Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

A man does not marry an artist, but a housekeeper …. I put away my brushes; resolutely crucified my divine gift, and while it hung writhing on the cross, spent my best years and powers cooking cabbage.” So wrote Jane Grey Swisshelm (1815-1884) of Wilkinsburg, Allegheny County.

Swisshelm’s bittersweet memoirs recall the painful sacrifice that she made to the Victorian code of womanhood by denying her true vocation as an artist. But, if her contri­butions as an artist were never allowed to materialize, it is hardly true that she spent the best years of her life boiling greens. Aggressive, bold, forceful and logical, she was a pioneer abolitionist, one of the first female editors in the country and one of the first women to act as a Washington, D.C., correspondent. Until her death in 1884, she fought “blazing with fire” for wom­an’s equal rights.

Although early in the nine­teenth century Emma Willard and Catherine Beecher had contributed immeasurably to the expansion of women’s educational opportunities by founding schools and editori­alizing, professional art schools outside of the metro­politan centers of New York and Philadelphia for aspiring painters were not established until later. The School of De­sign for Women in Pittsburgh would have been an excellent choice for Swisshelm, had she not been too old to join the first students in 1865. The school’s function was not primarily to provide educa­tional opportunities for women; rather, the motivation was purely commercial: to improve the design of manu­factured products, such as printed dress goods, oilcloth and wallpaper, which faced serious threats from superior patterns exported by European markets. The School of Design for Women abandoned its utilitarian focus not long after the Civil War, when Pitts­burgh’s manufacturing became dominated by heavy industry. This shift allowed traditional training in art to take prece­dence over commercial design. From the 1870s until the insti­tution’s closing in 1904, the educational facilities of the School of Design in many ways resembled those offered at the prestigious academies in New York and Philadelphia. Attracting a growing number of students, the school prided itself as one of the finest west of the Alleghenies. Inevitably, however, the circumstances that determined – more than any other factor – the destiny of the women at the School of Design were the demands made by such early feminists as Catherine Beecher.

The historic First Woman’s Right Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 helped many gain some perspective from the Design School stu­dents’ standpoint. Although the women at the convention envisioned the meeting as the first in a series of public forums on woman’s equal rights, the women’s movement never attracted much of a popular following. Women took to the speakers’ platform, promoting the importance of education and self-reliance, but the movement took time to be­come fashionable and garner a loyal following. A truly orga­nized, independent feminist movement did not develop until the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866, when black men were enfranchised at the expense of women. This rebuff prompted Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to join forces with the more militant suffragists to form the Na­tional Woman’s Suffrage Asso­ciation. In the ensuing years, the feminist movement began to address numerous con­cerns. Some women worked publicly and actively for suffrage and related social re­forms; for example, it was largely due to Jane Grey Swis­shelm’s efforts that a law was passed in Pennsylvania which permitted married women to hold and sell property. Other women effected changes in their personal lives, such as gaining more education, choosing gainful employment or joining women’s dubs. The single issue that united all feminists was the uncertainty of woman’s fate – and that became known as “the wom­an’s question.” Many particu­larly disapproved of the image of “true womanhood,” the cultural expression of the Vic­torian stereotype which as­signed to men and women separate areas of activity and interest: the public male sphere and the private female sphere.

Even though the demand in 1848 to extend suffrage to women had failed, it marked a turning point in the history of woman’s rights. The feminist rhetoric after the Civil War had heightened public awareness of the injustices that women experienced, decisively affect­ing the way many – of either sex – came to view the move­ment’s purposes. The new opportunities for women at the School of Design for Women dearly responded to a general sentiment for expand­ing their educational and intel­lectual needs.

Numerous episodes at Pittsburgh’s Library Hall near the closing of the nineteenth century proved that both men and women were strongly involved in the heated argu­ments on women’s role in society. An event in the au­tumn of 1864 which attracted special attention was the ap­pearance of Anna Dickinson of Philadelphia, one of the na­tion’s eminent feminists. Dickinson was an eloquent speaker and an ardent promoter of further education for women. Her undeniable sense of independence, as well as the satisfaction that she had gained in her relief work dur­ing the war, had dramatically altered her conception of a woman’s duty. Upon the war’s end, and determined to pre­serve the feeling of self-reliance, she embarked on a full-time career as lecturer and took to the platform to advo­cate the need for women’s education and self-support in many addresses throughout the nation.

The students of the School of Design for Women probably enjoyed the opportunity to speak with the dynamic Dick­inson, since an invitation was sent to her in 1865 by board member William Thaw. Al­though Thaw hoped that Anna Dickinson’s appearance at the school would help to solicit funds from local citizens by stressing “the special line of Art labor (basically the design of manufactured goods) … and the beneficent object” for which the school was founded, he also noted that an address on “the general sub­ject of Womans position in reference to self support” would “greatly assist a benefi­cent enterprise in behalf of Women.” Speaking on “A Struggle for Life” during a later visit to Pittsburgh, Dickinson must have had artists, such as those attending the School of Design, in mind when she called for women “to cultivate their own brains, to learn to do their work well” and advocated that “colleges should be thrown wide open become skilled as physicians, ministers and lawyers.”

Mary Rice Livermore of Boston, another of the era’s leading advocate’s for woman’s emancipation, appeared with surprising frequency in Pitts­burgh, and her public lectures “were attended by spellbound audiences of the masculine as well as the fairer sex.” Much like Dickinson, Livermore emerged a New Woman from under the weight of wartime responsibilities. A firm be­liever in her role as wife and mother, she managed to com­bine her domestic and profes­sional duties with amazing skill. During her twenty-three year career as a speaker on the women’s movement, she gave more than one hundred and fifty presentations annually while financially sustaining her family. In her numerous addresses, often entitled “What To Do With Our Daugh­ters,” she pleaded for distinctly vocational preparation for women, comparable with that offered to men. Speaking in the early 1870s at Library Hall, she appeared the New Woman incarnate, proving by her example that members of her sex were ready – and able – to share a greater portion of life’s demands.

How did Pittsburgh women react to these challenges? What could they do to pro­mote social change in an urban society increasingly dominated by men? What really did they expect? A prime mover of local events was the indomitable Jane Grey Swisshelm. Shortly after Jane Cunningham Croly founded New York’s premier women’s club in 1868, Swis­shelm helped to found the first Women’s Club in Pittsburgh, probably the first west of the Alleghenies. By providing a common space outside the household, Swisshelm and her associates hoped to create an environment in which local women could share their expe­riences, benefit from camarad­erie and “push forward with sisterly solidarity into the larger society.”

The Women’s Club in Pitts­burgh, like most contemporary women’s organizations, of­fered a cultural program serv­ing the needs of middle-class women who were leisured by contemporary standards but deprived of serious social intercourse. The club probably fostered the establishment of The Women’s Exchange, a cooperative exchange whereby women could earn money from domestic skills by selling foodstuffs or fancy goods. Other local clubs which fo­cused upon practical activities were the Amateur Art Club, the Tea Cup Club (also a paint­ing club) and the notorious Duquesne Ceramic Club, whose members sent works to one of the grand Paris exposi­tions at the end of the century. All three dubs were organized and sustained largely by School of Design women. Some clubs appeared more feminine than feminist, and more socially than practically motivated, but the element which united the hundreds of clubs during the following years was the pervasive con­cern for woman’s fate in an industrial society.

In the midst of these activi­ties, a few prescient women began to foster the profes­sional advancement of women in Pittsburgh. Elizabeth Angus Wade, better known by her nomme de plume Bessie Bramble, followed closely in Swisshelm’s footsteps. As a co-founder of the Women’s Club, Wade later became its president and honorary mem­ber. By the 1870s, Bessie Bram­ble was a regular contributor to the Pittsburgh Leader, the Dispatch and a variety of publi­cations throughout the area. Writing eloquently with great wit on a variety of social, polit­ical and religious subjects, the “woman’s question, however, received the most frequent attention from her trenchant pen.”

Another ardent advocator for woman’s rights was Eliza­beth Cochrane, alias Nellie Bly, “the Pittsburgh girl and patron saint of women journalists.” She is perhaps better remem­bered nationally for her epic journey around the world in which she beat Jules Verne’s fictional Phileas Fogg by eight days, than for her shocking reports of a public asylum in New York and those of the “poor working girl” of Pitts­burgh. But in the early 1880s, Elizabeth Cochrane had al­ready gained notoriety in Pittsburgh as a forceful writer on the topic of women and their role in society. Although she was then only a teenager, she sent her first article to George Madden, editor of the documents and treaties her father – incidentally a lawyer – had kept. The articles cre­ated a sensation, and her argu­ments became fodder for sermons – both pro and con – in churches. Thus, Nellie Bly embarked on her long career as journalist, ultimately advancing women’s profes­sional status in society.

Demands such as those by Anna Dickinson and Bessie Bramble naturally affected the way women of the School of Design saw themselves and their roles in society. Like the contemporary activists of the women’s movement, the School of Design student loomed as a New Woman – a transitional figure on her way from the domestic confine­ment of an earlier era to the fuller social and economic life promised in the future. The decision to enter a rigorous and lengthy training program toward a professional career demonstrated that they, too, were in the vanguard of a movement which sought to broaden the horizon of their sex. But how audacious it was for women to aspire to take up a profession! How precarious it must have been to try to make a living as an artist in an increasingly male dominated arena, an urban center where – as writer Willa Cather later noted – the business of Pitts­burgh was business, and hard­headed businessmen had no interest or knowledge whatso­ever of art or music, regarding artists as “fluffy-ruffles peo­ple.”

Fortunately, teaching was a logical step for many artists, offering relatively good wages and steady employment. Al­most half of the total number of graduating students secured employment as teachers of art either privately or in elemen­tary, secondary or higher edu­cation institutions. Agnes C. Way and Rachel Henderson chose this route early in their careers, when they began to teach drawing at the Central High School, an institution which for some years shared the same premises as the School of Design for Women in downtown Pittsburgh. Teach­ing’s greatest advantage was that one could combine it with a studio career. In 1874, Way and Olive Turney, also a teacher, jointly opened the first known women’s studio in Pittsburgh. A contemporary writer cited that Way “made her profession in reference to the sale of paintings and in instruction of classes and has found it vastly profitable.” Reporters also frequently men­tioned the fashionable studios of Ida Smith in the city’s Mount Washington section and Jeannette Agnew in its Shadyside area. While some women found employment in photographic art stores, oth­ers, such as Edith Ferguson, used their training as illustra­tors. Anxious to expand their roles as professional painters, the School of Design graduates stole into the limelight of the local art community by exhibit­ing works at the Pittsburgh art galleries of Boyd’s, Gillespie or Wunderly Brothers. Way’s paintings apparently sold as soon as they were exhibited.

Alumni of the School of Design for Women also ac­tively participated in the Pitts­burgh Artists’ Association’s biennial exhibitions, gaining greater visibility of their work and validation for themselves. Several graduates consistently entered the competitive annu­als sponsored by institutions in New York, as well as by the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1876, paintings exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition in Phila­delphia received extensive publicity in Pittsburgh’s news­papers, and several were later shown in store windows. One painting which attracted more than ordinary attention at the Gillespie Gallery was Way’s Three Hickories. Describing the work, the Pittsburgh Chronicler reported that the painting was “a masterly little landscape, embracing some of the finest features in the mountains near Johnstown.” The school’s Board of Directors were so pleased that it chartered a railroad compartment to send “Our Girl” to visit the Centen­nial Exhibition. A surviving photograph of the artist at her easel with Three Hickories may have been posed specifically to commemorate this event.

Several artists – among them Juliet Briggs, Carry Holmes, Turney and Way – welcomed the additional op­portunity to exhibit their works at Pittsburgh’s indus­trial fairs, annual shows which became increasingly popular near the twilight of the nine­teenth century. The inaugural event in 1878 took place on Kil­buck Island, neutral territory located between the rival cities of Allegheny and Pittsburgh. The expositions abruptly ended in 1883, as fire destroyed the entire installation. (Historians believe the fire was caused by a recently installed electrical light, furnished that year to the fascination of view­ers.) Six years later, the School of Design women partook of a distinctly more grandiose enterprise than the regional undertakings on Kilbuck is­land: an extravaganza orga­nized by the Western Pennsylvania Exposition Soci­ety. On a six and a half acre site, close to the city’s historic Point and facing the Allegheny River, a majestic Romanesque edifice was erected, ornate and boldly competing with Henry Hobson Richardson’s monu­mental Courthouse.

In this ostentatious setting, positioned between two im­posing entrances to the exposi­tion’s Main Hall, visitors found the Art Gallery “the mecca attracting more people than any other department of the big show.” In 1889, a dozen School of Design women – about half of the local exhibi­tors – together with three dozen young students from the school had been chosen to exhibit their works at the Society’s first show. Women from the school continued to exhibit their paintings at these indus­trial fairs until 1897, when the board of the Western Pennsyl­vania Exposition Society an­nounced that it would

dispense of the Art Gallery in view of the concurrent exhibi­tions organized by the Carne­gie Institute in Pittsburgh. When the first Carnegie exhibition opened on November 5, 1896, a select number of School of Design women were represented on the walls at the new Carnegie Library in Oak­land; of them only paintings by Johanna Woodwell-Hailman continued to pass the scrutiny of a jury which in­creasingly promoted artists from outside the local commu­nity. Eurilda Loomis may have achieved the greatest success, however, when her canvases were sent to the spectacular Paris expositions in 1878 and 1879. Perhaps the inaugural address by the president of the Women’s Club, Helen P. Jenkins, summarized the ethos of the period most succinctly.

It is not what we have achieved (yet even that would not be a history of itself) but what we show the spirit, the courage, the talent, the will to achieve in the future. We are just entering up­ward path ways, and this leads me to say that women’s clubs and women’s associations, whether their object be charity, reform or study are doing for women a kind of good which was not expected. They are teaching women the advantages of combination and association. They are teaching them methods of systematic action, and, besides, they are enlarging the horizon of many women’s lives, curing them of certain feminine narrowness.

Although their motivations in seeking new roles were diverse and complex, women actively expanded their roles as the century neared its end. Fortunately for the School of Design artists in Pittsburgh, there were women in the com­munity they used as role models with whom they could associate and from whom they could gain moral support. Their experiences outside of the home – as artists, teachers or club members – provided the impetus for them to be­come involved in society in new and unprecedented ways. By the opening of the twenti­eth century, the role of women in society could no longer be considered limited, anony­mous or passive. Swisshelm – had she lived – would have rejoiced with the School of Design women, who, unlike her, did not have to “put away [their] brushes, resolutely crucifying [their] divine gift.”


For Further Reading

Beecher, Catherine Esther. The True Remedy for the Wrongs of Woman, With a History of an Enterprise Having That for its Object. Boston: Phillips, Samp­son and Co., 1851.

Blair, Karen J. The Clubwoman as Feminist, True Womanhood Redefined, 1868-1914. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1980.

Dickinson, Anna E. Thoughts on Woman and Her Education. London: Longman, Green, Long­man and Roberts, 1861.

Hays, P. Samuel, ed. The City at the Point, Essays on the Social History of Pittsburgh. Pitts­burgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.

Thorpe, Margaret Farrand. Fe­male Persuasion, Six Strong­minded Women. New York: Archon Books, 1949.

Wilson, Erasmus. Quiet Obser­vations on the Ways of the World. New York: Cassell and Company Limited, 1886.


Britta C. Dwyer served as the project director of a conference recently co-sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh and The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, entitled “The Quest for Professional Status: Nine­teenth Century Women West of the Alleghenies.” The topic devel­oped from her doctoral dissertation at the University of Pittsburgh, “Nineteenth Century Regional Women Artists: The Pittsburgh School of Design for Women, 1865-1904.” The author currently teaches art history at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh.