Sarah & Eleanor — The Hewitt Sisters

This spring, the Victorian Society in America honored Cooper Hewitt’s Hewitt Sisters Collect exhibition with an award for Outstanding Museum Exhibit in the category of Decorative Arts. Curators from the departments of Textiles; Wallcoverings; Drawings, Prints, and Graphic Design; and Product Design and Decorative Arts assembled the exhibition with contributions from the Digital and Emerging media department and a few exceptional researchers. Three rooms exhibit a compelling selection of birdcages, centuries-old textile fragments, a cast-iron stove in the form of a Greek goddess, art-moderne wallcoverings, and an intricately carved marquetry cabinet. The objects on display, both in the galleries and digitally, were originally collected by the two passionate, creative, and intelligent sisters for whom the exhibition is named: Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt. What follows is a brief look at these two women and their relationship to Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

WHY “COOPER,” AND WHO IS “HEWITT?”
Sarah (1859–1930) and Eleanor (1864–1924) inaugurated the Museum for the Arts of Decoration at Cooper Union in 1897. The museum’s opening and continued development over the following decades was the result of an upbringing immersed in a world of art, books, and travel, and the fulfillment of a lifelong wish of their grandfather. Peter Cooper (1791–1883) — who founded the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1859 — hoped to house a museum within his school. It was Sarah and Eleanor, two of the six children born to Sarah Amelia Cooper (1830–1912), Peter’s daughter, and her husband Abram Hewitt (1822–1903), who made this dream a reality.

Influenced by their dynamic and worldly parents — an enterprising and intellectual father who was elected mayor of New York City in 1887 and a mother who loved the arts, travel, and garden design — Sarah and Eleanor became pioneers in their own right. Each developed a passion for education, a cultivated aesthetic, and, as Eleanor wrote in The Making of a Modern Museum (1919), a “love of beautiful and exquisite workmanship.”

A GILDED AGE EDUCATION

Sarah (Sallie) and Eleanor (Nellie) compiled scrapbooks with their sketches from trips abroad and drawings evidencing their keen interest in architecture and design. Enthusiastic pursuits in the decorative arts and design, fashion, music, and theater filled their time and their social schedules. Dubbed “Swelldom’s Belles” by the press, the two sisters formed a productive alchemy: Eleanor was reserved, observant, and diligent, while Sarah was bold, enterprising, and — as she described herself to Sue Bliss in a letter from 1920 — a “babbling brook!”

RINGWOOD MANOR GUESTBOOKS

Sarah and Eleanor grew up in two large homes: 9 Lexington Avenue in New York City and in Ringwood, New Jersey. Ringwood Manor — the Victorian great house with twenty-six bedrooms — was a hub for Hewitt country entertaining. Four Ringwood guest books are filled with testimonials, poems, anecdotes, and artwork from houseguests.

The owl is a decorative element throughout Ringwood, and is on the family stationery and crest. Below is a poem and opposite a drawing from artist, poet, and Vogue writer Caroline King Duer — a dear friend and frequent guest at Ringwood — that captured the spirit of Sarah and Eleanor.

WHO BUILT THE COLLECTION?

In addition to receiving support from their friends, Sarah and Eleanor benefited from the connections of their well-known family and other donors, receiving important gifts of textiles, drawings from the twentieth century, prints, furniture, and wallcoverings. Cooper Hewitt has built a digital interactive exhibit exploring the social network of Gilded-Age and turn-of-the-century New York that embraced and enriched the sisters’ vision of the museum.

A TEACHING MUSEUM

Sarah and Eleanor’s collecting philosophy was ambitious. They viewed a museum’s collection as a tool for artistic education and were inspired by a similar institution — the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. According to Elizabeth Bisland’s Proposed Plan of the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration (1896), the museum’s mission was to be “an educator of public taste,” with an emphasis on “collecting beautiful specimens of art applied to industry” in order to encourage and inspire American manufacturers to “elevate the character of their products.”

Archival photographs from the years following the museum’s opening show women studying historical drawings and textiles. Similarly, today Cooper Hewitt visitors equipped with the museum’s Pen can interact with in-gallery digital tables to engage with the museum’s collection. While physical handling of the museum objects is rarely encouraged, Cooper Hewitt’s digitization of more than 210,000 objects makes Sarah and Eleanor’s collection accessible to all inquiring design minds.

Sarah & Eleanor: The Hewitt Sisters, Founders of the Nation’s Design Museum, an in-gallery brochure chronicling the lives of the sisters and their creation of the nation’s first design museum, is available at Cooper Hewitt. The Meet the Hewitts blog (cooperhewitt.org/ category/meet-the-hewitts) created by Margery Masinter, Trustee, Cooper Hewitt and Sue Schutte, Historian, Ringwood Manor will continue to share new and untold stories relating to the history of Cooper Hewitt’s collection.

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