This buttercup-yellow plate was made by Fanny Levine, a member of the Saturday Evening Girls Club. Founded in 1899 by Edith Guerrier, a librarian, and Edith Brown, an illustrator, the Saturday Evening Girls Club was a charitable organization dedicated to the education of poor immigrant women, particularly Jewish and Italian, living in the North End of Boston. As it was originally associated with the Boston Public Library, the club initially served to teach its members about art, literature, and etiquette. Like Jane Addams’s Hull House in Chicago, the Saturday Evening Girls Club also attempted to “Americanize” the young women through technical training in craft. The Club focused particularly on teaching its members pottery making and painting, allowing them to execute pieces designed by women like Edith Brown. Influenced by the British Arts and Crafts Movement, the SEG believed that the process of making objects by hand was an uplifting endeavor. Writers such as John Ruskin and William Morris promoted a return to craft—away from industrialization—in order to create a utopian world, a doctrine that resonated with charitable organizations in the United States.
In 1907, Guerrier decided to turn the SEG into a commercial enterprise. With the financial backing of Helen Osborne Storrow, the Club purchased a house on Hull Street in Boston that would serve as a studio, shop, and apartment for the designers. Called the Paul Revere Pottery because of its proximity to Old North Church—where the lanterns that signaled the British invasion in 1775 were hung—the company specialized in breakfast ware, tea sets, and tiles. The simple designs, like the stylized lotus pattern on this plate, were often painted in shades of yellow, blue, and green. Many of Fanny Levine’s works feature the same yellow glaze. With its distinctive graphic style and bold patterns, the pottery was popular in the Northeast and as far away as Chicago. Priced within the reach of the middle class, plate or tea sets were popular gifts for children, especially as many of the designs featured rabbits or birds.
Fanny Levine was one of the most prolific SEG painters; she was active from the early 1910s until the mid-1920s. Young women like Fanny often did not finish school. However, through the Club, they were able to learn a trade, providing them with an alternative to labor in a factory. From their paintings, the girls could earn a small amount of money to help support their families. Plates such as this one represent an important moment in early twentieth-century American philanthropy, which saw craft as a means to improve the lives of their makers.
Elizabeth Mattison is a senior at Yale University, expecting to receive her BA and MA from Yale University in May 2014. She is currently writing a thesis on the development of narrative sculpture in late medieval Amiens, France. She was a summer 2013 curatorial intern in Cooper-Hewitt's Product Design and Decorative Arts Department.