To understand how Sarah (1859-1930) 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 1887-88, 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. Eleanor was quieter, and was extremely kind and generous. She was more methodical and organized than her sister and 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.
The Hewitt sisters, Amy, Sarah, and Eleanor, on one of their many trips abroad
Engraved portrait of Peter Cooper, about 1883, Gift of Raymond Bourne, 1961-135-1
Sarah Hewitt, dressed for the Vanderbilt Ball, in a costume by Frederick Worth, 1883