'They took to their tools like ducks to water': The Cincinnati Women Woodcarvers of the Aesthetic Movement

Jennifer Howe, Cincinnati, OH

Tuesday, September 8, 2009Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum

Jennifer Howe will examine the important role of women in the development of woodcarving in Cincinnati, the carvers’ adherence to Aesthetic Movement principles and the stylistic significance of their work. In the late- 19th century, the Aesthetic Movement flourished in Cincinnati with the production of art-carved furniture, introduced and taught by three English immigrants (who also happened to be Swedenborgians and vegetarians), Henry Lindley Fry, his son William Henry Fry and Benn Pitman. The Frys, Pitman and their followers, inspired by the Aesthetic Movement principles of John Ruskin and William Morris, advocated the production of artistic household goods and believed that nature provided the greatest source of inspiration for decorative motifs.

By the time the Frys and Pitman settled in Cincinnati in the 1850s, the city was a major center for furniture manufacturing. The Frys established a successful business carving individual pieces of furniture as well as domestic and ecclesiastical interiors.

The Frys’ work for several of the city’s wealthiest residents drew considerable attention and they began to offer private woodcarving classes. (Favored by the city’s capitalist elite, the elder Fry downplayed his earlier enthusiasm, in England, for utopian schemes and socialism.) At the same time, Benn Pitman began to teach woodcarving at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Most of the woodcarving students were the wives and daughters of Cincinnati’s judges, doctors, industrialists and merchants. Most of the students pursued woodcarving as an artistic pastime, creating objects intended mainly for domestic use. While some of the women merely dabbled in woodcarving, creating small hatboxes, picture frames and fruit plates, others excelled, producing large-scale works such as fireplace mantels, bedsteads, cupboards, and dressers.

The Frys and Pitman believed that women were better suited for woodcarving than men, and encouraged their natural artistic inclinations. A few students, however, studied in order to gain employment as art teachers or as carvers in the furniture trade. What began as a mostly private endeavor for the female carvers turned into a public enterprise when the Cincinnati woodcarvers displayed more than 200 carved works, including furniture and architectural elements, at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.

The carvers returned home from the Centennial energized by the national recognition and praise they received. National art journals continued to feature Cincinnati woodcarving throughout the 1880s and to publish articles by Pitman, a prolific writer and philosopher of the movement.

Jennifer Howe is an independent curator who lectures on decorative arts and consults for museums and private collectors. She teaches courses in art history as an adjunct faculty member at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, where the Frys and Pitman taught. From 1996 to 2002, Howe served as associate curator of decorative arts at the Cincinnati Art Museum where she curated numerous exhibitions including The Best Part of Waking Up: The Folgers Coffee Silver Collection. She was also one of the lead curators for the Cincinnati Wing, the museum’s integrated galleries of Cincinnati painting, sculpture and decorative arts, which opened in 2003.

Jennifer Howe’s research and publications have focused on decorative arts, in particular on Cincinnati furniture, silver and Arts and Crafts metalwork. Howe was a contributing author of The Cincinnati Wing: Art in the Queen City and served as editor and contributing author of the book Cincinnati Art-Carved Furniture and Interiors.

7:15pm mini-exhibit

If you don’t have time (or the skill) to carve your own items, bring some other hand carved object or furniture.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.