The city of New Rochelle has a relevant place in the founding history of the United States. It was here that in 1689 a small community of French Protestant refugees would settle.
Known as Huguenots, they exercised considerable influence on America’s course towards self-determination. George Washington descended from a Huguenot refugee on his mother’s side.
Fittingly, Thomas Paine spent his final years living there in a cottage gifted to him in June 1784 by New York State in gratitude for his support of American independence (the Thomas Paine Cottage is now a museum maintained by the Huguenot & New Rochelle Historical Association).
The city also played a pioneering role in promoting girl’s education and would subsequently be in the vanguard of the battle for women’s equality.
Huguenots were French Protestants who adhered to Reformed or Calvinist beliefs (the origin of the term remains uncertain). They were concentrated among the population in the southern and western parts of the country (Protestants in eastern France were mainly Lutherans). As Huguenots grew in numbers and gained influence, Catholic hostility intensified. A series of bloody conflicts followed in the second half of the sixteenth century. They became known as the French Wars of Religion.
In 1572, Charles IX ordered the assassination of Huguenot leaders in Paris, thereby setting off an orgy of killing that resulted in the murder of tens of thousands Huguenots across France. The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day on 24/5 August, one of the darkest events in European history, marked the resumption of French religious civil war. The turmoil led to a mass exodus of persecuted people to neighboring Protestant nations.
Hostilities lasted until April 1598 when Henry IV signed the Edict of Nantes which ended the long-running feud by granting rights and religious freedom to the Huguenots. The charter provided for the safety of some two hundred fortified cities. Each city was allowed to arm itself in case of further trouble. Provisions were made for (limited) freedom of the printing press and the organization of educational facilities.
Louis XIII and his advisor Cardinal Richelieu were not disposed toward religious toleration. From 1621 onward the latter set out to disarm and demolish the independent cities. In 1628, the coastal city of La Rochelle in southwestern France was the last to fall after a prolonged and cruel siege. It was a symbolic victory as La Rochelle had been the site of national Protestant synods.
Further erosion of Huguenot privileges started in the 1660s and gathered speed in the 1680s especially after Louis XIV’s morganatic (left-handed) marriage to Madame de Maintenon. His revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 ended legal recognition of Protestantism and led to large numbers of Huguenots fleeing the country (an estimated exodus of 200,000 French Protestants).
In exile, Huguenot refugees demonstrated an ecumenical interpretation of Protestantism, intermarrying with Walloon Protestants, Dutch Calvinists, English Anglicans, German Lutherans, or Ulster Scot Presbyterians. The Huguenot Diaspora was interconnected and transatlantic.
In 1688, some thirty-three Huguenot families landed (most likely) on the peninsula of Davenport’s Neck in the Long Island Sound estuary which, before white settlement, was inhabited by the Siwanoy indigenous people. In 1654 they sold their land (including all or part of what is now the Bronx) to Sussex-born physician Thomas Pell.
Acting on behalf of the refugees was German-born Jacob Leisler who had arrived in America as a mercenary in the British Army. He would become one of the most prominent fur and tobacco merchants in New York. Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Protestant accession of William III of Orange to the English throne, Leisler took control of New York City and Province from appointees of the deposed James II. During his spell of rule, he acquired 6,100 acres of land from Pell for the establishment of a Huguenot settlement north of Manhattan.
The refugee community named their settlement “La Nouvelle-Rochelle” – New Rochelle (Westchester County). For a long period of time, the New Rochelle community continued to attract refugees and maintain its distinctly French character. Teaching remained a central focus of attention. Huguenot schools stood out for the importance they attached to educating girls. People in neighboring areas would send their children to New Rochelle to learn French and acquire fine manners.
By the time of the American Revolution many refugee families had achieved considerable political and economic power in their European host nations, often maintaining networks that crossed the Atlantic. As a consequence many of the Dutch, French, or German participants in the Revolution were of Huguenot descent. Two out of five people who signed the peace treaty that enshrined independence (John Jay and Henry Laurens) were descendants of refugees.
New Rochelle remained a modest, mainly agricultural village throughout the eighteenth century. Mass immigration into New York by the mid-1800s motivated affluent New Yorkers to move out of the City into suburban areas. They first discovered New Rochelle in large numbers with the advent of the steam boat and the development of pleasure gardens on Glen Island. Soon, residential areas were being built. By 1900, the city had a population of 15,000.
In spite of New Rochelle’s expansion and the decline in numbers of Huguenot residents, through the ownership of land and the control of financial institutions they retained a hold on the town’s socio-political structure.
Painters of the Hudson River School were the first to record the aesthetic beauty of the region, and no-one more so than David Johnson. His 1886 Bayside, New Rochelle reflects the genteel “Dutch-like” sanctuary New Rochelle had been before the invasion by thousands of visitors from the metropolitan area each summer.
During the early twentieth century, a number of actors, musicians, playwrights and writers settled in the city. The community became known as the New Rochelle Artist Colony which, in 1912, was formally organized with the founding of the New Rochelle Art Association (NRAA). Its aim was to set an “educational standard in the Fine Arts and promote interest in art in the community.” By the 1920s, the city had gained a reputation of being arty and reporters tended to refer to its community as “Greenwich Village without the Greenwich.”
The colony included Vernon and Irene Castle who shot to fame with dancing the foxtrot in Irving Berlin’s first Broadway hit Watch Your Step (1914) and helped to promote modern dances such as ragtime at their Castle House dancing school; Francis Wilson, the actor, playwright, and founder of the Actors’ Equity Association; the artist E.W. Kemble, best known for illustrating the first edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; and the sculptor Robert Ingersoll Aitken who was trained in Paris and went on to teach at New York’s National Academy of Design.
The boom of popular publishing in America that characterized the second half of the nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth centuries has been named the “Golden Age of the Magazine.” This passion for glossy publications created unprecedented opportunities for illustrators and cartoonists. New Rochelle became renowned for the presence of prominent graphic artists. Many of the nation’s best-selling newspapers and magazines were illustrated by residents of the city.
New Rochelle’s coterie of artists was commercially successful, designing covers for popular magazines as well as images for advertising and cartoon strips. Many of them became national celebrities and some of the fictional female characters they created remain relevant from a socio-historical point of view as they were associated with the rise of feminism. Progress of emancipation was registered in print and illustration.
Developing technologies like sewing machines and chemical dyes revolutionized the production and design of garments in the nineteenth century and allowed for mass production. Rapidly changing vogues became a hot topic in caricature and cartoon. For a while, women were mainly represented as “advertising stereotypes,” promoting fashion, cosmetics, or hairstyle.
Gibson & Brinkley Girls
New Rochelle had been in the forefront of promoting girl’s education. It would play a similar role in the battle for female emancipation.
Widening educational opportunities meant that many women born around the late 1850s received a schooling that helped them progress into the public realm of professional participation. They pursued careers as teachers, physicians, writers, or artists in the years leading up to the First World War. Victorian society had restricted women to the home as guardians and custodians of traditional family values, while men occupied the domains of work and business. The socio-cultural change was profound and signaled the gradual obliteration of these separate spheres.
An acclaimed master of pen-and-ink drawing, Charles Dana Gibson was a resident of New Rochelle. Having trained at New York’s Art Students League, he worked from 1886 as a freelance illustrator, before enrolling at the Académie Julian in Paris where he enjoyed the liberating cosmopolitan milieu of the avant-garde.
On return to New York, he created illustrations of affluent urban life-styles for such magazines as Collier’s, Harper’s, and Scribner’s. His early career coincided with the phenomenal rise of the department store. Promoting goods from all parts of the world, these trade ‘palaces’ turned shopping into a leisure activity. By the early twentieth century, mass-produced clothing made reproductions of the latest Parisian or London fashions affordable to American women. Magazines introduced lavish advertising and employed illustrators to invent ‘corporate’ cartoons or mascots.
Within a context of increasing social mobility and the expansion of female involvement, Charles Dana Gibson created the image of the “Gibson Girl” for Life Magazine in the early 1890s. She was featured in the first folio edition of his work which appeared in 1894. Her presence started a two decades long fascination with idealized types of feminine beauty in America and beyond. She was everywhere. Porcelain figures, commemorative spoons, umbrella stands, and matchboxes bore her figure. Gibson’s Girl came to represent an ideal of womanhood that mirrored changing standards of beauty and social participation. She was the visual embodiment of the “New Woman,” a term that had come into circulation a decade or so before Gibson’s creation.
Gibson Girl was not inspired by a single model. She was the illustrator’s interpretation of how women should be valued. This vibrant young woman was an unshackled personality who pursued education, wanted the right to vote, desired equal opportunities, rode a bicycle, smoked cigarettes, and surfed alongside men. With New Woman’s self-sufficiency, she demanded a “role” in society.
Nell Brinkley, a cartoonist for the New York Journal, was also a resident of New Rochelle. She established a following with the creation of her “Brinkley Girl.” She replaced Gibson’s emphasis on femininity and sophistication by action and involvement. A stylish lady with wild curly hair, wearing loose lacy dresses, Nell’s flapper heroine was immersed in activities that marked her independence and professionalism.
A Brinkley Girl did not wear a corset. That was a statement. With increased participation in public life, women rejected Victorian dress codes that restricted movement and mobility. The search for physical liberation gave rise to a heated ‘corset debate’ among feminists, physicians, couturiers, and moralizing preachers who reviled the “corsetless evil.”
Capable, qualified, and politically astute, the Brinkley Girl was an emancipated woman. She supported the suffrage movement and when war broke out she joined the forces as a nurse. Nell Brinkley made beauty and independence compatible. She became a national sensation. “Have you seen the newest girl with her hair all in a whirl,” Harry B. Smith asked in his lyrics for “The Nell Brinkley Girl,” a song from the 1908 Ziegfeld Follies.
Nell’s 1916 drawing The Three Graces (Suffrage, Preparedness and Patriotism) helped establish her character as a political idol. Four years later the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, extending voting rights to women. New Rochelle’s girls had both made their contribution to move the concept of the New Woman forward.
Illustrations, from above: monument in Hudson Park commemorating the Huguenot founders of New Rochelle; Declaration of Independence (the five-man drafting committee), 1817 by John Trumbull (United States Capitol rotunda, Washington); a promotional card for Glen Island, America’s first theme park developed by shipping magnate John Henry Sarin; Bayside, New Rochelle, 1886 by David Johnson (The MET, New York); First edition (1885) of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, illustrated by E.W. Kemble; Charles Dana Gibson’s iconic portrait of a ‘Gibson Girl’ (Cover Life Magazine, April 19, 1908); and The Three Graces, 1916 by Nell Brinkley.