Clara B. Welles: A New Woman for a New Century

Sharon S. Darling

Clara Barck Welles (1868-1965) is best remembered as a Chicago entrepreneur whose Kalo Shop launched a generation of Chicago area silversmiths and jewelers. But she was also a prominent leader in advancing women’s suffrage and increasing women’s participation in the arts in Illinois.

Although Welles’s name evokes silver products defined by elegance and luxury, she was a self-made businesswoman with humble beginnings. Clara Pauline Barck was fourth in a family of six daughters. Her father Johann (naturalized as John) had immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, in 1856 from Finland, when it was under the rule of Russia; her mother was a native of Switzerland. John was a shoemaker in the village of Ellenville, about 100 miles north of New York City, when Clara was born on August 4, 1868.

While Clara was still a toddler, the family moved to Kent County, Michigan. John Barck may have moved to the area to join Finnish family members or to take advantage of the opportunity to own cheap farmland. The family settled in or near Grand Rapids before moving southeast to a river town named Alaska, where Helena, the youngest daughter, was born in 1873.

In 1878, when Clara Barck was ten years old, the family moved again, this time to Oregon. They settled near Oregon City, a few miles up the Willamette River from Portland. John bought a farm south of town in an area known as Pleasant Hill. Clara was only 15 when her father died in 1883, leaving the women to run the farm. Margaret Barck and her younger daughters lived on the farm until 1888, when they moved to Oregon City.

Clara Barck worked as a weaver at the Oregon City Manufacturing Co., a large woolen mill, for several years. After completing the course at the Portland Business College in 1890, she was a bookkeeper and then a clerk at Louis Kreiss’s department store in Portland. Later she oversaw the drapery department at Forbes & Breeden, where she honed her skills as an interior decorator. Barck’s budding public speaking skills were evident by 1895, when she became involved in a local debating society. After one session, the local newspaper singled out Miss Barck as being “especially able” in debating the local college boys.

In 1897, Barck moved to San Francisco, where she was employed as a salesclerk, possibly for the main Louis Kreiss store, which was based in San Francisco. Meanwhile, her mother had the family farm laid out in lots and divided the property among her daughters.

Clara Barck’s coming of age coincided with the emergence of the feminist movement at the turn of the 20th century. The term “New Woman,” first used in 1894, stood for the progress middle-to-upper class women were making towards self-sufficiency, and the shift in the focus of their energies from home to workplace. The concept of the New Woman captured the interest and imagination of writers and image makers alike. Articles appeared in magazines, journals and newspapers and set off debates pro-and-con about the evolving role of women. Despite the uproar, there was widespread agreement that women should be trained to be self-supporting. And, like Barck, many young women identified paid work as a major vehicle of woman’s emancipation.

In March 1898, with her share of proceeds from the sale of the family farm, Barck left the west coast to enroll in the Department of Decorative Design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This was a new degree program, primarily attracting women, that offered training in art and design, along with crafts such as pottery, jewelry making, and graphic design. It is possible that Barck learned of the program through her niece, Wilhelmina Joehnke, a schoolteacher who attended summer classes at the University of Chicago after 1891. In the June 1900 Federal Census, Clara Barck and Wilhelmine Joehnke were listed as students boarding together in Hyde Park.

The Kalo Shop

Clara Barck received her degree in June 1900, and within weeks launched a business with five of her fellow graduates. Four of the partners in the new business were at least 30 years old. Thus, it appears that the women who founded the Kalo Shop in Chicago on September 1, 1900, were all New Women serious about utilizing their new skills in the arts and crafts. They chose the name Kalo, from a Greek word meaning “to make beautiful.” They designed book plates, jewelry, and textiles, and worked in metals and leather. Since she had a business degree, Barck was the logical choice as manager.

By the time Clara Barck married Chicago fuel dealer George Sill Welles on February 2, 1905, most of her original partners had moved on to other endeavors. That year she incorporated the Kalo Shop with the backing of several women investors. In 1906 Clara Welles moved the workshop to Park Ridge, where she, George, and her sister Helena E. Barck operated the Kalo Arts Crafts Community in a large rambling farmhouse. They produced a variety of salable crafts, while operating a popular school that taught classes in jewelry and metalworking. Utilizing her marketing skills to promote the enterprise, she organized traveling exhibitions and lectured to women’s clubs and organizations on her favorite topic, “Woman in the Arts and Crafts.”

As vice-president of the alumni association, she helped launch the annual series of applied arts exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1902 and frequently served on its jury. She was also an active member of the Cordon Club, an association of prominent artistic, literary, and professional women, headquartered in Chicago’s Fine Arts building, where the Kalo Shop maintained its retail outlet.

In 1912, with the business on a firm footing, Welles opened a retail branch of the Kalo Shop, managed by sister Helena, on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Reformer and Suffragist

Welles actively campaigned for the betterment of industrial conditions affecting women. After all, she had first-hand experience, having been a factory worker and a shop girl for a decade before becoming a business manager and owner.  In 1912 she was one of 32 women organizing the Park Ridge Improvement Association (now the Twentieth Century Club) and served as its first president. In addition to educating her neighbors about the need for women to have the vote, Welles led the women in agitating for cleaner alleys, better food sanitation, and other civic improvements. At the time, she was described as “a woman with the two necessary talents for leadership – executive ability and the power of imagination to formulate new endeavors.” She was described as an “indefatigable worker” in 1915 when she hosted some 30 residents of the Illinois Industrial School for Girls in Park Ridge for Thanksgiving dinner at Kalo House.

Paralleling Welles’s involvement in progressive politics was her role in the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association. In 1912 she served on its executive board and was chairman of the state’s publicity committee. In the association, she worked closely with many of Chicago’s most famous women. Board members included social workers Jane Addams and Mary McDowell, and philanthropists and reformers like Mrs. Medill McCormick, wife of the managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, Louise deKoven Bowen, married to prominent manufacturer and banker Joseph T. Bowen, and clubwoman Mrs. George W. Trout, who was also president of the Chicago Political Equality League.

As a young woman in Oregon, Clara had an excellent role model close at hand. Her younger sister, Wilhelmine, was married to Wilkie C. Duniway, whose mother, Abigail Scott Duniway, is celebrated as Oregon’s Mother of Equal Suffrage and the pioneer Woman Suffragist of the Great Northwest. A pioneer settler who arrived in Oregon by oxcart in 1852, Duniway devoted over 40 years to the cause of women’s rights, working as a lecturer, organizer, writer, and newspaper owner and editor. Despite staunch opposition from some of the most influential men in Oregon—including her own brother, who was editor of Portland’s largest newspaper—these victories came to pass. Abigail Duniway was 78 when Oregon’s governor asked her to write the Oregon Woman Suffrage Proclamation giving women the vote; it was passed in 1912.

In 1913 the Illinois Association decided to send a large delegation to Washington to march in a big suffrage parade on March 3, one day before the inauguration of President-elect Woodrow Wilson. Clara, as state publicity chairman, was made head of the Illinois delegation. She sent out invitations to all the leagues and associations in the state and designed buttons, banners, pennants, and costumes.

Welles arranged for a special train to take the women to Washington, D.C. She was determined they would enjoy all the comforts provided for male politicians when they traveled, except smoking. And with ladylike decorum. “We shall talk over a cheerful cup of tea and listen to suffrage speeches,” she told reporters, but “refrain from saying anything unkind about our opposition, like calling them dishonest and liars.” The Middle West Suffrage Special, decorated with yellow bunting, the suffrage color, left Chicago serenaded by a lively brass band; Clara rehearsed her troops at every stop along the way.

Thousands of spectators turned out for the parade in Washington. As the women marched, the crowd, largely composed of unruly men, was allowed to insult, jeer, spit upon, and abuse the marchers without even an attempt on the part of the police to restrain them, reported the Chicago Tribune, which also noted that the Illinois women were the best drilled of any of the delegations.

According to one participant, “Things were said to women that I can’t repeat. Mrs. George Welles is the only one from Illinois who was caught hold of. She was at the head of the band, keeping time with the baton, and a man grabbed her. She brought the baton down on his head in perfect time, and he let her go.”

The women’s experiences led to major news stories and even congressional hearings but resulted in little action. However, the parade gave the suffrage movement a new wave of strength and resolve. In June 1913 Governor Edward F. Dunne signed the Illinois Municipal Voting Act that gave women the right to vote, making Illinois the first state east of the Mississippi to do so.

But it was not a complete victory. Illinois women could now vote for presidential electors, mayor, aldermen and most other local offices, but not for governor, state representatives, or members of Congress. That would have to wait until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920.

Although Welles resigned as publicity chairman after the march, she continued to support suffrage activities. In July 1914, a group of prominent Chicago society women hosted a “self denial” drive. They donated gold and silver trinkets to be converted into bullion to raise money for the national suffrage campaign. The melting pot was installed in the Kalo Shop, with Clara in charge. With Mrs. Medill McCormick serving as mistress of ceremonies, the event was attended by nearly 100 women, each of whom dropped a piece of non-Kalo gold or silver into the melting pots.

Welles’s work with the suffrage movement and her involvement in the arts paid double dividends. She understood that independent businesswomen were most likely to be successful if they could exploit a niche market catering specifically to other women. Hand wrought silver and jewelry were luxury items, and Clara’s friendships with the city’s civic and social leaders resulted in publicity and patronage for the Kalo Shop.

As Welles became more involved with women’s suffrage, cracks surfaced in her marriage. In 1916, when her divorce was granted, Welles shocked the court when she asked for no alimony, saying that she was a businesswoman with a good income, and that George Welles had no business whatsoever. Now divorced, Clara Barck Welles consolidated the Kalo Shop’s retail and manufacturing operations in Chicago.

Occupational Therapy Pioneer

In 1917, Welles was among the organizers of the Chicago chapter of the Altrusa club, patterned after men’s Rotary clubs, to help business and professional women prepare for America’s entry into World War I. As an Altrusa director, she often spoke at annual conventions on her work as a silversmith, and the restorative effects of the handicrafts on rehabilitating disabled soldiers and sailors.

In 1918, when the war ended, Welles became the first person in the United States to begin training teachers to instruct disabled soldiers returning from France. In a letter to her sister Wilhelmine, she wrote “I was chosen because of my vocational training, my experience in handling men, and because of my understanding of the economic value of the work.” As a first step, she suggested training teachers in a practical workshop, and offered her own shop and services.

The Kalo Shop flourished in the 1920s, employing 36 workers. But in the 1930s, the Great Depression took its toll, reducing the number of workmen to four. In 1936, Clara moved her retail shop to Michigan Avenue, a new location that offered greater visibility for the shop’s products. It remained in the same spot for the next 34 years.

In 1937, when a selection of Welles’s silver designs was included in the Contemporary American Design exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the reviewer for the New York Sun singled out her work, which “seemed to express more of a freshly creative trend than did most of the other work shown, for we could not in her pieces trace so quickly the influences that had guided their conception.” The Chicago Daily Tribune’s critic, noting Welles’s firm belief that every article of silver for the home should be both beautiful and useful, stressed the practical nature of her pieces, most of which served equally well as flower containers or food serving pieces.

An Active Retirement

In 1939, declaring “forty years of Chicago winters are about enough,” Welles moved to San Diego, California, locating next door to her long-time friend, Arthur L. Frazer, a music teacher and concert pianist. Although in her 70s, she was only partially retired, and periodically returned to Chicago to check on the Kalo Shop’s activities.

In San Diego, Welles remained a popular lecturer, illustrating her talks on silver craft with pieces from the Kalo Shop. During World War II, she put her drawing board aside to plant a victory garden and host meetings of the Relief for France society. She became heavily involved in local politics and campaign activities, organizing a group called the Republican Minute Women to map out plans for candidates to win local and national campaigns.

In 1959, when she was 91, Welles gave the Kalo Shop to its four remaining employees. They continued the business until July 31, 1970.

Clara Barck Welles died in her 96th year on March 14, 1965. Although no physical monument commemorates her life, Welles would have been pleased to know that work from the Kalo Shop is widely appreciated by collectors, and that women have assumed powerful roles in business and politics today.