Antiquarians of the Art Institute

The Crafts of Frances Macbeth Glessner

Frances Macbeth Glessner (1848-1932) was a talented woman, proficient in a number of crafts both traditional and non-traditional for the period in which she lived.  In addition, she was an accomplished pianist. 

She produced enormous quantities of fine embroidery work, in many cases using designs specifically created for her by family friend Isaac Scott.  Several examples of her needlework are on display in the museum including table runners and bedspreads.  John Glessner said of his wife, “Indeed there was nothing she could not do with her needle.”  Frances Glessner was an excellent knitter as well, making countless sweaters, scarves and hats for the male employees at her summer estate, The Rocks, and for servicemen during World War I.

As an early and prominent member of the Society of Decorative Art, formed in Chicago in 1877, Frances Glessner conducted classes in wood carving (probably learned from Isaac Scott) and took classes in hammering brass.   (The organization was the forerunner to the present Antiquarians of the Art Institute).

In November 1904, Frances Glessner began taking lessons in metal work from Madeline Yale Wynne, a distinguished metal worker and important proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement.  (She was one of the 126 charter members of the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society when it was founded at Hull-House in 1897).  Mrs. Glessner also took lessons in metal work from A. Fogliati, an instructor of metalwork at Hull-House.

She set up a silversmithing studio in the basement of her home (see photo at the top of the article), where she fashioned silver bowls, pitchers, and saltcellars.  Many of these were given away as gifts, including the bowl and spoon pictured below, now owned by a private collector.  Her pieces featured simple lines and often visible hammer marks, making them excellent examples of Arts and Crafts metal work. 

As her silver mark she chose a honeybee (she maintained a number of beehives at her summer estate) set within the letter “G.”

In addition to silverwork, she also made numerous pieces of jewelry, typically long chains into which she would set semi-precious stones.  Her journal is full of letters from appreciative recipients, indicating that her output was significant.  The example shown below is now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

An unknown talent of Frances Glessner until recently was her ability as a china painter.  China painting was a common hobby for women of the period, and again many of the pieces would be made as gifts.  The bowl shown below, featuring a bird’s nest set amongst roses and cherry blossoms was given by Mrs. Glessner to the wife of the Glessner’s chauffeur, Swan Johnson.  It was returned to the house in 2010 through a friend of the Johnson family.

Considering the enormous quantity of items produced by Frances Glessner through the years, from embroidered textiles to hand-painted china pieces, and from silver work to jewelry, it is clear that she rarely if ever let her hands go idle.  The museum is thrilled to have this record of her works, as one more way of understanding this extraordinary individual.