Morris Rosenfeld and Sons, a photographic firm founded in New York around the turn of the 20th century, was known for its advertising images featuring yachts and other ocean scenes. For that reason, Mystic Seaport, "The Museum of America and the Sea," has an enormous collection of Rosenfeld images. Years ago, a descendant of the Rosenfelds combed through Mystic's collection, looking for another focus: women.
An exhibit up at the Stonington historical museum is the result of that search. "On Land and Sea: A Century of Women in the Rosenfeld Collection," made up of 70 photographs shot between 1911 and 1968, is a delightful collection of images of women in various states of mind: spunky, hard-working, chic, vigilant, fun-loving.
Women from the upper classes — attending a yacht race, dressed to the nines, jumping onto a plane for a booze cruise to Cuba during Prohibition — hang side-by-side with images of ladies of the working classes: toiling in a laundry, being treated at a free hospital, marching in a Red Cross parade full of white-clad nurses. Telephone operators, laundresses, factory workers, roller-skate-wearing Western Union employees performed their jobs for the Rosenfeld's cameras. All the photos were intended to show the companies in a good light, even the laundry company, staffed entirely by African-American women, except for their supervisors, who are white.
Rosenfeld photographed young girls, too. Schoolgirls in Hell's Kitchen in 1917 show an amusing variety of facial expressions. Young models in a motorboat ad seem to forget they're working, so delighted they are with the boat. A footrace for girls in 1920 is dominated by one girl, head down, determined to win, and those following her, grinning and stumbling, some of them wearing high heels.
A few celebrities of the time can be seen: golf champ Margaret Gavin, tennis champ Mary Browne. Other unknown sporting women are prominently seen: aviatrixes, yachtswomen, runners. "It was controversial at the time. People said sports weren't ladylike, seeing women golfing, playing tennis, in speedboats, racing cars," said exhibits director Elysa Engelman. "These women were readdressing what it means to be a lady, to be active."
The most fascinating images are from the pre-Wall Street crash days: women marching for the vote, dressed in military uniforms during World War I, attending a polo match in Newport, R.I. in 1926. The Rosenfeld's advertising clientele tended to sell high-end items: sporty cars, outboard motors, airplanes. Four pretty models sit on a yacht in a shot taken at a boat show in the summer of 1929. One wonders how many of these luxury goods-dealers managed to stay afloat during the Great Depression.
ON LAND AND SEA: A CENTURY OF WOMEN IN THE ROSENFELD COLLECTION will be at Mystic Seaport, 75 Greenmanville Ave. in Mystic, until Labor Day weekend. mysticseaport.org.