Women’s furniture

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Although I hadn’t really thought of furniture this way before, certain pieces are gendered.  In particular, I want to the Yale University Art Gallery‘s furniture storage area to immerse in women’s furniture–objects that tell us something about women’s lives–from the Colonial period.



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We have often admired painted chests that women built their Hopes on, hopes for marriage that would come from a good dowry (textiles, china, and other movable objects).  The portable stuff in her Hope Chest would stay with her if she was widowed and pass to her daughter, to improve her chances.

You may make out the initials J and P on this chest-with-drawer from the late 17th century.  Joanna Porter was not John Marsh’s first wife when she married him in 1704, and she wasn’t his last.  From inventory, we know the daughter they had together inherited her mother’s clothing, and perhaps this chest.  Known as a stem-and-tulip motif, the carving likely referred back to the maypole festivities in rural England.  All about fertility.

2015-03-25 13.07.31Women’s roles change a bit with the development of niceties like this tea table.  Although made of cherry, a lesser wood to a mahogany that might be found on a Philadelphia piece, this scallop or pie-crust style tea table says so much about the changes in lifestyle.  Now deportment matters.  Personal cleanliness typified the new manners of a more affluent colony, and as the price of tea dropped, more classes could afford it.  So a table like this would set you apart.  Not only would you have the leisure to stop and drink tea, but you knew the right people, including men, to come join you and admire your expensive tea set and table.

And here’s where the trouble starts.  Tea tables represented something naughty in society–the emerging power of women.  Caused by many social factors, some men just couldn’t deal with it.  Unlike the puritan spinning wheel of female virtue and fertility, the tea table allowed not just socializing between the sexes, but also the chance to show off your fashions and flirt.  Oh my!

All virtue!

All virtue!









A Harlot's Progress, British Museum

A Harlot’s Progress, British Museum, oh my!

How much better for your to apply your skills to the domestic arts.  That’s what your education would be all about–how to attract a husband.  Yes, you need to read and write and do basic math to run your household, but perhaps even more important, you need to sing, dance, perform music, and make art.

Plus do your needlework.  And how much better that would look pulled out of this graceful, 1808 2015-03-25 13.19.29kidney-shaped work table from Philadelphia.  This is high style and function combined.  Yes, you could move it easily to catch the light.  But that shape.  Well, that’s more than your average sewing kit.  Here you even see it with its original silk swag.  The shape was meant to complement your lovely figure, as you tee hee with your suitor in the parlor.  Show off all your advantages!

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A stitched cover like this 1753 flame-stitched, horsehair-stuffed seat would also be shown off in the best parlor and to suitors.  Let’s hope Abigail Porter from Wethersfield, CT, who made it, was successful.  She couldn’t earn a living any other way.




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You might also demonstrate your painterly skills on a what-not table like this darling thing.  You could use a pattern book, such as the Ladies Amusement Book, to choose your pattern for painting or needlework.  You would trace the pattern with chalk or graphite (pencil), then paint it in with watercolor or ink.  Voila!



A page from the Ladies Amusement Book

A page from the Ladies Amusement Book

The curators think these bunnies were painted freehand, since they are ‘naive.’  I think they are charming and would certainly be an ’emblem of accomplishment’ if I were able to paint such.  Which I can’t.

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Later in the 19th century, women’s furniture types grew with women’s expanding roles.  A beautiful writing desk like this tambour-door gem provided you a quiet space for writing correspondence or reading, indicative that academic subjects were now part of a girl’s education.  And perhaps most important, the desk locks.  Ah, for some privacy…

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The Eye Man

The Museum of Arts and Design is a happy source for sparking new ideas.
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The current exhibit of Latin American artists, like so many of their shows, mixes unlikely materials with functionality.  Like the chairs made out of lace cloth by Diana Cabeza.
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Sebastian Errazuruz from Chile. has a shoe-art wall.  Love it!  For me, the show stopper is his commentary on labor and consumerist excess.  The Atlas with the world of the golden stiletto on his shoulder.  This in a time when women are spending well over a thousand dollars for glass slippers.
At my personal time of questioning/questionable vision, I particularly enjoyed the exhibit of Richard Estes‘ paintings, watercolors, silk screens, and photography.  He’s a photo-realist who has long depicted pop culture with his stylized muscle-car paintings and other scenes with hyper-realized reflections.  Here are his street scenes of New York.
Richard Estes, Sunday Afternoon in the Park, 1989. oil on canvas

Richard Estes, Sunday Afternoon in the Park, 1989. oil on canvas

Look at the vantage points he plays with.  Overhead at the automat.  Straight on with a couple lounging on a rock at Central Park, with the distorting city panorama.
Richard Estes, Automat, c1971, oil on masonite

Richard Estes, Automat, c1971, oil on masonite

In several works he distorts viewer understanding of reality and vision.  His confusing self portraits like this one with his reflection on the Staten Island Ferry.  His presence is a shadow, a reflection.  He’s really inaccessible.  More like a mirage.
Richard Estes, Self Portrait, 2013

Richard Estes, Self Portrait, 2013, oil on board

You might not be surprised that my favorite is “The Eye Man” from 2014.  Look at how he plays with reflection, being able to see, signs, windows onto another world.  “Use It or Lose It” one sign at the lower center reads.  Ain’t that the truth?
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Richard Estes, The Eye Man, 2014, oil on canvas

Love letter to a theater

The new HVAC system all lit up

The new HVAC system all lit up

The Shubert Theater in New Haven is 100 years old and is being celebrated in a bunch of ways–pivotally, with a facelift of the facility.  New HVAC, a new black box theater, extension of the front to the curb, and restoring the historic marquee.  Can hardly wait to see that!

Now you know me.  I’m in there partying with the historians and actors.  A few weeks ago, I went to Colin Caplan‘s talk on the history of theater in New Haven.  And it’s rich indeed.  So many stories.  Almost every street had a theater, and they all had a story.
In the 1800s, theatrical events were associated with churches.  Believe it or not, Minstrel shows were pseudo-religious.  Soon, say by the 1840s, public assembly halls became the site for public entertainment like theatricals and dances. My favorite was the Livonia Temple of Music which sold pianos and had a music hall upstairs.  In New Haven, all these assembly halls have been torn down or otherwise lost.
The one where Lincoln spoke in 1860 before becoming President has become a bowling alley.  I don’t know what to say about that.  And Dickens, who visited New Haven in 1868, spoke at the opera house which burned to the ground in the 1920s.  Fire was a major theater killer.  Fire proof construction methods, like using steel, started to make a difference.
With job growth came immigrants and the new development of suburbs.  Theaters were everywhere,  I love the idea of the gas station that became an entertainment space at night.  Halls sprung up that catered to particular groups.  The Germania seated 600 and was an early version, built in 1868, that catered to their particular community.
The Northern Italian immigrant Sylvester Poli, a sculptor by trade, became a theater impresario.  In 1893, he opened his first theater, devoted to vaudeville.  Soon he head theaters all through the northeast.  Talk about immigrant success!  And that was based on making the theater affordable for everyone of any income  level.  He built huge palaces seating 2500, such as Poli’s Palace and Carl’s Opera House, which became the Hyperion Theater that showed movies.  This theater-to-movie-palace conversion became a trend in the early 20th century.
Yale was not to be left out.  Woolsey Hall was built in 1901 for the 200th anniversary of the university and was also home for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra.  It houses the largest organ in the world and in the rotunda, a war memorial.  And apparently, it has a ghost.  Why not?  What ghost wouldn’t want to live there?
When the halls converted to movie palaces, people would go to their community, and later suburban, theater during the week, then on Saturday night, go downtown to Woolsey or the Hyperion or one of the other theaters, like the Shubert.
The Shubert Theater was famous for launching plays and musicals to Broadway.  New Haven was already known for a try-out town before a New York run, but now the stakes escalated.  At the Shubert, the notable flop Away We Go! was rewritten by Rodgers and Hammerstein as Oklahoma!  They went on to launch their big shows out of New Haven.  Marlon Brando was barely a mention on the poster of A Streetcar Named Desire in New Haven.  All the big stars played the Shubert, hoping for success in their show to propel on to Broadway.
The Shubert was started by Eastern European Jewish brothers who went on to operate a thousand theaters.  When it was built in 1914, the Shubert was considered ultra modern.  What made it so was the new concept of vertical seating design.  Everyone could have a good seat, when your row rises slightly over the row in front.  We take this for granted, but at the time, the Shubert became a model for new theater construction.
To further celebrate the Shubert, I went to A Broken Umbrella production.  This group writes original, site-specific shows centered on New Haven history.  I’ve seen fun shows on bicycles, corsets, and the Erector Set.  Of course, I was all over the original musical “Seen Change” about the Shubert.
Seen Change!
The original score is a jazzy upbeat thing, punctuated by some pretty great tap dancing.  The plot, like any good musical, is thin.  A stagehand knocks over the ghost light–that light that is always lit in the theater.  Oh no!  Now strange things start happening, as people from the Shubert’s distant past come to life and together, all try to help a composer-lyricist finish a musical started in 1922.
Taft Hotel with its Tiffany glass dome

Taft Hotel with its Tiffany glass dome

The show moves around, starting in the lobby, then moving to the Taft Hotel next door, with its speakeasy past.  The actors stayed here, using the back passage to get to the Shubert, avoiding adoring crowds.  The show’s final act takes place in the theater.  I was seated for the final act right behind two of the actors.  It was intermission.  We chatted.  I asked, “Are you going to sing?”  The couple, portraying the show’s backers, were equivocal.

Well, of course they sang.  They jumped up and ran up the aisle and continued to be part of the madcap denouement.  It was all silly, good fun.
To think that New Haven was important on the theater landscape for so long.  And even as Broadway tryouts have moved to the Berkshires and the Shubert plays retreads on tour, New Haven still can parlay a show or two to the Great White Way.  A glimmer of the theater’s past glory–its legacy of architectural innovation–lives on, sadly, only in suburban cinemas, in which success is measured by the amount of parking.