Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 258 – A Crossroads in 1892 

Part 258: A Crossroads in 1892

At the beginning of 1892, Thomas G. Moses wrote, “I was again itching to get out for myself.” In other words, he was ready to leave the Sosman & Landis studio as he had five years earlier. In 1887 he left the company to form Burridge, Moses & Louderbeck. It was short lived and Moses soon returned to the company. It was the constant struggle between artistic freedom and the stability of a studio salary.

In 1892, Moses wrote a letter to Landis, suggesting that he might leave Sosman & Landis again. Moses recalled that Mr. Landis sent him “a good sharp letter” in response, telling him that they were going to fit up an outside studio for Moses to handle increased production and special work, so he had nothing to say about the matter. This was the same year that Sosman & Landis opened their annex studio for Moses, promising him all of the company’s subcontracted work and providing him with both a space and supplies at no charge. I guess that would be why Landis wrote that Moses had “nothing to say” about any eminent departure from the studio, even if he was “itching to get out” for himself.

Unfortunately, Moses was seldom in town to use the new annex space or the promised supplies. As he traveled, Ed Loitz was left in charge of the space. I wondered for quite a while why he was constantly sent on the road and then came to the realization – marketing. Moses on the road was a better advertisement and could market the company more successfully than any advertisement or catalogue. On site, Moses was well-known, popular, and soon secured the much of their future work. He impressed the locals with both his personality and talent, resulting in additional projects at nearby venues. He was too valuable to stay hidden within the annex studio of Chicago. But this also kept him away from his family and the possibility of greater profits.

Lets look at just a few projects from the year that he contemplated leaving Sosman & Landis. In 1892, Moses designed and created scenery for productions such as Lew Wallace’s “Ben Hur,” William Haworth’s “A Flag of Truce,” and Charles Davis’ “Alvin Joslim.” He was constantly traveling across the country to paint scenery onsite for other theaters from California to Massachusetts. West Coast performance venues included the Yo Semite Theater in Stockton, California and the Fischer Opera House in San Diego, California. Small halls and other projects often resulted from these large theater jobs.

On top of everything else, the Chicago Sunday Tribune recognized Moses as one of the country’s top scenic artists that same year. However, that recognition came at a price as the article also noted that he had “small opportunity to exercise his creative faculty.” Moses was unhappy with the status quo and began to think about his future at Sosman & Landis. I believe that Moses needed some form of validation that he was not wasting his talents in the Sosman & Landis studios. He was ready to move on.

Advertisement in the “American Mason,” Dec. 1892. Private collection of Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

Regardless of the outcome, Landis’ letter to Moses changed the tenor of their relationship. It must have been a blow to Moses’ ego. He was 36 years old and knew he was at a crossroads in his career. Moses was determining whether the stability of a studio job was worth sacrificing his artistic potential and started to reflect on both his future and past in his writings. At this same time, Moses also began to reconnect with a variety of familial relationships as he continued to travel for work.

Vintage postcard of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. This is where Thomas G. Moses sister lived during 1892.
Vintage postcard depicting Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

During March 1892, Moses traveled to Woonsocket to see his sister Lucia. He recorded that he hadn’t seen his sister in over twenty years, writing, “I certainly enjoyed my short visit. Lucia had grown stout and was happily married. Had two children – Gertrude and Theodore.” The visit took place on his way to paint scenery for an unidentified small hall at Athol, Massachusetts.

In May 1892, Moses’ wife Ella journeyed east to join him while he was working in Maine. While on the East Coast, the couple visited Moses’ Uncle Horace in Boston where they “enjoyed some atmosphere of a truly artistic home.” They also visited many other aunts and uncles. These relatives were curious to see their “wild and wooly” relatives from the West were like, “West” meaning Chicago. In visiting with their extended family who, had “never been out of sight of the salt water,” Moses recalled that he always felt like giving an Indian “war whoop” to prove their suspicions. He commented that many of their questions regarding the West suggested that they expected him to carry a tomahawk and dress with a blanket and feathers.

Vintage postcard depicting Boston where Thomas G. Moses and Ella Moses visited their relatives in 1892.

While traveling, Ella left the children in Chicago in the care of her sister May and Grandmother Moses. May was living in their house with Ella and the children as Moses traveled for work. Ella returned to Chicago at the end of May and Moses wrote, “The children were glad to see her, as their grandmother Moses looked after them during the day and I don’t think they enjoyed her.”

By the end of 1892, Moses had made a profit of $5,000, today’s equivalent of $130,000. The couple was doing financially well despite Moses’ constant travel. It was time to look toward the future and they began planning for a new chapter in their lives. It was just around the corner, as well as the Chicago World Fair. At the beginning of 1893, they started house hunting in Oak Park.

To be continued…

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