Helen McKearin’s status as an expert on American glass is well earned. During her lifetime, she wrote four books on the subject, conducted glass collection surveys, curated museum exhibitions, and seemed to be constantly engaged in research on early American glass. In 1965, McKearin’s editor at Crown Publishers mentioned that she had essentially started The Corning Museum of Glass.1 Recognizing this was an exaggeration, McKearin responded that “I didn’t really start the museum! I was midwife and then nanny for a few years.” Her word choice is intriguing; while acknowledging her role in getting the Museum up and running, McKearin also placed herself within the cult of domesticity, or women’s traditional roles.
Who was the real Helen McKearin though? Was she the “writer, lecturer, and glass industry expert” described in the 1940 Federal Census? Or was she Mrs. Albert E. Powers, “housewife and spare-time writer,” as she frequently referred to herself throughout her life? In reality, McKearin seemed to occupy two spheres. In the public sphere, she was a well-respected authority on American glass; in the private sphere, she was simply the wife of an insurance broker.
Born in 1898, McKearin graduated from Wellesley College as a Durant Scholar, the school’s highest honor, in 1921. She experienced both World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic as a college student. She married Powers in 1926. McKearin helped her father operate “McKearin’s Antiques” from 1923-1933, identifying herself as a partner in this capacity. As the daughter of George S. McKearin, a passionate glass collector and expert himself, it’s not surprising that Helen would take up an interest in glass. The father-daughter team co-authored two books on early American glass. Their first book, American Glass, has long been considered the bible of glass collectors and dealers. In fact, almost 80 years after it was first published in 1941, most experts still look to American Glass as the go-to reference on the subject. In 1950, the McKearins published Two Hundred Years of American Blown Glass, which bolstered their reputation as experts on American glass.
Working alongside her father in the 1920s and 1930s, McKearin put her academic skills to use and began to research and write about glass, assess private glass collections, and curate glass exhibitions for several museums. From 1936-1939, in the midst of the Great Depression, she applied her knowledge and experience at the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (FAP). McKearin was a project supervisor at the New York City unit in charge of the glass and ceramics divisions. She supervised workers, directed research, and selected materials for inclusion in the Index of American Design, a monumental effort by the federal government to document “American folk, popular, and decorative art.”
McKearin had established herself as a competent and independent professional by 1950. In fact, when The Corning Museum of Glass was founded in 1951, she was asked to help create a cataloging system for the collections. The Museum still uses components of this system in 2020! To top it off, McKearin wrote two more books when she was well-passed retirement age: Bottles, Flasks, and Dr. Dyott (1970) and American Bottles & Flasks and their Ancestry with Kenneth M. Wilson (1978). McKearin was eighty when her last book was published.
Yet with all these accomplishments, McKearin made this statement in March 1976: “My chief activity has been study and research about glass, American in particular, in all its aspects, historical and social, writing and acting as consultant in this field—always second to my home and husband.” Why would she refuse to accept the fact that she was a glass expert and scholar? It doesn’t seem as though her husband thwarted her career aspirations. In fact, McKearin blames him for making her a Lucy Stoner,* since he’s the one who recommended she use her own name when writing about glass because he knew that the McKearin name would carry more weight. This challenged social norms of the day, but Powers seemed fine with it. Ultimately, his encouragement was necessary for McKearin to feel comfortable using her maiden name.
*The term Lucy Stoner is a reference to “a female advocate for women’s rights,” particularly “a married woman who uses her maiden name as a surname (https://www.merriam-webster.com).”
What does this tell us about McKearin, and about professional women more broadly, in postwar America? I would argue that she had two, mostly separate, identities: in the glass world, she was Helen McKearin the writer, researcher, and glass expert. At home, however, she was content to be Mrs. Albert E. Powers. The pair had a happy, stable, and loving relationship. McKearin viewed her scholarly work as more of a hobby, I believe, because she embraced traditional values and she was a humble person by nature. Either way, McKearin left an indelible mark on the glass world that remains to this day.
- Helen McKearin Papers, 1807-1988. MS 0100. The Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass. Corning, New York.
This blog is part of a bi-weekly series called Women in Glasshouses; a discovery and celebration of the many ways that women have contributed to the glass industry in the 100 years since the ratification of the 19th amendment. To read the previous entry on the role of women in marketing, please click here. The next in the series will focus on unions.