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Backstory: The Story Behind the Story

Looking at a century-old photograph and seeing something familiar that is also genuinely unique—say, a piece of furniture—is a novelty. What are the chances of that happening?

Sure, some may have seen a photo of the house they grew up in, 75 years before we actually showed up to live there. That example aside, there are few others.

This is the story about a story: how an inadvertent encounter with a 1914 photograph propelled an investigation that led to the correction of expert, long-held conventional wisdom.

A few years ago, I encountered the 1914 black-and-white staged photo of six dour, stiffly seated models. The image was part of an exhibit about Mechanics Institute’s (today Rochester Institute of Technology) early twentieth-century Domestic Science program.

I often pass through the exhibit space where pedestals and objects are on view. One day, as I momentarily paused to look into a Plexiglas cube containing the 8-by-10-inch photograph, the dining table’s distinctive cut-out design caught my eye.

“That’s a very early, rarely seen Gustav Stickley table,” I thought.

Although my attention was initially arrested by the image’s foreground, it was the object peeking out from the extreme background that gripped me: it was partially obscured, slightly out of focus, and with a hot spot.

“What’s that,” I wondered. “A corner cupboard?”

Then, murmuring to myself, “Wait a minute. I know that cupboard!”

The glazed doors of its superstructure sparked a memory of the same piece of furniture I had inspected twenty years before when the cupboard sat inside an antiques dealer’s dark barn.

Then, the dealer volunteered, he had purchased the substantial case piece from a nearby private home after others declined to pay the $500 asking price. Too big, too heavy, too awkwardly shaped, and too difficult to move, perhaps the decliners thought. As important: too hard to sell. The cabinet’s configuration occupies a fair amount of real estate, which shrinks the number of buyers.

Custom-made, the one-of-a-kind cupboard had been created either to satisfy Mechanics Institute’s pedagogical requirements or as a prototype made by Stickley’s United Crafts manufacturing firm but never put into production.

As the photograph reveals, Mechanics Institute purchased an entire dining suite from Stickley: a table, a set of chairs, a two-drawer server, and a cupboard.

Moreover, the set had been purchased more than a decade before the photo was taken. By comparing each element of the suite to Stickley’s furniture catalogs, it was possible to unambiguously determine the dining set had been manufactured in 1901, possibly 1902. But no later.

Why did Mechanics Institute have the set?

And what else, besides a business relationship, connected Rochester’s Mechanics Institute to Syracuse’s Stickley’s furniture business?

Those, initially, were the ideas for what I anticipated would be brief, say 1,500 words, feature-style story hinged on the irony that 20 years after seeing the unique cupboard in person, I was looking at it in a century-old photograph.

But the first set of questions led to others, with answers emerging only once a deeper dive and a more comprehensive review of the wider historical record was undertaken.

My investigation revealed information contradicting the art historians and their texts that assert the 1913 New York City “Armory Show” as the very first traveling art exhibition.

In fact, my research demonstrates, that distinction rightfully belongs to the two-venue exhibition in upstate New York launched a full decade earlier.

To support the argument, I marshaled evidence drawn from a wide array of period publications, primarily newspapers, and magazines, coupled with historical documents and archival images.

The 1903 Arts and Crafts exhibit began in Stickley’s Syracuse sales showrooms and then moved 90 miles west to Mechanics Institute’s Rochester classrooms. An odd pairing—a commercial manufacturer and a noncommercial college—at least by contemporary standards.

And the reason the unique traveling exhibit happened was thanks to the initial commercial transaction: a piece of furniture—a corner cupboard—purchased by the second exhibit sponsor from the first.

The 1903 exhibit co-sponsored by Gustav Stickley and Mechanics Institute served the mutually beneficial interests of commerce and education. And the exhibit directed art education’s future as much as that of decorative arts.

The story is more complicated than that, of course. It involves business and marketing practices at the turn of the twentieth century, college curricular developments, and sometimes convoluted interpersonal relationships among strong, persuasive personalities.

But in a nutshell, that’s the argument and historical correction presented in my recently published book (RIT Press, 2022), A Symbiotic Partnership: Marrying Commerce to Education at Gustav Stickley’s 1903 Arts & Crafts Exhibition

A sidebar: as part of my research, I tracked the peripatetic corner cupboard’s “travels” at Mechanics Institute from 1910 to the early 1940s, when it was either thrown- or given away and, eventually, to its current owner, an RIT employee, and at a residence, not a dozen miles from where it was first installed.

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