Celebrating women artists and entrepreneurs

Feb 28, 2023

Marianne Pfeiffer, a longtime resident of Old Lyme, Conn., made this cloisonné ring. She was a self-taught artist who worked almost exclusively applying the precise skills of cloisonné enameling to her original designs.

Cloisonné is a particularly intricate technique in which each line of the design is first formed of a ribbon of precious metal, creating “cloisons” or cells. These ribbons are fused to the metal base and then the enamels, a glassy substance ground to a powder, are laid into the cells and fired in a kiln. This filling and firing is repeated layer upon layer to achieve depth of color and shading.

Marianne’s husband, Andrew Pfeiffer, created the settings for this lovely and precious enamelwork. Jewelry created by Pfeiffer Cloisonné and Silver Work received national acclaim.

“Blue Tree of Life” ring, Marianne Pfeiffer (1925-2021) Old Lyme, Conn. c.1970

This portrait of Clementina Beach, painted by Gilbert Stuart, is an unusually early portrait of a woman who was painted not because of who her family was but for what she herself had achieved.

Clementina Beach (1774–1855), Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), Boston, 1820–25

Clementina Beach emigrated with her father and sister from England to Gloucester, Mass., around 1793. There she met Judith Foster Saunders who had left her husband by 1797 and was living with her father. Within a few years the two women moved to Dorchester, Mass., to begin their lives running an elite school for girls.

While the Miss Saunders and Mrs. Beach Academy is relatively well known, little is known about the private lives of the two women. However, a description by Judith Foster Saunders’s great-nephew makes clear that their relationship was one of loving companionship:

The house in Dorchester . . . occupied by Mrs. Saunders and Miss Beach for thirty years, was filled with works of art, the work of both ladies. Their intercourse, and the perfect harmony that existed between them, through so many years, which grew even more affectionate in their old age, is a pleasant memory to those who witnessed it.

Cornelia and the Gracchi, Mary Beach (1786–1843), needlework picture after a 1788 engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi,1804-05

One student in the early years was Beach’s younger cousin Mary Beach whose needlework survives in its original frame. While Mary completed the needlework, the painting of the faces and sky on this and other needlework produced at the school was likely done by Beach herself.

Historic New England recently recovered the story of Asenath Darling, a milliner and shopkeeper who owned Gilman Garrison House in Exeter, N.H., between 1864 and 1874.

Born Asenath Harvey in 1823 in Nottingham, N.H., in 1848 she married Manly Darling and they lived in Concord, N.H., for a few years before moving to Exeter. In 1864, after several years of renting, Asenath purchased the Gilman Garrison House on the corner of Water and Clifford Streets (known locally at that time as the Clifford Place). Remarkably, the property was conveyed via deed to “Asenath W. Darling wife of the said Manly Darling, to her sole and separate use free from the interference or control of her present husband Manly Darling, or any future husband, and to her heirs and assigns forever.” Asenath kept her financial dealings separate from those of her husband which was unusual for married women at that time.

Exeter News-Letter and Rockingham Advertiser, December 26, 1864 (Exeter, N.H.)

Shortly after moving into her new house, she opened a shop selling “millinery and Fancy Goods, Corsets, Watch Spring and Balmoral Skirts, Water-Proof Cloths, &c. &c. Machine Stitching and all kinds of Outside Garments made at short notice.” By 1870, Asenath was listed in the census as a milliner with $6,000 in real estate and a personal estate valued at $2,500.

In May 1874, owing to poor heath, Asenath sold her business to a neighbor but remained at Gilman Garrison House until her death in 1893. Her obituary appeared in the local paper and noted that she had successfully run a millinery business, had many friends, and was an “active member” of the local Baptist Church. Although we do not have objects related to Asenath Darling’s business in our collection, this milliner’s model head represents how this entrepreneur would have advertised her fashionable goods.

Milliner’s Model, 1825-1875. Gift of Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little

Discover more stories of women in history in recent issues of Historic New England magazines:

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Media Contact: Susanna Crampton, [email protected]