Research for my upcoming book, Borrowing from our Foremothers: Re-examining the Women’s Movement through Material Culture, uncovered a colorful puzzle in the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library Woman’s Rights Collection.
In June 1979, the college purchased the papers of 1895 alumni Elsie Winchester Coolidge (below on the left) from Ahab Rare Books. Her papers consisted mainly of diaries and a beautiful brooch.
While the diaries offered glib factual recollections of Coolidge’s life from 1893 to 1897, the “'Votes for Women' pin, 1920” beckoned with tangible promise. Cataloged as “105.1.6, carton 1, tray 1,” the brooch resided inside of a Tiffany & Co. box affixed with a typed label reading, “property of Miss Elsie W. Coolidge, Class of 1895.”
Tiffany & Co.’s company archivist pronounced the brooch as splendid but not one of their creations. It may have arrived in a Tiffany box, but the container was a red herring, a common surrogate jewelry practice.
Was the cloisonné enameled brooch actually Coolidge’s suffragist pin or did she inherit it? After investigating further, it appears Dr. Mary E. Bond Foote, a wealthy suffragette supporter of women’s rights and eugenics lecturer, willed her jewelry collection in 1924 to her spinster nieces Elsie and Rosamond Coolidge.
According to British suffragette jewelry expert Elizabeth Goring, the “Votes for Women” brooch’s purple, white, and green colors were most likely a vestige of either Britain’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) or America’s Women’s Political Union (WPU). The tricolor scheme definitely post-dated the brooch’s creation since these two organizations adopted the same colors in 1908 and 1910, respectively.
American suffragist collector Kenneth Florey concurred with the color dating and possible suffrage origin while wondering who crafted the pin’s laurel wreath motif flecked with silver globules and a hanging purple cabochon. The Museum of London’s curator Beverly Cook contended this plausibly “one-time” brooch with its suspended amethyst-colored “fancy diamond” was produced in the English jewelry tradition. The actual cut of the facet though, according to Goring, was American and furthermore, the word “Sterling” stamped on the brooch’s back indicated a foreign provenance, such as America; sterling jewelry made in Britain was generally hallmarked with a design.
Searching for more clues, I magnified the back of the pin. On the right-hand side of the metal’s quatrefoil frame, someone had shakily etched what appeared to me as “L bay” or possibly “G bay” to Goring. In Elizabeth Crawford’s recent text, Art and Suffrage: A Biographical Dictionary of Suffrage Artists, she mentioned jeweler Gladys Bayliss (“G bay”?) showing a 1911 silver and enamel Arts & Crafts style buckle at the Glasgow National Union for Women’s Suffrage Societies Work Exhibition in 1913. After examining Bayliss’ work, Goring and Crawford concluded the artist’s style differentiated too much from the Schlesinger brooch. See for yourself: http://www.tademagallery.com/jewellery/d/gladys-bayliss-arts-%26-crafts-buckle/207968.
If you have more clues to this “Votes for Women” brooch mystery please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It could lead to another gem in re-examining the women’s movement.