain ceramic artist Adelaide Alsop Robineau lived in Syracuse, so she and her husband undoubtedly would have set up her display and most likely would have been in the audience that first evening. Rookwood staffed their booth with representatives who took the train from Cincinnati, and Robert Jarvie and Jessie Preston, both Chicago metalsmiths, might also have spent some time beside their displays.
Just think for a moment what you might have brought home in your free tote bag . . . .
All of this requires some conjecture, for our resources for this landmark event are limited to a couple of brief newspaper articles and a review written by Stickley’s editor Irene Sargent, who, rather than Gustav Stickley himself, stood at the podium and welcomed everyone on opening night.
(Given the chance, I would have slipped her a large glass of wine and asked the spinster Syracuse professor of ancient languages, a longtime fan of Ruskin and Morris, “Just how did you happen to meet Mr. Stickley?”)
As an historian, in 1988 when I was preparing for the inaugural National Arts and Crafts Conference at the 1913 Grove Park Inn overlooking Asheville, I knew I had to produce a catalog. It served two purposes: as a guidebook for the three-day event and as an historical record of the speakers and their topics, as well as each of the exhibitors who took part in the show.
As the conference continued and expanded, so did the catalog, evolving from a 24-page, black-and-white, stapled booklet into an 88-page, full color, bound catalog. The directory of exhibitors, both antiques dealers and contemporary craftsfirms, along with advertisements from other firms, also found another purpose: that of a year-round resource guide for Arts and Crafts collectors and homeowners.
Now I’m working on the 35th conference edition, as I still enjoy placing the ads, editing and writing the articles, and working with Blue Ridge Printing to select the best weight and gloss of paper.
Other than in my office, I wonder if there are any other complete sets of all 33 catalogs. The Covid pandemic prevented us from publishing #34 in 2021. That will drive Arts and Crafts historians and collectors crazy searching for it a hundred years from now!
And when they are thumbing through those old conference catalogs, who among the exhibitors listed there will they be wishing they could have met?
Until next week,
“I think the older you are, the more you’re going to cling to the printed word as being sacred.” – Buzz Bissinger
PS – In case you have not seen a recent catalog, the link below will give you the opportunity to flip through the 33rd edition we published in February of 2020.