Notes from the Past

Women Engravers and Designers - Part II

Mrs. Akin (Christian name unknown) worked with her husband James Akin who was an employee of Jacob Perkins (whose company in England was to produce the pennies black and blue) circa 1810.  She outlived her husband and continued to engrave.  Some of the engravings attributed to him are probably at least partially her work.

In my previous list of printers' assistants who were also engravers I omitted Edmonia Boller (circa 1914) and possibly Edith Wilson of the American Bank Note Company (circa 1897-1934).

In the previous installment, I mentioned a number of women engravers who were active during the colonial and immediate post-American independence period like Anne Franklin (the sister-in-law to Benjamin Franklin who was extremely hostile to women being involved in engraving) and Anne Green.  After that period we find a remarkable decline in the number of engravers who were women and the numbers rose again only in very recent times with the arrival of people like Armandina Lozano, Deborah Alexander Colletti, Dixie Oyster (you Americans do give odd names some times!) March, Esther Porter, etc.

The early women owed their success not so much to the fact that women were given recognition but that the art of engraving in America was still in its infancy and was organised according to artisanal principles:  that is, one could work from home.  When the workplace shifted to a specially designated centre far from the home women ceased to participate.  More important, when the work became defined as a salaried, high paying skill they disppeared in much the same way as midwifery in the USA was pushed out by medical doctors (male) on the grounds it was unprofessional.  We find the same phenomenon if we examine the development of Renaissance painting in Italy and the low countries.  Even during that transitional period women were often forced to work on the margins of legality as this was often the only work they could obtain.

I mentioned one expert counterfeiter in the previous installment, Elizabeth Vandine.  We also find Ann Tew engaged in much the same activity of altering banknotes at much the same time.  Another one is Freelove (indeed) Lippencott the wife of Robert who worked from plates obtained in England.

I also hope that someone can undertake a research project on the women workers at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing because this is interesting in terms of deskilling in some cases and also in terms of labour history.  I understand it is impossible to get access to all the records of the banknote companies because the successors to the American Bank Note Company are very reluctant to open their archives.  But that is another story that hopefully can be told one day.

Previously I mentioned there were a number of women engravers active during the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century and that they tended to be close relatives of sometimes well-known engravers.  One such person is Viola Helm, the daughter of Augustine Helm, a superintendent at the American Bank Note Company and later an employee of the Bureau and who had studied with one of the Harrisons.  His two sons were also engravers.  Viola Helm was engraving about 1878 and is probably the only female engraver at the time who was employed by a company and not shunted off into Currier and Ives type work.

Josephine Maurer was employed in the design department of the American Bank Note Company circa 1911 but never achieved recognition.  Martha Morris (1865-1913) was the younger sister of Thomas Morris who designed a considerable number of the banknote stamps and was superintendant of design and engraving at the Bureau until his premature death.  There is some evidence that she worked with him on an unofficial basis particularly when he was at the Homer Lee Bank Note Company.  She later was employed by the International Bank Note Company and designed several stock certificates.  Curiously or perhaps not so curiously Thomas Morris, Jr. never once mentions his highly gifted aunt in his biography of his father.

(To be Continued)

- Professor Charles Posner
adapted from eBay Stamps Board Post
Posted April 2, 2000
Posted May 23, 2000

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