In 1877, a Providence mom named Helen Metcalf persuaded her women’s club to spend money left over from a fair to found an art school.
It wasn’t just any fair. It was the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. And it wasn’t just any art school. It was the Rhode Island School of Design, or RISD, one of the world’s most prestigious art and design universities. It is also the principal art museum for Southeastern New England.
RISD Alumni include designer Nicole Miller, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and three members of the Talking Heads.
At the time of the Philadelphia Exposition, Helen Metcalf was a 46-year-old mother of five, married to a wealthy textile manufacturer, Jesse Metcalf. She taught Sunday school and played the organ in church.
It was an era when wealthy Americans were turning their attention to art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston were both founded in 1870. The School of Practical Design started in Lowell, Mass., in 1872 (it’s now part of the Museum of Fine Arts).
Rhode Islanders wanted to partake in the cultural life as well. The president of Brown University, Ezekiel Gilman Robinson, in 1873 noted in his annual report, that many ‘intelligent citizens of our State’ wanted a ‘Scientific School of high order.’ That school should also teach Design, Drawing, Civil Engineering, Architecture and Fine Arts, he said.
The Philadelphia Exposition
The 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition was the first major world’s fair in America, and it was huge. At a time when the U.S. population was 46 million, 10 million people paid to enter the Exposition.
Alexander Graham Bell wowed the crowds by demonstrating his telephone at the Exposition. The biggest attraction, though, was the steam engine invented by Providence’s George Corliss. The engine was a mammoth piece of equipment that powered the 14 acres of machinery at the fair.
Many states sponsored exhibition buildings. Helen Metcalf chaired a committee of 35 women who raised money for Rhode Island’s exhibit hall. While at the fair, the committee visited the Women’s Pavilion, where women demonstrated products and processes they had developed.
The Pavilion displayed the inventions of 75 women who held patents for such things as emergency flares, model interlocking bricks and a patent land pulverizer. It was the brainchild of Elizabeth Duane Gillespie, great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin.
Helen Metcalf was especially impressed by what she saw in the Women’s Pavilion. She had already established herself as a benefactor of the poor. When her husband’s workers went on strike, she helped them too. Now she wanted to help working women by raising the status and quality of the applied arts.
When the Philadelphia Exposition ended, the Rhode Island Women’s Centennial Commission had $1,675 in leftover funds. Helen Metcalf persuaded them to spend it on an art school. Another option was a drinking fountain in Roger Williams Park.
The school was to be devoted to the “useful arts, as, for example, designing for calico printers, for jewelers’ designs, for carriage and furniture making.” Calico was a major employer in Providence, as the Sprague family had dominated the world market for calico for generations.
So were jewelry factories and silverware manufacturers. In 1875, Providence had 130 jewelry companies employing 2,700 workers and would soon become the leading American city in silverware production.
RISD opened in a building at the base of College Hill, next to Brown University. Most of its 43 first pupils were women.
Helen Metcalf directed the school until she died in 1865. She raised money, encouraged students, supervised teachers and arranged furniture. When necessary, she swept the classroom floors.
Her husband Jesse Metcalf covered the school’s losses for years. After she died in 1895, he donated a building, land and three exhibition galleries in her memory. Their son, Steven Metcalf, became the school treasurer in 1884. Another son, Jesse, became a U.S. senator and RISD trustee. Their son-in-law, Dr. Gustav Radeke, contributed to the museum casts, models and industrial materials he had collected in Europe.
In 1913, the Metcalfs’ daughter, Eliza Greene Metcalf Radeke, became president of the college and served for 18 years. From 1931 to 1947, Stephen Metcalf’s daughter Helen Metcalf Danforth became president of RISD, and then chair of the board of trustees until 1965.
RISD’s focus eventually shifted from the industrial arts to fine art.
This story about Helen Metcalf was updated in 2023.
Images: First RISD building By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78733848