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Cooper-Hewitt, National Museum of Design, Smithsonian Institution
Online article adapted from print sources



In 1897 Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt opened a gallery in New York City on the fourth floor of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the free school for adults founded by their grandfather, Peter Cooper. The museum they began went on to inspire--in Manhattan, and eventually, the nation--a new, heightened awareness of the decorative arts.

One hundred years later, their gallery has become the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, a national center for the study and appreciation of design. The collection of objects begun by the Hewitts is still growing. The exhibitions held by the Museum provide students, designers, and the general public with new ways to appreciate both the art and function of design, and in the process reveal the intrinsic importance of design as a part of daily life.

For Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt, the decorative arts were not just an interest--they were a calling. Before age sixteen they were already studying wood engravings in magazines and were spending their own pocket money buying rare textiles at auction. When they were old enough, they traveled to Europe to acquire rare and unique decorative objects. They judged an item not only for its beauty, but for the quality of workmanship and level of innovation it represented, choosing the best designed wallpapers, textiles, bird cages, and buttons to add to their private collection. Showing such enthusiasm for decorative arts so early in life, it is no wonder that these unusual, energetic young women soon used their creativity--and their large financial and social resources--to turn their private collection into a public one.

[Hewitt Sisters Biography]

To understand how Sarah (1858-1930) and Eleanor (1864-1924) Hewitt--two women brought up in the Victorian era--were able to succeed in such an independent enterprise as founding a museum, it is important to take into account their background and personalities. Sarah and Eleanor had an impressive family tree. Their father, Abram S. Hewitt, was a mayor of New York City in the 1870s, and their grandfather was Peter Cooper, a successful self-made industrialist. Cooper was also one of the first American philanthropists, and his finest gift to the public was his free school for adults, founded in 1853, called The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. The school was open to all men and women, and emphasized practical--rather than abstract--knowledge of the arts, technology, and science. Peter Cooper wanted to further enrich the experience of Cooper Union students by including a museum in his school, but he died in 1883, before he was able to realize his plan.

Sarah and Eleanor were strongly influenced by their grandfather, and wanted to fulfill his desire to establish a museum as part of the Cooper Union. Like Peter Cooper, they believed in philanthropy, shared his appreciation for fine craftsmanship, and understood the growing importance of materials and technology in an increasingly industrial society. These traits, combined with education, travel, and exposure to Cooper's many interesting and influential friends, gave the sisters the resources they needed to embark on the formidable task of founding the museum their grandfather had envisioned.

The Hewitt sisters were a unique pair, each with a strong personality that made them self-assured in an era that was only beginning to value women of independent thought. The sisters were different, but their contrasts complemented each other, and the one trait that they did share was indeed the most valuable one--an intuitive gift for collecting. Sarah was quick-witted and innovative, decisive and outspoken. She was highly intelligent and had a great talent for collecting the finest quality drawings, particularly those from the 18th century. She also had some unusual habits. She was of an imposing size, and in her later years chose to travel through museums in a wheelchair, pushed by her loyal butler, Darnley. She used a horn to call servants because she didn't trust bells. She hated the telephone and wouldn't allow one in her home, condemning it to a specially designed cement out-building on her property. At night she kept a policeman's club by her bed "lest she be set upon by some intrepid male."

Eleanor was quieter, and was extremely kind and generous. She was more methodical and organized than her sister, and at the same time adored physical activity. She played many sports, and loved to dance--legend has it that she would dance through a pair of slippers in a single night. Eleanor was extremely creative as well. She embroidered and sketched constantly, invented a system of stenography, and was one of the earliest women typists in the country. Yet she was not without her own eccentricities: it has been reported that on transatlantic crossings she would wear two padded Chinese costumes, one over the other, "so that should she find herself in an icy ocean, she could keep warm."

[Founding the Museum]

In the tradition of their practical grandfather, Peter Cooper, the Hewitt sisters wanted to make a museum that was a tool, not just a showcase--a place that students and designers could come to for reference and inspiration, then go out and create their own innovative objects and in this way help raise the quality of American design. In 1897, on the fourth floor of their grandfather's school, they opened the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration. The museum was to be open to everyone, with "no tedious restrictions and formalities," which were often imposed by the exclusive art galleries of the era. Whether the Hewitts meant to or not, they founded a museum that was one of the first to embody the increasingly democratic attitudes that grew to dominate in the 20th century.

Sarah and Eleanor were aided in developing their collection by a number of outside forces. In the late 1800s few American museums were acquiring decorative arts. The sisters had little competition for the purchase of the rare and unusual prints, drawings, lace, glass, carpets, jewelry and other man-made objects that became the permanent collection of their museum. Sarah and Eleanor also had the support of many influential and wealthy friends--including J. P. Morgan--who understood the sisters' cause and readily purchased the more rare and expensive items for them.

At the same time, the business as well as the pleasure of applied and decorative arts was starting to be treated seriously by influential New Yorkers. In the 1890s, magazine articles appeared suggesting that women might learn more about the decorative arts and even pursue careers in the field. The Hewitt sisters were not feminists, but they were practical and broad-minded, and immediately saw that this trend would heighten interest in their new museum.

[The Cooper-Hewitt after the Hewitts]

Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt continued acquiring items for their collection for thirty years. During this time they amassed thousands of objects that, as a unit, represented "the man-made environment in its totality." After their deaths in the 1920s the museum continued until the 1960s, when budget concerns threatened to close it. Outraged New Yorkers rallied to save it and in 1968 an agreement was reached that transferred the museum's holdings to The Smithsonian Institution. The collection was moved uptown to its current home at the Carnegie Mansion, and was opened to the public in 1976.

It has now been a century since the Hewitt sisters first opened their new museum on the fourth floor of their grandfather's school. The subject of exhibitions has changed with the times. Today's installations highlight the impact of design on individuals and communities as well as the artistry of the objects themselves. The museum sponsors many educational programs for children and adults, some in concert with other institutions such as the Parsons School of Design. The Cooper-Hewitt's current director, Dianne H. Pilgrim, continues to expand on the Hewitt's original concept of providing a working museum for the public, promoting projects that use new resources to make the holdings available to an ever-broader audience. At the end of the last century the Hewitt sisters awakened the public to the importance of the decorative arts. As this century ends the National Design Museum maintains their legacy, illuminating the essential relationship between objects and their users. and conveying this link through the language of design.

This article ©Copyright 1998 Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution

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©Copyright 1999 Julie Hathaway Keisman