In the late 1800's it was the custom for Philadelphia artists to visit back and forth in their Center City studios. "On an evening in March 1897, a group of women artists were visiting the Walnut Street studio of sculptor John Boyle. There, in the light of candles to illuminate the great spaces and under the shadows of some of his heroic statues, The Plastic Club drew the first breath of life and was first dimly formulated." (Club speech, n.d.)
Art clubs for men already existed in the city, but women artists had no place to meet, to exchange ideas, and to exhibit their work. They wanted to bring together experienced, successful artists and younger artists who were just beginning their artistic careers. In March 1897, Emily Sartain, principal of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art), hosted the organizational meeting of the Plastic Club at the school. The term "Plastic" in the name, suggested by Blanche Dillaye who later was elected the first president, refers to the state of any unfinished work of art. The club chose a motto: "All passes; art alone enduring stays to us: the bust outlasts the throne, the coin, Tiberius." The club was formed "to promote a wider knowledge of art and to advance its interest by means of exhibitions and social intercourse among artists." Shortly thereafter, it rented a large room at 10 S. 18th Street.
During its first year the club held six (6) exhibitions, representing fifteen different mediums. It hosted the first exhibit in Philadelphia of Japanese color prints, offered five lectures, and established a sketch class. The first printed membership fist contains 130 names, including such well-known artists as Blanche Dillaye, sculptor, etcher,, painter; Ellen Wetherald Ahrens, portraitist and miniaturist; A. Margaretta Archambault, artist, author; Katherine Cohen, sculptor; Violet Oakley, muralist, stained glass designer, portraitist; Emily Sartain, engraver, educator; and illustrators Charlotte Harding, Margarette Lippincott, Jessie Willcox Smith, Alice Barber Stephens, and Elenore Plaisted.
The original format of monthly exhibitions, lectures, and classes continues. Wednesday was designated Club Day with a morning workshop for members and an afternoon art-related program.
When the members decided that they wanted to move from their cramped, rented quarters on S. 18th Street and buy their own building, they launched an all-out effort to raise money for a Building Fund. They held art auctions, card parties, musicals, entertainments, and sponsored a lecture by renowned poster artist Alphonse Mucha. They received support and encouragement from the men artists. Among those listed as contributing work to an over two hundred item auction sale were John Sloan, Colin Cooper Campbell, William Glackens, Daniel Garber, Henry McCarter, C. Yarnall Abbott, and Henry R. Poore. In 1909, The Plastic Club moved into its own building at 247 South Camac Street. Members donated the majority of the furnishings. The building actually consists of two houses built in 1824. Combining the two buildings afforded an exceptionally fine studio/gallery on the second floor. The Philadelphia Historical Commission declared it a Historic Building in 1962.
Although it was originally an art club for women, many famous male artists lectured and exhibited there: for example, Joseph Pennell, Howard Pyle, Arthur Dow, William Merritt Chase, Thornton Oakley, Charles Dana and Hobson Pitman. Maxfield Parrish exhibited 44 pieces in the first Philadelphia exhibition of his work in 1911. An exhibition of 107 contemporary lithographs by men and women in 1930 included Benton Spruance, John Sloan, Henri Matisse, Louis Lozowick, Walt Kuhn, Rockwell Kent, Max Weber, Hugh Breckenridge, and Herbert Pullinger. Other special exhibitions have featured the work of Hugh Hutton, Joseph Clement Coll, Oliver Grimley, John Cedarstrom, J.H. Campbell, Charles Ellis, and photographers John McGonigal and Patrick Abel.
The club membership consisted of civic-minded women artists from throughout the Delaware Valley. In World War I club members sold liberty bonds, endowed a hospital bed in France, and contributed to a fund for the families of artists at the front. Violet Oakley and others donated their services by designing Liberty Bond posters and posters for other city events. When controversy erupted about whether the George Barnard undraped statues at the State Capital should be "draped", the Club members supported the artist.
Over 25 members were students of Howard Pyle. His guidance and teaching were a strong contributing factor to the success of these artists. During his time in Philadelphia, William Merritt Chase was a great friend to the club and its members.
During World War II many members contributed their services to the USO by conducting art classes for servicemen at area service installations. Mrs. Lawrence H. Schweriner (club president 1958-60) completed hundreds of portraits of servicemen at the Philadelphia Stage Door Canteen. The Plastic Club has been an active member of the Philadelphia Federation of women's Clubs and Allied Organizations since 1928. The club received an award of appreciation from the city for its participation in the 1962 Philadelphia Arts Festival. When the future of Elfreth's Alley was in question, the club wrote letters to the city officials in favor of the preservation of the entire block.
The club has donated art supplies to underprivileged children and toys and clothing every Christmas to the Children's Aid Society. When the Mayor's Commission for Women began promoting March as Women's History Month in the 1980's, the club participated in the Annual Women's Festival at the Bourse Building and continues to schedule special exhibitions and lectures throughout the month of March at the club building.
For about twenty years, beginning in 1936, the club sponsored Rotary Exhibitions. A jury selected works by members, and the exhibition traveled throughout Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and Ohio to colleges and museums. Escalating transportation costs eventually ended this project. The club has sent other group exhibitions to Atlantic City Art Center, Cape May Beach Theater and Playhouse, LaSalle University and Drexel University. In 1972 the club held a special exhibition to celebrate its seventy-fifth anniversary. At the close of the exhibition, it donated all works to institutions and clubs in the Philadelphia area.
Members represent not just painting and graphic arts, but all art disciplines; for example, professional photographers Mary Carnell, Mathilde Weil, Eva Watson; sculptors Beatrice Fenton , Katherine Chen, Florence Tricker, Margaret Welsh. Many proficient in painting and graphics have other talents; stained glass designers Violet Oakley, Paula Himmelsbach Balano; bookbinding, Florence Fulton; jewelry design, Miriam T. Smith, Esther A. Richards; silhouette artist Katherine Buffam; muralists Marianne Sloan, Anne Chuse Richardson, Margaretta E. Hinchman, and Violet Oakley; and the multi-talented Sarah Crumb-Weaver, jewelry designer, puppeteer. The mother/daughter artists Dorothy Hutton and Elizabeth MacDonald are multi-media artists : painting in all mediums, printmaking, needlework designs in churches from the Washington Cathedral in D.C. to many others up and down the east coast, and lace making.
The work of Plastic Club members can be seen in public and private collections. Examples are Oakley's murals at the Pennsylvania State Capital and in the apse of the Church of All Angels, New York City; her stained glass designs at the Apostolic Delegate in Washington, D.C.; Anne Chuse Richardson's murals at Delaware County Hospital and the Central School, Springfield, Pa.; Marianne Sloan's murals at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church, Whitemarsh, Pa.; Paula Himmelsbach Balano's stained glass designs in Saint Peter's Episcopal Church, Germantown, Pa., Saint Stephan's Roman Catholic Church, Broad and Butler; Elizabeth McNett's medical illustrations at Lankenau Hospital. Margaretta S. Hinchman's four mural panels for the Sesquicentennial Exposition were later reproduced as wallpaper designs for Berg & Company. The originals were placed in the "Sweet Briar" home in Fairmount Park. Olive Rush executed alter decorations for Saint Andres's Church, Wilmington, Delaware.
Book collectors prize books illustrated by club members. The club library contains many of these books as well as other art related books.
Members have been involved in the funding of other city art organizations. Cecilia Beaux, Emily Sartain, Alice Barber Stephens helped to establish the Fellowship of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1897 - the founding year of The Plastic Club. Emily Sartain, Violet Oakley and Margaretta S. Hinchman were among the founders of the Philadelphia Art Alliance in 1915. Blanche Dillaye, Ada Clendenin Williamson and Wuanita Smith were among the founders of the Philadelphia Society of Etchers in 1927. Wuanita Smith was also co-founder of the Color Print Society in 1939. A. Margaretta Archambault, Ellen Wetherald Ahrens, Amy Otis, and Emily Drayton Taylor all held office in the Pennsylvania Society of Miniature Painters, organized in 1901.
Traditionally, until the mid-1970's, the purely social event of the club year was The Rabbit", so-called because Welsh Rarebit was the refreshment served at the first function. Each year members chose a theme and wrote and staged original skits, made decorations, and all were required to come in appropriate costume. Themes have been wide-ranging - Bull Fight, Houseboat on the River Styx, Alice in Wonderland, April in Paris, Gay Nineties, Rabbits on Safari, Crazy Hats, Cartoon Rabbit, and Visions of Egypt.
Early dedicated members included Emily Sartain, Frances Scheafer (Waxman) and Althea J. Carnell who served as Treasurer for twenty-rive years. Sarah F. Crumb made all of the necessary arrangements for the Rotary Exhibitions; was responsible for preserving material for the club archives, and as Current Events Chairwoman kept members informed about events in the art world. Eleanor McGonigal instituted the Monday Class in 1973 - a class/workshop that was open to the public, and planned the club's seventy-fifth anniversary celebration. Past President Dorothy Gibson served for many years as the House Chairman, responsible for the maintenance of the building.
Noteworthy have been the mother/daughter members: Constance B. Carey/Alice Carey Blakeslee, Miriam Millikin/Catherine M. Robinson (both past presidents), Dorothy Hutton/Elizabeth MacDonald, Rachel Bulley Trump/Rae Trump Owings. Artist Husband member couples have included: Hugh Hutton/Dorothy Hutton, Daniel Garber/Mary F. Garber, Colin Campbell Cooper/Emma Lampert Cooper, Paul Gill/Sue May Gill, Charles P. Crumb/Sarah F. Crumb, Charles Stephens/Alice Barber Stephens, Huger Elliot/Elizabeth Shippen Green, C.Yarnell Abbott/Elenor Plaisted Abbott. Member Florence Maynard had an artist brother, Charles Maynard.
In 1911, Georgine Wetherill Schillard-Smith started the tradition of awarding Gold and Silver Medals for excellence at the two major member exhibitions: Annual Members Oil Exhibition and Annual Members Watercolor Exhibition. Presently, the exhibition schedule also includes Open Juried Exhibitions, Works on Paper Exhibition, All Media Exhibition, Student Awardees Exhibition, New Members Exhibition, plus special invitational exhibitions.