Louis Comfort Tiffany is perhaps the single most famous artist of all time in the field of decorative arts. During his era, his name was the only one associated with his firm’s design work. But recent information uncovered by a professor and a curator have led to a new understanding: Tiffany Studios employed many young women (“Tiffany Girls”) doing important aspects of the creative work.
One of them, Clara Driscoll (1861-1944), stands out. She was head of the women’s glass-cutting department at Tiffany Studios. While she oversaw the work of many women, she also designed her own pieces.
Today we know that Clara Driscoll was the artist behind some of the mosaics and small desk items. She also created many of the most admired lampshades, including the well-known Dragonfly, Wisteria, and Poppy designs.
Clara Driscoll’s Early Life
Clara Pierce Wolcott grew up in Tallmadge, Ohio. She was the eldest of four daughters. Her mother was a schoolteacher. Her father died when Clara was young.
When Clara was old enough, she tried following in her mother’s footsteps as a teacher, but it didn’t feel right. She opted to attend the Western Reserve School of Design for Women to pursue work in the visual arts.
In 1888, she and her sister Josephine moved to New York City to attend the Metropolitan Museum Art School. The school had courses on industrial design, and the Driscoll sisters felt they could find work in that field if they had training.
Jobs at Tiffany Studios
Soon after moving to New York and taking some classes, Clara and Josephine were both hired to work at Tiffany Studios. It is not known what their first positions were, but Clara eventually became supervisor of the women’s department. She was tasked with overseeing the women who selected glass for upcoming designs. The work required sensitivity to colors and a good eye. All the glass created by the Studio had various gradations, and each piece of the mosaic was selected separately.
Boarding House Life
Clara and Josephine took rooms in a boarding house. This was a logical place for single working women like the Driscoll sisters to live. Typically, the landlady provided three meals a day and did laundry for her boarders.
The group living environment proved very social. Clara sometimes went on excursions with friends from the boarding house. Both times she married, it was to men whom she met there.
Clara’s letters home reflect that she took full advantage of the city. She enjoyed biking around the city, attending the theater, and wrote home about news developments, such as the opening of the New York City subway in 1904.
Married Women Barred From Tiffany Jobs
As was the custom at most companies, Tiffany hired only single women. Those who became engaged or married had to leave the company.
Clara became engaged in 1889 to a fellow she met at the boarding house where she and Josephine lived. She left the company at that time, but when her husband died unexpectedly she returned to work in 1892.
Glazier Strike Increased Opportunity for Women
That year, the studio was in flux. The Lead Glaziers and Glass Cutters Union went on strike. All the members of the union were male, and if they weren’t working, the studio would have to shut down.
Clara Driscoll had worked well with Tiffany. When she asked to come back to work, Tiffany asked Clara to organize a women’s glass-cutting department. If the women could keep up with some of the work, then the studio production would continue despite the strike.
Clara began the department with six employees. Two years later, she headed a department of 35 women.
Selecting the Glass
The glass selectors were an important part of the Tiffany process. Each piece of glass was complex and had veining and highlighting within it. The selector chose the exact piece of glass for each part of the mosaic. She also specified how it should be cut in relation to the template. Each glass selector was assigned an assistant to do the cutting, so the selector could go on to make the next choice.
Louis Tiffany was comfortable working with women artists. In the early 1880s, he collaborated with textile designer Candace Wheeler. Wheeler, Tiffany, and a few others ran Associated Artists. Much of the work produced by the group involved intricate embroidery, and this work was solely done by women.
As he relied more heavily on the women for glass selection and cutting, he also came to believe that women had a better sense of color than men and a good sense of design.
Clara Driscoll’s Own Designs
During the late 1890s, Clara came into her own as a designer of leaded-glass lampshades. The Dragonfly, Wisteria, and Poppy shades and many others were produced under her auspices. She and the Tiffany Girls executed many of the most prestigious windows and mosaics that the firm undertook at this time.
Clara wrote home often of her regular Monday morning meetings with Louis Tiffany. The two seemed to share a sensitivity to color and texture and a love of nature. She expressed “unbounded admiration” for him, and Tiffany praised her artistic sensibility. Perhaps that is why the working relationship brought about such stunning results.
In addition to designing and supervising the design work of others, Clara also had management responsibilities. She hired new women to work at Tiffany Studios. The “no married women” rule caused the job turn-over rate to be quite high.
She also coordinated the work of the women’s department with what was happening at the Corona Furnaces, so she traveled to Queens to check on things every couple of weeks.
Paris World’s Fair
Anyone considering a Tiffany design piece was given little information about the involvement of specific artists. The pieces were simply attributed to Tiffany Studios.
However, new rules in the art world created the necessity for change. In 1900, Tiffany Studios planned to enter several pieces in the Paris World’s Fair. Submissions were required to bear the name or names of individual artists or designers of particular pieces.
As a result, both Clara’s work and that of well-respected glassmaker Arthur Nash were acknowledged. Clara’s Dragonfly lamp won honors that year.
Union Protest Limits Women’s Department
In 1903, the men at Corona Furnaces where all the pieces were fired went on strike. Their demand? That the women’s department be closed.
Tiffany needed the men at the furnaces. To settle the dispute, Tiffany agreed to a compromise. He agreed to limit the staff of women, but he maintained that the women had the right to design and execute lampshades and many other luxury goods.
Clara was featured in the press in 1904 as one of the highest paid women workers in the United States. Though the amount the news article reports her earning ($10,000) does not track with Tiffany records, it is significant that she was thought to be among the better paid women of the day.
In 1909, she left Tiffany Studios for a final time. She married a fellow named Edward Booth and wanted to produce her own art. She began painting silk scarves, but this effort was a quiet one that never achieved the prominence of her work at Tiffany Studios.
How the Story Became Known
Clara Driscoll and the story of the other “Tiffany Girls” became known when Tiffany expert, Martin Eidelberg, an emeritus professor of art history at Rutgers, and Nina Gray, a former associate curator at the New-York Historical Society separately came upon family letters that belonged to Clara.
Eidelberg had just given a lecture on Tiffany and glass-making when a member of the audience introduced himself. The fellow was a Tiffany descendant and had family letters that he thought might interest Eidelberg.
In the meantime, curator Nina Gray (1956-2013) was doing research in the archives of the Queens Historical Society where she found letters by Clara Driscoll that had not yet been read and studied.
Gray’s lead as well Eidelberg’s letters pointed to another source of material: the archives at Kent State University. As it happened, both scholars contacted the same Kent State archivist within days of each other.
Once that connection was made, Gray and Eidelberg agreed they would benefit by working together.
In the End
The result led to an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society in 2007. The Society has a major collection of works by Tiffany. This exhibit was the first time the works were presented with the knowledge that women had participated in the design process. The exhibit now travels to other museums around the country.
As a result of the New-York Historical Society exhibition, a dramatic reading of some of the letters written by Clara is still available online. Listen here.
Clara Driscoll’s personal letters provide the only known first-person account of day-to-day life at Tiffany Studios where Clara was both a designer and a well-respected middle manager. Her descriptions of her personal life shed greater understanding on middle-class life at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century when women were just beginning to venture to the city to earn their living.
For another story about Tiffany Studios, read Tiffany Girls: Designers in the Workroom.
Because women faced obstacles in gaining employment in the early 20th century, some got around it by working freelance. For that story, see Campbell Kids Creator Grace Drayton.