Sunday, February 12, 2012

135: The Self -Empowered Woman: Clara Driscoll

Dear Followers,

About eight years ago, researchers who were working on a book about Louis Comfort Tiffany made a startling discovery. While they were at the Queen's Historical Society they found a cache of letters written by Clara Driscoll to her mother and sister, which outlined her work as a glass cutter and designer of the much-valued classic Tiffany lamps. Their 2007 book tells the story of young Clara Driscoll and the 35 "Tiffany Girls" who were largely responsible (but mostly unacknowledged) for the award-winning lamps. Not surprisingly, it was assumed that Tiffany himself - with the help of his male design staff - created the complicated designs.

Clara Driscoll (born Clara Pierce Wolcott on April 2, 1861, in Tallmadge, Ohio) lost her father when she was only twelve years old (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Unlike most girls of her era, she and her three younger sisters were all encouraged to seek higher education. From an early age, Clara had an obvious artistic talent and attended art school at Cleveland's Western Reserve School of Design for Women (2: An Early Sense of Direction). Eager to leave Ohio, she - like lots of women of that era who were intrigued by the industrial arts movement - moved to New York (14: Selective Disassociation).

She enrolled at the Metropolitan Museum Art School, and was hired by Tiffany in 1888; four years later she was named director of the "Tiffany Studios' Women's Glass Cutting Department." These women chose the colors, size and type of glass pieces for the popular windows, mosaics and Tiffany lamps. Driscoll became the creative force - director, designer and crafter - of more than 30 iconic designs (like the Daffodil, Dragonfly, Peony, and Wisteria).

When she began working for Louis Comfort Tiffany, she was a 27 year old well educated single woman, but when she became engaged Driscoll had to leave Tiffany's because the company did not allow married women to be employees. After her husband died, she returned to the company and her Dragonfly lamp won first prize at the Paris Exposition of 1900 (8: Turning No Into Yes).

Back in 1902, Dsiscoll wrote home to her family that 15 of the Wisteria lamps that she had designed had been sold for $350 each. In today's dollars that price would be several thousand dollars. By 1905, 123 Wisteria lamps had been made, and Tiffany's took orders for them for years afterwards. In 1904, the New York Daily News included Driscoll as one of a handfull of remarkable women who made "$10,000 a year or more" (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

Her lamps became so popular, and demand was so great, that she had to give classes to the male employees on how to properly cut the glass pieces. It was another example of s female achieving an unusual level of authiority (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest).

In 1909, she left the company for good, and after that the women's staff shrunk, and tastes changed with the advent of World War I. Had it not been for the discovery of her historically priceless letters, the talented Clara Driscoll might have never been recognized for her inmpressive body of work. In 2006, the New York Historical Society's exhibit in her honor "A New Light on Tiffany" introduced her designs to the public, and the following year "A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls" was published.

Looking forward to your comments...

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