She Walks in Beauty: The Life and Work of Helen Plumb

Helen Plumb, co-founder of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (DSAC) and its secretary from 1906 to 1928, was dedicated to the arts and crafts ideal of public service—encouraging an appreciation for beauty in everyday life and in the community. Surprisingly little is known of Plumb, but some evidence can be found in a few of the Archives’ collections.

During her tenure as DSAC secretary, Plumb saw the society through three distinct phases, each coinciding with a different physical location. The School of Design was established during the society’s first five years, when it was based at the Knowlson Building on Farmer Street (1906-1911). For the next five years, they were based at Witherell Street, during which time the society encouraged the production of theatrical masques, including the Masque of Arcadia, written by Alexandrine McEwen, and the Cranbrook Masque in 1916. The society moved to its third and final location at 47 Watson Street in October 1916. From then until 1922, they created the Little Theatre and expanded into Folk Handicraft and Lamp Departments. Once flourishing, by 1922 these programs were fading, causing Plumb to perceive a new era for the society and her future role in it.

Helen Plumb, secretary of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (1906-1928). Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

In a letter to George Booth in 1922, Plumb alludes to a choice between two paths: either “to go forward in a much larger, showier way, or to move into a closer, more restricted field,” which she felt would entail abandoning DSAC’s public and civic work. In this letter, she makes it very clear that if the second route were chosen, she would have no part in it. Her vision for the society’s future was to nurture more international connections, following the success of the Exhibition of British Arts and Crafts Assembled by the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts in 1920.

A miniature portrait of Helen Plumb of the Society of Arts & Crafts, Detroit, on ivory, by Alexandrine McEwen (1876 – 1955), in same outfit as above. Cultural Properties Collection, Founders Collection.

Plumb’s correspondence with Booth was always very professional and business-focused with a modest sprinkling of personal comment. Then, in October of 1924, she writes candidly, “I have not many friends in all that word means, and still fewer confidants. It so happens that you are one of those two or three who shares my deepest one.” Plumb is variously described as a tireless worker, but here she shares how much she has struggled with chronic health problems and that her vitality has diminished such that it has, “become a life and death struggle” for her to keep going at all. There is a chance that she will finally be well, but she is unable to negotiate a path to it with the society’s board and she is no longer able to endure as is. It is in this impasse that she turns to Booth to advise the best course.

Letter from Helen Plumb to George G. Booth, October 16, 1924. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

There is no record of a written response to Plumb’s request, but we can discern Booth’s input because, in 1925, she was granted leave from Detroit to rest and to study the Paris Exposition as delegate-at-large. The following year, 400 objects from the Paris Expo were displayed at DSAC from June 16-July 10, 1926. Of the 26 nations taking part in the Expo, the Swedish decorative arts were highlighted, particularly weaving and Orrefors glasswork. Prince Gustavus Aldophus of Sweden was much impressed by the DSAC show, and he arranged for the society to host the Exhibition of Swedish Contemporary Decorative Arts after its exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (January 18-Feburary 27, 1927). In June 1927, the King of Sweden bestowed the royal Wasa medal upon Plumb.

Letter from Dorothy Mort, Acting Secretary of DSAC, to George G. Booth, June 30, 1927. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Despite her success, Plumb resigned as secretary and trustee of DSAC in August 1927, a decision met with great regret by the society. Her resignation letter to Gustavus Pope ends,

“But it will surely not be held against me to say to this Board, which I leave with regret, that many of my happiest associations and associates have come through its membership; and I believe that what we have jointly wrought for Detroit, even though never wholly recognised [sic] either within the organization or beyond, is woven into its very fabric.”

Letter from Helen Plumb to Gustavus Pope, August 1927

Plumb went on to work for the American Federation of Arts in New York and her correspondence with Booth continued until 1938. Early on they speak primarily to the plans, problems, solutions, and decision-making of DSAC, with occasional mention of others, including the McEwens with whom she lived for a time, and Arthur Nevill Kirk. Later, she describes her activities with the AFA, her letters coming from the Scottish isles, Egypt, and Africa. In Plumb’s communications, there is a sense of a woman with singleness of purpose, whose aspirations overcame her challenges, but while she was prepared to yield her self-interest to that which she was devoted, there came some matters in which her resolve could not be undone. All who enjoy the vibrant appreciation of beauty in the arts and crafts in the Detroit community are in no small way indebted to the life and work of Helen Plumb.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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