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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Crafting New Citizens: Art and Handicraft in New York and Boston Settlement Houses, 1900-1945

  • Author(s): Greenwold, Diana Jocelyn
  • Advisor(s): Lovell, Margaretta
  • et al.

This dissertation explores the creation and exhibition of immigrant-made art in American settlement houses in New York and Boston from 1900 to 1945. The lace, embroidery, and ceramics Southern and Eastern European immigrant artists created provide an important avenue to illustrate how European traditions survived, changed, or disappeared, and how Jewish and Italian communities in New York and Boston adapted to new circumstances while maintaining distinct identities. This dissertation proposes that art can help reveal what is gained and what is lost when communities uproot and settle far from their homelands: an issue as relevant for turn-of-the-century immigrants as it is for emigrant groups arriving in the United States and countries across the world today. The two object sets that are examined closely—ceramics from Boston’s Paul Revere Pottery and textiles from New York’s Scuola d’Industrie Italiane—reveal the working and living patterns of first and second-generation Jewish and Italian women as they interacted with middle and upper class settlement house reformers, collectors, and museum professionals to negotiate their place in American social and political life.

Beginning in the late nineteenth-century, college-educated men and women founded settlement houses in rapidly expanding urban immigrant neighborhoods. They initiated programs designed to help newly arriving Southern and Eastern Europeans adapt to American urban life. By 1900, there were over one hundred settlement houses across the United States peopled by progressive reformers eager to address the perceived moral and social problems of poor tenement neighborhoods. The history of settlement house efforts to alter basic living and working conditions ¬is well documented, as are the lives of many of the most influential reformers such as Jane Addams of Chicago’s Hull-House. However, historians have yet to adequately address the pivotal role of art production in settlement house reform efforts or to underscore the role immigrant practitioners played in the fashioning of their own identities through artistic practice.

The first section of this dissertation focuses on the work of young Italian and Jewish women who decorated ceramics at the Paul Revere Pottery. The workshop’s glazed earthenware dishes, mugs, and tiles decorated with images of American historical events and agrarian scenes are emblematic of a larger impulse to adapt workers to American taste through the language of the colonial revival. The young Jewish and Italian painters of the Pottery specialized in designs depicting scenes of flora and fauna native to New England and suggestive of the city’s colonial history. Designers hoped such iconography would teach newly arrived immigrants about their new nation’s values. The Pottery fostered women who made careers for themselves as artists and librarians while cementing their role as the rightful heirs to the North End’s historic structures and its Revolutionary history.

The second section explores textiles created at the Scuola d’Industrie Italiane in New York’s Richmond Hill settlement house and reveals how immigrant-made lace and embroidery represent a negotiated identity for the young Italian women who created them. At the Scuola, founders worked to preserve Italian lacemaking traditions while providing Italian women with alternatives to factory labor. Founders Gino Speranza and Florence Colgate worked to preserve Italian lacemaking traditions by creating a school based on Italian revival lace workshops that the pair visited while travelling in Italy. The nineteenth-century Italian revival of lacemaking and its importation to the United States represents a particular understanding of heritage filtered through the lens of settlement house reformers. The Scuola’s heyday also coincides with the tremendous vogue among upper class American collectors for Antique European lace. The Scuola’s objects are based on highly coveted antique fragments re-conjured in altered forms to appeal to American tastes. As first and second-generation immigrants, the women of the workshop well understood their roles as skilled craftswomen and representatives of an old-world practice. These needlewomen used their positions to cement roles in the social and economic forums of their city.

This dissertation augments previous examinations by turning not only to early twentieth-century reformers and art patrons, but by exploring the social and economic world of immigrant craftswomen and how their practices intersected in unexpected ways with collectors and connoisseurs in Boston and New York. While the voices of individual practitioners in cooperative workshops are often difficult to unearth, this project proposes new ways to read the work of settlement house artisans as vital clues to document their lives. The study addresses settlement houses as negotiated spaces and the objects produced there as vital means to support and enhance immigrant communities while furthering the interests of various constituencies. The cases in question reframe the Arts and Crafts movement as a trans-Atlantic venture that linked more than just America and Britain. These settlement house craft workshops connected disparate countries and social spheres in networks of cultural exchange and shared influence.

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