Presentation to Historic Seattle Quarterly Meeting

Remarks by Larry Kreisman, Historic Seattle program director; Tammy Peterson, Woman’s Century Club president; and Paula Becker, historian and Woman’s Century Club member

Historic Seattle quarterly meeting at the Woman’s Century Club, April 20, 2012
Held at the Clubhouse (the Harvard Exit Theatre), 807 East Roy Street, Seattle

 

Remarks by Historic Seattle program director Larry Kreisman:

As some of you know, I’ve done a good deal of research into the Arts and Crafts movement in the region. One of my early discoveries, in reading through the issues of the Seattle Mail and Herald, were choice descriptions of Arts and Crafts exhibitions mounted by the Woman’s Century Club starting in 1904 and culminating in 1909 with a display at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition.

I’d like to share an excerpt from my book [The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest, Timber Press, 2007, pp. 80-82] that discusses the Arts and Crafts exhibitions mounted by the Woman’s Century Club from 1904 to 1909, which culminated in a display at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. as a way of opening up our examination of the club history and involvements.

————

The articles offer a glimpse of how one local club set itself on a path to producing yearly Arts and Crafts exhibitions that, in affiliation with the Washington State Arts and Crafts Society, showed the efforts of artists and craftspeople from the entire state of Washington, in every discipline—even pyrography, the burning of designs in wood and leather. In September 1903, the Woman’s Century Club of Seattle stimulated its members with a study topic, “The Arts and Crafts Movement.” Three papers delivered by club members were presented about the ideas and work of John Ruskin, William Morris and Elbert Hubbard. The following January plans were initiated to hold an exposition of allied arts and crafts. Besides displays of fine art, the club intended to include china painting, pyrography, leatherwork, hand carving, needlework and other handicrafts. It also wanted to show the best work being done in the manual training departments of the public schools.

The Woman’s Century Club achieved its goal of gathering a wide array of handicrafts to show along with the fine art. The Seattle Mail and Herald commented, “Taken together, the Exhibit was a decided revelation of the talent in various artistic lines which Seattle shelters and of which she has reason to be proud.”

Delighted with the success of this initial effort, the club forged ahead. … The club’s second Arts and Crafts exposition opened on May 29, 1905, with a first-day crowd of over 600 people. China, needlework, and paintings were artistically arranged, and the press was complimentary, calling it the most successful art exhibit ever given in the Northwest. The Seattle Mail and Herald proclaimed, “The result far surpassed the wildest imaginations of the most optimistic member of the Woman’s Century Club, under whose auspices the exhibition was held, and the verdict of the public at large was that the artists of this part of the world need not fear to enter competition anywhere.”

These pivotal exhibits assured the Woman’s Century Club that it was providing a valuable service by offering an outlet to regional artists, whether they were professionals or working out of their homes. There was also value in promoting the importance of continuing manual and design arts in the public schools to stimulate talent in local communities. Finally, by giving the public an opportunity to witness current ideas about art and craft, it was creating a more sophisticated clientele for objects that were beautiful and useful in the many new homes being built.

… In the press coverage for the 1906 Arts and Crafts exhibition, mention was made of Mission-style chairs and a table made by manual training students in the local school. In the following year, for the first time the participation list and coverage seemed to imply a larger participation by serious craftspeople earning a living in creating handmade items, including beaten copper by Jessie Fisken and Mrs. John Ballard and photographs by Adelaide Hanscom. The exhibition also included work by the nationally known ceramic artist Franz A. Bischoff, who had been in Seattle teaching china painting.

The 1908 exhibition appears to have been the club’s most ambitious undertaking, preparing the group for taking charge of the handicraft exhibits at the A-Y-P Exposition the following year. An undated news clipping noted that the fifth annual exhibit of the Washington State Arts and Crafts Society was the best of its kind “ever held in size and quality.” It contained nearly 500 works of art shown in seven large rooms. On display were oil paintings, watercolors, and designs from various craft disciplines: “One of the most attractive features of the exhibition is the display of chinaware and needlework for which one room is reserved. Here are seen a number of beautiful specimens of the potters’ art and a collection of extremely valuable articles of needlework, among the latter being delicately worked hangings and ornamental pieces, as well as many articles of domestic use. In the same room is exhibited ornamental leather.” …

In the meantime, in 1908, the Woman’s Century Club was already preparing itself to take charge of the sixth annual exhibit of the Washington State Arts and Crafts Society to be held at the A-Y-P Exposition the following year under the leadership of Mrs. W. A. Foster, chair of the society, and Mrs. H. B. Fish, the club president. The exhibit space was to be in the rotunda of the Manufacturers Building, where there was a “well-lighted section, with floor dimensions of 90 x 100 feet and accompanying wall space.” There, the club members hoped to show much of the best Arts and Crafts work from around the state.

Their exhibition space had been referred to as the Women’s Court. It, along with an Inventor’s Court, Architectural Court, Indian Court, and Court of History, featured specialized exhibits that showcased creative output in Washington: “The court will contain all work that is the handiwork of women of Seattle and the state of Washington. It will be the center for embroidery, sewing, fancy and plain, weaving, ceramic art, pyrographic work, and in fact, for all the pursuits that women enter for profit or pleasure.” The media and visiting public were pleased. The positive news coverage of the exhibit continued throughout the duration of the A-Y-P Exposition. Not as well documented was the exhibition of applied arts by men. Even in the published newspaper lists of award and medal winners, the entries of regional male craftsmen were seldom mentioned.

Woman's Century Club
Remarks by club president Tammy Peterson:

Good afternoon, and thanks so much for coming today. And thank you to Larry Kreisman and Historic Seattle for all their support.

I want to dedicate my talk today to the memory of Mrs. Helen Zednick, a club member in the 1920s who took it upon herself to organize and record the history of the first thirty years of the club. It was said that “clubs of this city owe [her] a large debt of gratitude for a collection of carefully prepared data that otherwise would never be available.”[1] I’d like to thank her as well.

I’m happy to be able to share some of our club’s history with you today. Our club was founded in 1891. It has a 120-year history that includes the construction of this building as our clubhouse, and the election of Seattle’s first woman mayor, who was a former president of our club. I’ll be talking about those big events, but I also want to tell you about some lesser-known aspects of the Woman’s Century Club.

First, the beginnings. According to the history compiled by Mrs. Zednick:

On July 31, 1891, at the home of Miss Julia E. Kennedy, Seattle’s first woman superintendent of schools, ten of the city’s most intellectual women, all of whom had made valuable contributions to the literature and thought of the time, met and organized a club which they named the Woman’s Century Club of Seattle.[2]

One of the women who founded the club was Carrie Chapman Catt, a protégé of Susan B. Anthony. But the other founders were accomplished too. They included:

  • the first woman to graduate from Yale Law School, Alice Jordan Blake
  • one of Seattle’s first woman physicians, Dr. Sarah Kendall
  • Seattle’s first woman superintendent of schools, Julia Kennedy[3]

A history book made by members in 1893 explained why the club was created:

The present is indeed ‘Woman’s Century’ and out of the spirit which has made it such, has grown the organization of such helpful associations for women as the Woman’s Century Club of Seattle, Washington. It had its inception in the minds of a half dozen women who felt its need in the sordid atmosphere of a rapidly developing western city. Its purpose is intellectual culture, original research, and the solution of the altruistic problems of the day.[4]

This history book was sent to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, at the request of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, to show some of the activities of women in the great Northwest, and was “much praised” there.[5]

In the early years, each club member was required to give a paper at one of the club’s monthly meetings. The first year’s papers all addressed the status of women. They included:

  • “The Evolution of Woman” (Carrie Chapman Catt’s paper, and the first one given, on August 28, 1891)
  • “Women in Science, Literature and Art”
  • “Divorce”
  • “Co-Education”
  • “Resolved That Woman Is Woman’s Best Friend”[6]

Another early member of the club who was prominent in Seattle’s history was Emily Inez Denny—a painter and a daughter of the pioneering Denny family. In 1899 she gave a paper to the club entitled “Founding of Seattle and Indian War.”[7]

In its early years the club met at Henry Yesler’s mansion, near Third and James, which also served as the Seattle public library at the time. After a fire there, the club met in elsewhere, including the home of member Kate Turner Holmes. The selection of the club’s flower, the white rose, in 1896 is said to have been inspired by Holmes’s “rose-covered veranda[,] where the group enjoyed her hospitality so often.”[8]

At its start, the club was educational as well as social—it was committed to “intellectual culture” and learning. In its first few decades, the club developed “departments,” much like a small university. The first ones, in the 1890s, were Art, Current Literature, Education, Hygiene, Philanthropy, Religion, Politics, Science, Temperance, Woman’s Progress, The World’s Fair, and Miscellany.[9]

As club membership increased, each department developed its own officers, members, and regularly scheduled talks or gatherings. Departments changed as members’ interests changed. In the early 1930s, they included Art, Drama, Current Events, Household Administration, Literature and Travel, Music, Philosophy and Science, Political Science, and Social Service.

By 1923, the club numbered almost 300 women[10], and they started planning a clubhouse—this building. It took two years to plan … and just five months to build! Planning began on June 2, 1923. After rejecting a First Hill location, on September 12 the club’s Building Board “voted to put the lot on Harvard Avenue … as in our opinion it was the best buy for the money …”[11]

Cost was a constant theme. They had a very patient architect, Pierce Horrocks, who met with them many, many times. At one typical meeting:

Mr. Horrocks then came in and the plans were again gone over step by step, with a view to doing away with every unnecessary expense—lighting, heating, elevator, fireplaces, glass, finishings, floors, seatings, toilettes, dressing rooms—and then after long discussion we came to the end, where there was very little we could eliminate if we wished to build safely and wisely.[12]

I want to pause and give respect to these ladies for their hard work. The total cost of this building was under $60,000.[13] And I think you’ll agree that it has stood the test of time!

The ladies raised money to pay for the clubhouse in many ways, including rummage sales, bonds, house parties, card parties, and life memberships in the club. They also sold naming rights to the chairs in this auditorium. For five dollars, a donor’s name was engraved on a metal nameplate that was affixed to a chair. Almost 300 chairs were sold.[14] The nameplates were removed when the auditorium was remodeled in the 1970s, but we still have many of them.

On May 26, 1925, after two years of planning, it was time for the groundbreaking. A Seattle newspaper reported:

Little Miss Bonnie MacPherson, 7-year-old daughter of Mrs. John E. MacPherson, president of the Woman’s Century Club, had the honor yesterday afternoon of turning the first shovelful of earth for the new clubhouse…. The group repeated the club pledge, the club chorus of sixteen voices sang, and the little shovel, gay in the club colors of green and white, was plunged into the earth by Miss Bonnie.[15]

We still have the little shovel; it’s a treasured keepsake of the club.

The clubhouse opened just five months later, on October 13, 1925, with a bridge tea. A week afterward, the Music Department inaugurated the auditorium with a “pastoral operetta” called Sylvia.[16]

The club’s 50th-anniversary yearbook described the clubhouse this way: “With its spacious lounge—the setting for many social affairs—ballroom with stage, conference rooms, library, tearoom, commodious dressing rooms on second and third floors, and well-equipped kitchen, [it] provides all the needs of the modern clubwoman.”[17]

In 1927, the club reached its highest point of membership—462 women.[18] Part of the reason for the growth was the clubhouse, but another significant factor was the election of a former club president, Bertha Landes, as mayor of Seattle. She ran on an anti-corruption platform, and she was Seattle’s first, and still only, woman mayor.

For more than 40 years this building served as the clubhouse, hosting the club’s meetings, talks, teas, receptions, theatrical presentations, and other events. In 1933, the club brought Amelia Earhart to Seattle. She gave two talks downtown and attended a reception here, in her honor, in the parlor.[19]

From the 1920s till the 1960s the club had a separate group, called the Juniors, for daughters of club members. They held parties, dances, bazaars, Christmas entertainments, and spring fashion shows to raise money for their projects, which included assisting the blind; for instance, they helped a young blind Seattle attorney obtain a seeing-eye dog.[20] They also had bimonthly meetings with speakers or musicians.

The club remained active in the 1940s and 1950s, but in the 1960s it seems to have been overcome by the financial challenges of maintaining the clubhouse. In 1968 the club sold the building to film entrepreneurs, Arthur Bernstein and James O’Steen, and it was eventually reopened as the Harvard Exit movie theater that we all know and love today.

But the contract of sale guaranteed the club the right to meet in the parlor. And so we do, on the third Friday of the month, to this day.  And all of the furnishings and artwork in the parlor, and the Steinway piano, are the property of the club. You can also see the club’s name carefully preserved on the exterior of the building, above both doors.

From the 1970s to the present, the club has been active in the community, offered luncheons and programs, contributed to local organizations assisting women in need, and raised thousands of dollars for our scholarship, which we’ve given to a deserving woman student every year since 1891. Our club is growing, and we welcome new members.

I want to close with a quotation from the club’s 1893 history book:

Such in brief are the annals of the Woman’s Century Club of Seattle. Brief is its history, but as the acorn contains the history of the abiding Forest in its little shell so may the small beginning planted in sincerity and nourished loyally and patiently, become a fair garden at last.[21]

Woman's Century Club
Remarks by Paula Becker, historian and Club member:

I wanted to offer a few thoughts about exploring the Woman’s Century Club archives and making discoveries.

1. I felt such surprise and delight to know that the club still existed. I first thought of it as joining the past, but soon became fascinated by the question of how that past brought the club to its present—how a club like this came through the seismic shifts in women’s lives, in how work and leisure were defined, to still endure in 2012. I look forward to continuing to explore that, and to help answer the question: “What has this club been, and what do its members want it to be, and how can the club’s rich history be part of thinking about that question?”

2. I see a web of stories: Looking at this particular group over time, bumped up against Seattle history and women’s history. The club’s focus shifts over time from self-educating to social. Shift in self-definition—who were these women? Why did they ally themselves, and how has the club’s constituency grown and changed over time as a result of who members were at particular times, and because of what the times were?

3. Carrie Chapman Catt: The club is virtually never mentioned without the nod to CCC, both now and ever since its founding. Obviously she was important to the club’s founding, but since the group survived—apparently with ease—her departure less than a year later, it is interesting and curious that she is still so important as a linchpin of the club. A July 19, 1931, article in the Seattle Times tells us that, of the club’s original founders, only CCC is still living. I wonder if she knew that, and for how long the club remained in her thoughts?

4. When did the club flourish? Its membership high point came in 1927, with 462 members. By 1935, that number had decreased by 200—for reasons most likely intertwined with the Great Depression. It would be interesting to bump those numbers against those of other women’s clubs in Seattle at the time, and against similar clubs on a national level.

5. Another interesting way to parse out information about the WCC is the changing treatment of married members’ names in the yearbooks over time:

  • In the club’s earliest yearbooks, the founders are generally listed by their names only, with no “Mrs.”: Kate Turner Holmes, Alice Jordan Blake, and so on.
  • By 1897, married members were listed by both their name and their husband’s name: Jane Doe and Mrs. John Doe. This continued through the 1920s.
  • Beginning in 1934–35, married members were listed only by their husband’s name: Mrs. John Doe. This continued all the way through the mid-1970s(!).
  • Beginning in 1975–76, married members’ first names were listed, but only in parentheses after their husbands': Mrs. John Doe (Mary).

6. In hindsight, hosting famous (even in their time) women such as Susan B. Anthony and Amelia Earhart seems the more impressive and robust club activity. But the card parties, the dances, the many committees were important, too, to the membership. What did—and what does—the club mean to its members? What did—and does—the club mean to Seattle? These are questions that we, and hopefully others eventually, have the opportunity to explore through club records and other resources.

That sounds pretty serious. But of course,

7. There is the obvious possibility of happily following any of these women with whom I now have membership in common down the research rabbit hole—easily done now, with the Seattle Times Historical Archive on the Seattle Public Library’s website—where following one member’s trail sometimes offers insight into the WCC as well. That happened to me with little Bonnie MacPherson, whose tiny shovel broke ground for this building. How interesting to know that her mother, club president Amanda MacPherson, chaired the publicity campaign for the Seattle chapter of the Red Cross, and later ran the Queen Anne High School PTA. Both stories ran with images of Amanda, the first from 1928 in a fur coat, the later from 1937 in a simple blouse. Little Bonnie was only 22 years old when her mother died on February 22, 1940. Each member has a story.

I commend the women who saved these records, and look forward to exploring them in the future. The story of this club helps tell the story of its members’ lives (and vice versa) and expand our understanding of Seattle.

Woman's Century Club

View photos from the event, including some of the artifacts displayed, on our Facebook page!

Woman's Century Club
Sources for Tammy Peterson’s speech
(written by club member Sherri Schultz)

[1] “Club History Is Read at Outing,” Seattle Daily Times, August 5, 1923, p. 25.

[7] E. Inez Denny, “Founding of Seattle and Indian War,” Woman’s Century Club archives, Seattle; Woman’s Century Club Year Book, 1898-1899, Woman’s Century Club archives, Seattle.

[8] “Century Club Record Is Worthy of Pride,” Seattle Daily Times, September 24, 1933, p. 20.

[10] Woman’s Century Club Year Book, 1928-29, p. 105. Special Collections, Allen Library, University of Washington.

[11] Report of the Building Board of the Woman’s Century Club, June 2, 1923–January 7, 1926. Woman’s Century Club archives, Seattle.

[12] Report of the Building Board.

[13] “Woman’s Century Club, Seattle, Statement of Building Costs,” Pierce Horrocks, architect, November 16, 1925, Woman’s Century Club archives, Seattle; Report of the Building Board.

[14] Report of the Building Board.

[15] “Century Club Begins Home; Child Turns over First Earth,” Seattle Daily Times, May 28, 1925, p. 5.

[16] “Bridge Tea in New Home of Club,” Seattle Daily Times, October 11, 1925, p. 10.

[17] Woman’s Century Club Year Book, 1941, p. 59. Special Collections, Allen Library, University of Washington.

[18] Woman’s Century Club Year Book, 1928-29, p. 106.

[19] Paula Becker, “Amelia Earhart Speaks at Seattle’s Civic Auditorium under Sponsorship of the Woman’s Century Club on February 3, 1933,” HistoryLink.org, January 27, 2012.

[20] Woman’s Century Club Year Book, 1941.