Sunday, February 12, 2012

SAPPHIRES AND SUFFRAGETTES: The Unsinkable Mrs. William H. Klapp

Image from "An American Designer of Jewelry" 
House & Garden, October 1903

Among the fashionable and artistic women Gustav Manz created mountings for in the early 1900s was one society matron who could have stepped out of an Edith Wharton novel. Elinor Evans Klapp (1845-1915) was the second wife of William H. Klapp, a dry-goods merchant. Elinor's family were prominent Philadelphia Quakers. William Klapp was Presbyterian, considerably older than Elinor, and divorced. Her boldness compelled the Friends to "put her out of meeting" so the marriage ceremony took place at her father's home, on June 5, 1866, in the presence of Philadelphia's mayor. 

In Quaker fashion, the bride did not receive a wedding ring, though she later bought herself one in Paris. Despite her expulsion she did not fall completely away from her upbringing. As her great-granddaughter recalled in a letter, "She wished 'plain' language on us," and to the end of her life used "thee" and "thou" when addressing family. 

Mrs. Klapp spent most of her married life in Chicago, raising children and keeping house, before taking up jewelry design in her mid-forties.  Tasteful mountings for carved gems and family heirlooms became her specialty. One of her first experiments was resetting the solitaire from her engagement ring "after her own notion" (Newark Daily Advocate, 20 August 1908).  

Above: Elinor Evans Klapp, circa 1870s  
Photo from Klapp family archive; used with permission

Though a late bloomer, Mrs. K wasn't shy about promoting her work or her opinions. Her entry in the 1914 edition of Who's Who of American Women describes her as a "designer of art objects" who favored women's suffrage. 
An avid collector of ancient Roman and Greek intaglio, she traveled to France every August to scout unusual gems and objets at the Parisian shop of German-born antiquities dealer Raoul Heilbronner. In Rome, she later recalled, she visited the workshops of "Signor Castellani" and was smitten by the traditional craftsmanship and Etruscan-inspired gems the Castellani were known for. Another early influence was Florence Cary Koehler, the ceramicist and jewelry designer, who taught at the Architectural Sketch Club and was a founding member of the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society

House Beautiful's co-founder Eugene Klapp guided readers toward rooms organized and decorated according to "sound simplicities and lasting truths"

If anyone thought fashioning personal adornments a remarkable vocation for a Quakeress, even a renegade one, Mrs. Klapp's views on the honking stomachers then luring women into the shops set doubters straight. In an interview with House Beautiful's art critic Harriet Monroe ("An Experiment in Jewelry"; July 1900) she lambasted the monotony of style and extravagance: "I abominate diamonds... or rather I begrudge them their excessive prominence..." While diamonds occasionally found a place in her pieces, the massing of brilliants was nothing more than "a vulgar display of ill-used riches—it actually nullifies the special quality of the stone." 

Her trajectory as a standard-bearer for simplicity and balance was parallel to that of her son Eugene, a civil engineer who'd co-founded The House Beautiful magazine ("wherein taste goes farther than money") with two friends in 1896, and was his mother's biggest champion. The death of the Klapps' younger son, William Allan, in 1887 (from typhoid fever, at age 17; a third child, Laurence, died before age 10) and the declining health of Elinor's husband were another incentive to use her talents out in the world. 

Designs by Mrs. Klapp featured in House Beautiful, July 1900 

A scrapbook clipping from the Chicago Record-Herald (hand-dated September 9, 1905) features a photograph of the spacious workshop Mrs. Klapp installed in the family's Chicago townhouse, with plenty of natural light from two large windows (no "prodigality of draperies" in Mrs. Klapp's world!); a jeweler's bench, and a pair of mustachioed artisans to do the necessary metalwork could be seen in the background. The "swirl" she adopted for her mark, she explained, was taken from an allegorical scene of spirits meeting in the afterlife painted by "Mr. Feddar" (most likely a misspelling of Elihu Vedder). A fitting symbol, the profile writer concluded, for a woman who "knew not whence the impulse to be a worker in silver and gold and precious stones came to her nor whither it may lead her." 

Where it led was the burgeoning craft-show circuit, where Arts & Crafts society members exhibited their own handiwork next to wares of professional designers. Twenty-two of Mrs. Klapp's designs went on display at the Chicago society's opening show in October 1897. 

Partial list of items for sale from catalogue for opening show of Chicago 
Arts & Crafts Society, 1897
Art Institute of Chicago Records Collection

In its review of a show in Minneapolis that featured jewelry by Jane Carson, Bessie Bennett, and other midwestern artist-artisans, The Craftsman praised the "great delicacy of feeling that is distinctive of the work of Mrs. Eleanor (sic) Klapp of New York, showed to advantage in her arrangements of pearls, turquoises and opals, which were inset in various articles for personal adornment and use. Combs, pins, and buckles vied with each other in beauty, and novel effects were secured in chains, pendants, and buttons..." At an arts and crafts exhibition held at the St. Louis Wednesday Club in 1902, featuring work by Edward Colonna and Florence Koehler, "Mrs. Klapp... vied with her teacher in the beauty of her designs and the finish of workmanship" (International Studio, 1902, "American Studio Notes" contributed by Minnette Slayback Carper).

Arrayed with Mrs. Klapp's showpieces were works by younger metal-artists, some of them with formal training in applied arts, such as Margaret Rogers, Mabel Wilcox Luther, Grace Hazen, and Marie ZimmermannAs Pat Kirkham and Toni Greenbaum note in their book on American women in design, before 1900 there were few places outside the trade where a woman could learn metal-casting. A few acquired skills by apprenticing with male relatives, or taking classes at vocational institutions like the New York School of Applied Design for Women.

Undaunted by the perpetual struggle to get experienced bench workers "out of their beloved ruts," Mrs. Klapp submitted 40 pieces to the Paris Exposition of 1900; she was the only American woman represented in the jewelry category, and received honorable mention for her design work. She appeared at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo the following year. 

Rolling chairs at the Paris Exposition, circa 1900 
Photo: Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Collection

In 1903, the Klapps followed their son and his family to New York City. Eugene Klapp was married to the former Margaret Hotchkiss and with his friend Henry M. Brinckerhoff, co-inventor of the third rail, and fellow engineer William Barclay Parsons, founded a highly successful bridge-and-tunnel building firm,  Parsons Brinckerhoff & Klapp. 

Having established "a distinctive place in the arts craft movement" of the West, Mrs. Klapp envisioned a full-fledged jewelry studio supplying "exclusive custom" for wealthy friends like the Charles Pratts and "a well known prospective Chicago bride"—for whom she designed an engagement ring in the form of a red rose, "the latter a $3,000 ruby—dropped in a shower of dew—myriads of rose diamonds—rose and dew supported by rose leaves of green gold" (American Art News, 15 August 1905). 

Mrs. Klapp in her studio with unidentified craftsman
 Chicago Record-Herald, circa 1902
newspaper clipping courtesy of a descendant

In 1908, she moved into the Bryant Park Studiosa ten-story loft building for working artists on the same block as the New York Public Library; early residents included Fernand Leger, Winslow Homer, and Edward Steichen. The nearby New York School of Applied Design for Women provided a steady supply of assistants to handle the mechanical drawing while practical craftsmen carried out the chasing and setting. Of the former group, she raved to the reporter for American Art News: "Nowhere have I found designers so quick to grasp my ideas, so skillful in working them out as among the students the school has sent to me. It is doing a praiseworthy work no only for women but for art." One of her assistants, Izabel M. Coles, an interior design student at Cooper Union from 1911-1913, went on to work in the special orders department at Tiffany & Co. before opening her own jewelry studio.

Gustav Manz stock book record for a ring set with almandine supplied by Mrs. Klapp (the work was completed after her death)
Winterthur Museum, Joseph Downs Collection

If she hadn't known Gustav Manz's work before her move to New York, Mrs. Klapp saw a lot of it at the National Arts Club exhibit, "Jewelry and Precious Stones, Modern, Old and Oriental," held in the club's galleries on West 34th Street in November 1903. The New York Times reviewer remarked on Mrs. Klapp's "excellent taste" and the "bold" and "beautifully wrought" gems in F. Walter Lawrence's display—the latter hand-wrought and, though uncredited, probably co-designed by Manz. These included an iridescent glass fragment framed by tiny palm trees and a camel train approaching a stand of pyramids—motifs Manz adapted again and again for other retailers; and an ornate peacock "corsage" with eyes in the separate feathers formed of colored jewels—all destined for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition the following spring. 

Gustav Manz costbook record for a Polar Bear scarfpin purchased by Mrs. Wm. H. Klapp, Black Starr & Frost, and Charlton & Co. circa 1911 
Courtesy Winterthur Museum

In contrast to F. Walter Lawrence (who, one suspects, overstated his involvement as "sculptor-goldsmith" of the jewelry he promoted), Elinor Klapp was open about her role as overseer of hired artisans: "I am still looking for my model craftsman, the one who will work out my ideas with intuitive sympathy and consummate skill. When I find him, he shall have half my kingdom..." (Monroe, "An Experiment in Jewelry").

In New York as in Chicago, Mrs. Klapp was sought out by discriminating clients who appreciated her one-of-a-kind, historical yet not overly rustic, pieces fabricated "in accord with early English and Roman work." Too often, she complained, the metal-workers she hired to execute her designs lacked the aesthetic sensibility to see that "a wrong curve is so near a right one." 

Brooch designed by Elinor Evans Klapp incorporating intaglio of Nike flying to right  carrying a wreath, carved by Ottavio Negri (Bronson Family Collection)

Gustav Manz was one of the independent goldsmiths who received recognition as both a sculptor and maker of others' designs, notably at the Providence Art Club crafts show in 1901 and St. Louis in 1904  (this would change as the arts and crafts movement became more nativist, and Manz's shop began providing services to major retailers). Always on the lookout for the best, Mrs. Klapp called at Manz's East 28th Street studio, to arrange custom mountings for her clients and to trade stones according to notes in the jeweler's ledgers. Whether she was tempted to give him half her kingdom is unknown, but she found in Manz the very model of a designer/ craftsman—a gifted draughtsman, carver, and sculptor of animal miniatures in the style of Antoine-Louis Barye, who regularly submitted his own designs to Art Alliance and National Society of Craftsmen shows. 

Scenic brooch executed by Gustav Manz. The piece was exhibited 
by F. Walter Lawrence at the National Arts Club in 1903 
and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904
Town & Country, December 1903 

Through the years of her husband's illness and after his death in 1908, Mrs. Klapp led an active social and professional life. She traveled to Glasgow and visited Havana with her son, entered her work in group shows, and designed keepsakes for friends and family—delighting her daughter-in-law Margaret with a ring set with a miniature of her grandchild by British-South African artist Mary Helen Carlisle. She provided a pendant of moonstones set in diamonds on an "exquisitely designed" necklace of platinum for Trustees of the Pratt Institute to present to the school's departing Librarian. 

Ring mounting, left, designed by Mrs. W. H. Klapp  
to frame a miniature portrait of a granddaughter
executed by Mary H. Carlisle, circa 1909
Newspaper clipping from a descendant's scrapbook

One of her last public engagements was an exhibition organized by John Cotton Dana, the forward-thinking director of Newark MuseumLocated on the fourth floor of the city's public library, it ran for three weeks in November 1914. On display was work by stalwarts of the Boston Society of Arts & Crafts (Frank Gardner Hale, Josephine Shaw, Mabel Luther, Margaret Rogers, Eleanor Deming, Rosalie Clements); articles from Gustav Stickley's New York workshop as well as artistic items manufactured for "the trade" (lent by the Boston firm A. Stowell & Co., and Asian-imports dealer Long Sang Ti). 

Newark Free Public Library provided space for Newark Museum director John Cotton Dana's 1914 "Exhibition of Jewelry"

At the time, Newark was a major jewelry-making center, producing 90 percent of the gold jewelry in the United States by some estimates. Most of the jewelry sent to the show was available for purchase—a carved moonstone in a platinum and diamond setting designed by Mrs. Klapp was offered for $350 (about $7500 today). Sales were light, according to notes from the Society's reporting secretary; but attendance by local members of the trade was robust, fulfilling Dana's vision of the museum as a provider of "art service" to artisans and manufacturers and the general public, guiding the former to produce and the latter to demand well-designed goods. 

Writing in the American Federation of Arts journal, Magazine of Art, in 1915, reviewer Emily Graves acknowledged the anonymous hands behind Mrs. Klapp's "exquisite" creations: 

...The work is done by German, Swiss and Italian jewelers, now living in New York, who have brought to this country the thorough craftsmanship of the old world. It is perhaps not entirely irrelevant to express here the tremendous importance of husbanding this wealth of traditional knowledge which reaches America by immigration—knowledge which we have so often in the past allowed to be degraded or lost. 

An undated newspaper interview with Mrs. Klapp, entitled "How to Wear Jewels" and featuring a portrait by Brandenburg, summarized her own mission to provide an alternative to the faddish, cookie-cutter articles put out by even the best houses in "the trade": "Like many another, sorrow and invalidism opened the way for this 'most blessed work,' as Mrs. Klapp herself would say. She had no technical instruction, but wide travel and intense love of the good, a keen eye to understand what was true and beautiful, a very independent taste, and strong individuality—these combined, have been her inspiration." 

"How to Wear Jewels": Mrs. W. H. Klapp by Brandenberg, circa 1913
Newspaper clipping from a descendant's scrapbook

In March 1915, the Ehrich Galleries at 707 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, put on display "an interesting collection of unusual jewelry, by Mrs. William H. Klapp, executed under direction." Stand-outs were "a platinum and brilliant decorated crystal basket neck pendant, in which fruits are sculptured out of gems of suitable colors" and  "a very handsome corsage piece of Oriental design" (American Art News, March 20, 1915). 

Four months later, on the first day of August, Elinor Klapp died in Clinton, New Jersey. 

Though a few of her pieces are closely held by descendants, Mrs. Klapp's output is mostly preserved in a handful of arts and crafts journals, in the profiles and reviews her son Eugene took pains to feature in his magazine (or sometimes wrote himself, under the pen name Oliver Coleman), and a scrapbook of designs that has remained in the family.   

"I should not mind being the great-granddaughter of some one who today buys a bit of Mrs. Klapp's work," cooed Madeline Y. Wynne in House Beautiful's December 1899 holiday gift round-up (Wynne was the daughter of the inventor of the Yale lock, and venerated as one of the first women metal artists in America). 

With all the interest in grande dames of the Edwardian era in books and film, Mrs. Klapp is ripe for rediscovery—or at least a cameo on Downton Abbey

Moth buckle from Original Designs by Mrs. W. H. Klapp,
a portfolio of pen and ink drawings printed and bound in hand-tooled leather 
by her grand-daughter, circa 1915 
Private Collection

Copyright © Laura Mathews, 2014 

All Rights Reserved 

Thanks to Mrs. Klapp's family for opening their scrapbooks, and to Courtney Bowers-Marhev, Kay O. Freeman, and the archivists at Winterthur Museum, Newark Museum, and Art Institute of Chicago for research assistance 

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