Friday, December 25, 2015

Florence E. Cory's Unusually Beautiful Hands

Patent received by Florence E. Cory, 1884

She found her calling while sitting in a friend’s drawing room sometime during the mid-1870s. You can imagine the stuffy Victorian parlor, probably in brownstone Brooklyn where many ambitious, imaginative women crossed paths during the last third of the 19th century.

Florence Elizabeth Cory looked around the room and thought the carpet and curtains ugly – at best “inartistic,” she remarked later.

A native of upstate New York who left her lawyer husband in Ohio after two years of marriage, Florence decided to approach several carpet manufacturers about the possibility of creating designs for them. The men were surprisingly encouraging.

“As women buy carpets, it would be a good thing for women to design them, as they would know best what women like,” one company agent replied. He suggested that Florence enroll at Cooper Union to learn about art. With six months to spare before classes would start, she forged ahead and created her first design; earned $15 by selling it to a carpet company.

But Cooper Union, founded in 1859 by Peter Cooper for the advancement of science and art, didn’t have much to teach Florence about how a pretty pattern is actually woven into carpet. 

So Florence boarded a streetcar, or perhaps a horse and carriage, and headed south to the carpet district in lower Manhattan. There she met with the president of the Carpet Trade Association, who arranged for her to receive free instruction in weaving machinery while completing her coursework.

Soon after, the Cooper Union faculty invited Florence to teach “practical industrial design” to a class of 17 young women. Through her classes there and at the Ladies’ Art Association on 14th Street, hundreds of women learned how to earn a living by creating and selling designs to companies that manufactured draperies, tapestries, carpets, linens and more. 

Previously, the profession accepted only men who worked as apprentices. Now, women could create designs that had monetary value because they could actually be woven into a product.

“At present the most valuable gift which can be bestowed on women, is something to do, which they can do well and worthily, and thereby maintain themselves,” once declared James Garfield, a college president who would be elected U.S. president in 1880.

In the decades following the Civil War, educational opportunities for middle and upper-class women proliferated. Florence Cory benefited from that trend. And she opened up more possibilities by establishing The Institute of Industrial Arts and Technical Design for Women at 134 Fifth Avenue, in 1881.

Initially, the two-year program welcomed women who could afford tuition and supplies although later Florence offered scholarships. Her students’ designs often won prizes and some were displayed in the Woman’s Building at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. 

Florence E. Cory, lecture on "Industrial Art for Women,"
published in the journal Art Amateur, 1897

“I understand the machinery thoroughly and can tell you all about the manufacture of almost every industry in the United States,” Florence Cory told the U.S. Senate Committee on Education and Labor in 1884. She testified about teaching, factories, and the future for women who could support themselves by designing anything so long as they understood how it was actually produced.

“Mrs. Cory had unusually beautiful hands,” reported the American Carpet and Upholstery Journal in April 1902.

About six weeks before her death a tiny red spot appeared on one of them. She noticed it first by finding herself dreading to shake hands with any one. It was lanced as a felon, but that proved more serious. Finally the trouble developed into gangrene in the right arm, and first the finger and then the entire arm were amputated, in an effort to save her life.

She died in the New York Post-Graduate Hospital, not too far from the Institute which appears to have endured possibly for another decade.  

*A felon is an abscess deep in the palm side of the fingertip.


  1. Hi
    I found your blog while trying to research a Florence K. Cory who published a paper doll book in 1891 and thought that it might be the same person as your Florence E. Cory. I was wondering where you found all of this wonderful biographical information, and if there were more information that might help me in my search. Either way, Florence Cory sounds like she was an impressive woman!

  2. Hi -- Are you referring to Brownie Paper Dolls? I found that attributed to Florence E Cory so it is almost certainly the same person.

  3. Thanks for the response! I found the same information after trying again with an "e" instead of a "k". My initial source must have mistyped. That is the book I was referring to, and interestingly enough it lead me to pictures of a rare brownies rug that was sold by Kensington Square Arts in 1895. It seems to me that the rug was probably also designed by Florence Cory. Funny what twisted roads are uncovered just doing a little casual internet research!

  4. What are the brownies? Are you writing an article?

  5. The brownies are characters created by Palmer Cox in the late nineteenth century. They used to be wildly popular and showed up frequently in advertisements. We had one of their books when I was a small child, so I've always had a soft spot for them.

    This all started when I bought a lot of paper doll pieces on ebay and recognized some of the brownies mixed in. I was not planning on writing an article, but almost feel I might be forced to, the story has become so interesting.


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