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Clara’s “Tiffany” Lamps: Cleveland Museum of Art

Visiting the Cleveland Art Museum with my boyfriend, this past September, was a real treat. Not only was it, sadly, very empty but I also learned about a new Ohio woman. Since there were small numbers, we had the luxury of touring the museum like an after hours wealthy dignitary might do, such as a Louis Tiffany in his time. Without a crowd, we did not have to rush viewing the pieces, reading the descriptions and standing and gazing as long as we wished. My boyfriend was interested in viewing the Tiffany’s collection, that I had not noticed since it was behind us walking in. To my surprise, I quickly learned that there was a woman, from Tallmadge, Ohio, who was the actual designer and creator of Tiffany lamps and eventually the jewelry as well. I found a historical fiction book about her, in the museum store, called “Noon at Tiffany’s,” by Echo Heron. I set out to read about Clara Driscoll – the real Tiffany’s, upon my return.

Louis Comfort Tiffany had the idea to create the lamps. His father Charles (the founder of Tiffany’s) wanted to focus solely on the stained glass windows which was the bread and butter for their mansions. His father was as miserly as Louis was but eventually the lamps were allowed into the store and of course became an incredibly famous success here and abroad. The lamps won awards at places such as the Paris Exposition of 1889. What no one knew at the time, save for the workers and the designer, was that Clara Driscoll was the actual designer of almost all the Tiffany Lamps. Louis would give her ideas for a few of them but most of them were her actual ideas and designs.

the “Tiffany Girls” with Clara, standing top left (first person).

Louis Tiffany was a horrible person, not like many stories of wealthy business owners than and now. He took credit for everything and unlike Auguste Rodin, did not even allow Clara’s name to be engraved somewhere on the piece of work. When he won the awards at the Paris Exposition, the judges wanted clarification on the designers which he had to finally indulge them with. However, it was his assistant who made them aware of this and not Louis Tiffany. He then paid journalists to keep everything out of the papers about Clara. One article that did slip into the papers caused the journalist to be fired from his job. This was how big and powerful a CEO he was. I know this still happens now because an ex-beau from years ago told me about his designs for Hewlett-Packard. I believe the patents had his name on them but HP received the millions of dollars for the product and he received a meager engineer’s salary. It is unfortunate that this is normal, even today.

Clara with an unknown worker at right.

The book is also a strange love story between Louis and Clara and Clara and her other beau’s. She never actually married Louis and was not the one in love. I have a lot of respect for her for not selling her soul completely to him. She could have lived a very easy and comfortable life if she would have married him, but she had too much integrity to make this decision. He was a very abusive man to her and the “Tiffany Girls” (the term of affection used by Clara in reference to her employees). This was long before unions, though they were created later in the years Clara was in establishment with Tiffany’s. The girls, and Clara as the head of the art department, were overworked; sometimes six or seven-day weeks. This was before air conditioning was available. While it was invented in 1902, I am sure it took some time for businesses to begin installing this in their buildings. Though, having worked with many people in my day job who work in factories, I am told that they continue to not have air conditioning in some factories dependent on the type of product. There are overhead fans however – which is not quite enough. While Louis Tiffany wanted the best for his home and his customers he could care less about his employees. When he was upset about a color or a placement of the glass, he would take his walking stick and smash the work rather than simply asking the girls to try a different color. Several times employees were injured from the glass flying. Clara was one of those people.

Tiffany girls in Workroom

One other difficulty that Louis Tiffany presented to women in the factory, which was normal at that time and even up till the 60’s or 70’s I believe, was that they could not be married. The men could be married but the women could not. I think airlines kept this tradition the longest of any other company. The reason for this was always about children. Companies did not want to keep women employed who would marry because there was an issue of pregnancy and women’s place being in the home to raise them. In the time of Clara’s employment, it was not acceptable for a woman to even be in public when she was showing so this makes sense for that time period as well. Louis Tiffany was holding standards that were not his solely. For this reason, Clara was absent for a few years during her first marriage but after her husband died, she would return to the company. When she finally did leave Tiffany’s in 1909, I believe it was, his company began to lose traction shortly thereafter. While it continues to exist to this day, the store did not have its designer. I have no idea who creates the designs now but I can imagine that like with Chanel, that was eventually taken over by Karl Lagerfeld (upon her death) and Dior, by Yves St. Laurent, for the same reason, it is never the same as the origins. In fact, Dior became YSL and Chanel became Lagerfeld. Both large designers, in their own right, but not the same. Merely recreations next to their own signature styles.

Clara, being a small-time gal, had a wonderful relationship with her mother and sisters. Originally, it was one of her sister’s, Josie, who would accompany her to Tiffany’s when she first began working there in the late 1800’s. Her sister was well loved by everyone but would eventually die early on. The family created what they affectionately called “Round Robins,” which were their letters that were saved and used by the author Echo Heron for creating this book. I think those Round Robins were such a wonderful resource for creating this book and Ms. Heron did a great job of weaving them into the story she wrote. The historical fiction created Clara’s voice that sounded so much like the non-fiction Clara. She did such a beautiful job that you could presume this was a biography.

Echo’s book front cover (my photo)

Being a small-time gal, I was able to relate to Clara’s Ohio gal personality. She was well-mannered with good values. At the same time, it is not unusual for Ohioans to sweep things under the rug and keep it within the family. It is hard in some places of the book to not want to yell at Clara for holding back or not quitting and going elsewhere. I am a modern woman though and I completely understand that she was being a woman of her times, just as I am now. She did try to leave Tiffany’s right before her last marriage to Edward Booth. However, she quickly found that Mr. Stillwell’s business had every intention to treat her the same as Tiffany. As a result, she never actually joined Mr. Stillwell. She left Tiffany’s and then married Mr. Booth. She would then go on to create her own business that sounds l like it went well but not quite the same as Tiffany’s. I would guess this is partly because her business name was way too long and complicated – not easily marketable, no one knew she was the designer of Tiffany’s, and I don’t think she was a good businesswoman. She was what I find with my own female clients today, more concerned with people’s feelings than with charging what a product is worth. This is typical with women; not valuing their self-worth, even today. I would say that she was more of an artist than a saleswoman and this makes a lot of sense.

Some men were and are great businessmen and I think much better in many circumstances than women, even today because they are thinkers (Myers-Briggs) vs. feelings people. That is a different article for psychology that you can read online in many places. It is just a way of being that women want to fight about, though it isn’t a patriarchal issue, just science. Men then and now do support one another through networking and clubs, whereas women do not. There are many books available that talk about women’s inability to support one another in their businesses. One such book that I found greatly speaks to this issue is “Women’s Inhumanity Toward Women,” by Phyllis Chesler. From being in the workplace myself since the late 70’s, I can easily point to more problems with women than I ever had from men. Yes, men had their sexual harassment behaviors and their expectations “Can you get me a coffee,” but women keep women down, more so than men. While I did have a “Clara Driscoll” type of boss a couple of times, more often than not I had very competitive female bosses that were rude and disrespectful to me. With my female clients, I hear more stories of female bosses shattering their ability to move up in the company by creating a dysfunctional atmosphere that emotionally and psychologically causes collapse amongst the employee. There is still the odd sexual harassment story but this is few and far between in today’s society. I have also found that when a woman is attractive, she has the most issues of concern to deal with from a woman boss than a male. Competition and jealousy. There is also the issue of workplace romance and competition between women on who gets him. Sometimes an assumption you are with a man is enough to cause workplace issues.

In retrospect, on the concern of workplace issues, I would assert that women were more supportive of one another when they were a minority. This is when I had supportive female bosses and co-workers. Now, that women are respected in the workplace and men are not as much the issue, I see there is no longer the need to look out for one another.

I would definitely recommend this book to read but also further reading is suggested about women in the workplace to better understand working conditions than and now. It is important to read history in its context and place but also to have an awareness of the bigger picture.

Echo Heron, Author of “Noon at Tiffany’s,” from her website echoheron.com