Candace Wheeler

The Mother of American Interior Design

Candace Thurber, an artist and craftsman known particularly for her glass design and textile work, was born March 24, 1827, in Delhi, Delaware County, New York, the daughter of Abner and Lucy Dunham Thurber. She married Thomas Mason Wheeler in 1844 and settled down as the wife of a successful New York merchant and mother of four.

Candace Wheeler was the first woman to apply domestic arts and crafts on a large scale as a business-making venture. This was in part motivated by the consequences of the Civil War, and the ensuing economic upheaval when large numbers of women, previously been dependent on the husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers in their lives, found themselves in a position of having to make a living on their own. (The large number of widows and unmarried women who were social and economic casualties of the Civil War is known to women's movement historians but has since been forgotten by everyone else.) As a result, women like Wheeler were spurred into action to open paths whereby women could make a living in the arts, particularly home-based arts that had previously been the exclusive domain of women before the Industrial Revolution.

Mrs. Wheeler's professional achievements included founding the Society of Decorative Art, cofounding the New York Exchange for Woman's Work, Tiffany & Wheeler, and Associated Artists. In 1893, she was commissioned with decorating the Woman's Building at the World's Columbian Exposition. She was a prolific writer and ardent supporter of women's education and rights throughout her long life.

She died at the age of 96 on August 15, 1923.

Primary Sources

In 1879 there was formed in New York a society of decorative art, called the "Associated Artists." There were four members, Samuel Coleman, Louis Tiffany, Lockwood Deforest, and Mrs. Candace Wheeler. Mrs. Wheeler did the needlework, and at that time her drop curtain, which rose and fell on the first performances of "Hazel Kirk" at the Fifth Avenue Theater, was the talk of the town.

Source: The Book of a Hundred Houses: A collection of Pictures, Plans and Suggestions for Householders. Herbert S. Stone & Co. 1902. (p. 226)

Some Successful Women by Sarah K Bolton

"Why not," said Mrs. Wheeler, "Bring everything that any woman can make, and needs to sell, into a shop, and let everybody come and buy what they really want, and put an end to this forcing of the wrong thing upon the wrong person?"

But who would pay the rent, and attend to the store? Mrs. Wheeler was equal to the emergency. She called together a few of the best and the richest women of New York, and asked for opinions. Everybody had seen the want, everybody was glad to hear of a remedy. Then Mrs. Wheeler sat down at her desk and wrote a circular and printed it at her own expense, telling the women of New York that it was proposed to form a large and influential association for the purpose of establishing a place for the exhibition and sale of "sculptures, paintings, wood-carvings, paintings upon slate, porcelain and pottery, art and ecclesiastical needle-work, tapestry and hangings," which work shall be done by women.

About two hundred women responded to this circular, and they formed themselves into the New York Society of Decorative Art. They took a house and made the society a blessing and a success, by enlarging the range of things women could do. China painting, needle-work, decoration upon wood and other minor arts were thoroughly taught. Mrs. Wheeler gave her time and thought and heart fully to the work.

Soon arose the question: "What shall we do with inartistic labor?" So many desired to earn a livelihood, but had received no artistic training. There must be a shop where such work could be received and Mrs. William G. Choate, Mrs. Wheeler and others proceeded to form a "Womens Exchange." As Mrs. Wheeler was the Corresponding Secretary of the Decorative Art Society, she succeeded in encouraging women in many other cities to form auxiliaries and exchanges. Now there are few American cities without these institutions, and they have been copied in Canada, Sweden and Germany.

The next thought in Mrs. Wheeler's mind was to demonstrate the fact that woman's labor, if well trained, was needed in the world, and could not only make its demand but find its wages, without the intervention of charity of benevolence. To this end she proposed to unite with other artists in an artistic and decorative enterprise, under the name of the " Associated Artists," where embroidery and decorative needle-work should be made a part of the scheme. Her friends now predicted a failure. But her husband and brother were ready to aid her with money. And she did not fail.

Source: Wide Awake, Volume Y. D. Lothrop & Co. Boston (1887): p.142-147.

Chapter X, Onteora (Wheeler's autobiography)
(Excerpt) on the founding of the artists colony Onteora

So began the days of the Inn, The second phase of the life of Onteora. It grew by an accident of friendship, the human instinct for congenial companionship, the desire to draw people whom we loved into an almost unknown realm of beauty. It was because of this that the little Inn was built, and in compliment to the original inhabitants of the place it was called "The Bear and Fox," while the first three cottages were christened after creatures and flowers which had associated names—"Wake-robin," "Crow-foot," and "Larkspur."

The chosen people who came to stay at the Inn and who built small cottages on the beauty spots on the eastern and southern faces of Onteora Mountain used to gather at night in the main room of the Inn. Mark Twain and Jamie Dodge—who surely had the gift—told stories, and Laurence Hutton and Brander Matthews contributed their share of the entertainment; while the Century Gilders and some of our beloved painters smiled or laughed and listened. And the wives and daughters of all these gathered around that particular supporting post which was nearest the great fireplace and which they called "The Evening Post."

Source: Wheeler, Candace. Yesterdays in a Busy Life. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1918.

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