Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 291: Back to 1892

Part 291: Back to 1892
For several installments I took a sidetrack to examine cycloramas, the American panorama Company and women scenic artists. These are all intricate pieces of a puzzle that mark a unique time in the history for visual entertainment. Prior to that, I was looking at Thomas G. Moses’ projects during 1892, as I continue to present his typed manuscript from 1873 to 1934, year by year. “Tales of a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center” is about the significance of this acquisition and the career of the collection’s artist – Thomas G. Moses. The purpose of this discourse is to provide context concerning its significance. Although much of the collection has been damaged beyond repair due to ill handling, this collection was once internationally significant in the world of theatre history and Masonic history. I’m providing a glimpse of why I recommended the purchase of the painted scenery collection while working as the Curatorial Director for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center during 2015.
Let’s venture back to 1892.
This is two years before Grace N. Wishaar’s scenic art career began in Seattle and thirty-two years before Moses would paint the Scottish Rite scenery for Fort Scott, Kansas.
Moses’ typed manuscript personally documents his involvement in scenery for a variety of productions that included “The Outsider,” “Columbus” for Mr. Leavitt, “Fabio Romana,” “The Black Crook,” “A Day in the Swiss Alps,” “South Sea Islanders,” “Kansas State Exhibit,” “The Laplanders,” “Streets of Cairo,” Javanese Theatre, Chinese Theatre, a dozen big floats, “Lady of Venice” for Buffalo Bill, W.F. Cody and many others. He also worked on productions that were nearby the fairgrounds such the Trocodevs, the Empire Theatre and the Isabella Theatre. There were many other projects completed by Sosman & Landis artists. Each of these projects is a worthwhile story to understand and appreciate Moses contributions to the Columbian Exposition. It is important, however, to recall that the Sosman and Landis studio was situated across the street from the Western Electric Building in Chicago. Their work for Western Electric and other scenic electric theatre displays makes complete sense. “Being in the right place at the right time” could have been their motto.
In the larger context of Chicago and the world of theatrical manufacturers, businesses were popping up all over the place and the Columbian Exposition gave many the “push” that they needed to not only survive, but also thrive in the following decades. For many scenic studios, panorama studios, fresco studios, and other decorative art firms, the formation, running, changing hands, and longevity were all up in the air. The individual artists would get together for a year or two, maybe five, and then split, quickly regrouping with another group of individuals.
So what made Sosman & Landis last so long? They partnered in 1877 and the business continued into the 1920s. They rapidly grew during the 1880s and by the 1893 World Fair started to soar. There success? They paired new technology with old – looking forward, but diversifying and branching into other areas – draperies, lighting, rigging, and scenery. Unlike many artists, they sold the whole package to theaters. If there was a product that they needed, they began to manufacture it, started a new company, or bought stock in in it. One of the side businesses of Joseph S. Sosman was a company specializing in lighting products – the American Reflector and Lighting Company. When I stumbled across the stamp up in the attic of the Yankton Scottish Rite, all I could think of was, “Of course, you sold it here too. Your biggest client – the Masons.”
Up in the attic of the Yankton Scottish Rite I noticed the American Reflector and Lighting Company stamp. Photograph from November 2017.
Detail of the stamp from another company that Joseph S. Sosman was involved in during the 1890s.
Advertisement for the American Reflector and Lighting Co. in a Sosman and Landis catalogue from 1893-1894.
To be continued…

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