The Hewitt Sisters

Museum Founders Who Shaped the Future of Design

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 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 Museum's exhibitions provide students, designers, and the general public with new ways to appreciate both the aesthetics 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, what we would call design today, were not just an interest--they were a calling. Before age sixteen they were already studying wood engravings in magazines and spending their own pocket money to buy 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, birdcages, 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.

Eleanor Hewitt
Portrait of Eleanor Gurnee Hewitt by Antonia de Nañelos, 1888

Sarah Hewitt
Portrait of Sarah Hewitt by James Carroll Beckwith, 1899,CHNDM, Bequest of Erskine Hewitt, 1938


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 the free school for adults, founded in 1853, called the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. The school was, and still is, 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."

The Hewitt sisters, Amy, Sarah, and Eleanor, on one of their many trips abroad
The Hewitt sisters, Amy, Sarah, and Eleanor, on one of their many trips abroadEngraved portrait of Peter Cooper, about 1883, Gift of Raymond Bourne, 1961-135-1
Engraved portrait of Peter Cooper, about 1883, Gift of Raymond Bourne, 1961-135-1Sarah Hewitt, dressed for the Vanderbilt Ball, in a costume by Frederick Worth, 1883
Sarah Hewitt, dressed for the Vanderbilt Ball, in a costume by Frederick Worth, 1883

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. Their museum was one of the first to embody the increasingly democratic attitudes that grew to dominate 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 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 generously 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 Hewitts' initiative and philosophy supported this trend, and many of the students who used the collections were women. Indeed, the pioneering interior designer Elsie de Wolfe was a close friend of the sisters.

Lithograph of the Cooper Union Foundation Building, designed by Frederick A. Peterson, as it appeared in 1861. Purchased in memory of Sarah Cooper Hewitt.
Lithograph of the Cooper Union Foundation Building, designed by Frederick A. Peterson, as it appeared in 1861. Purchased in memory of Sarah Cooper Hewitt.

The Museum was located on the fourth floor of the Cooper Union building for the use of the school's art classes. Above, students in the Women's Art School at work at their easels in the late 1880s.
The Museum was located on the fourth floor of the Cooper Union building for the use of the school's art classes. Above, students in the Women's Art School at work at their easels in the late 1880s.

Students of design with textile fragments at the Cooper Union Museum, c. 1920
Students of design with textile fragments at the Cooper Union Museum, c. 1920