Q: I’ve done a little research on my pair of silhouettes. Although they don’t seem to have much value, I am interested in their history. Each is about 3 inches tall and wide with gilt hangers marked “Foster Bros. Boston.” There is also a paper label on the backs stating “published by Foster Bros. Arlington and Boston MA.”
Having this information will breathe life into little pieces that I’ve pretty much taken for granted. Looking forward to the story! Thank you.
A: Foster Brothers was formed by Stephen Bartlett Foster (1856-1932) and John Roy Foster (1863-1931). The firm opened in 1893 in Boston, then moved to Arlington, where the brothers moved. Foster Brothers was really a family-run firm, which employed at least five of its members to run different aspects of the successful business.
Recognized for producing high-quality picture frames with carved and gilded details, the brothers followed the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century. Their frames also used elements from early European frames, which worked well for the Boston School of artists at that time.
In addition to selling frames, the brothers, ever keen to expand their business operations, also opened a gallery where they sold watercolor drawings and sketches by local artists. They also sponsored exhibits sporadically featuring some of the same artists. Newspaper advertisements and business cards state that the firm sold etchings and engravings — perfect also for selling frames to house the artworks. They also sold mirrors in a variety of popular styles.
In 1898, Foster Brothers began to copyright and publish reproductions of paintings, drawings, miniatures and silhouettes — again, another way to sell their frames. And, if one desired, any purchase could be framed in sets and sold by Foster Brothers in its retail shop or by mail order. The marketing included distribution and sales through department stores, furniture stores, interior decorators and gift shops. The Great Depression brought a sharp decline in sales, with the business closing in 1942.
Cutting silhouettes began in Europe in the early 1700s, where the paper cutters were hired to amuse the royals prior to the French Revolution. The name is derived from Étienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister who was forced to impose severe economic demands upon the wealthy during the Seven Years’ War, cutting out pensions and other luxuries for the upper strata.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Foster Brothers was the premier re-creator and purveyor of decorative silhouettes. When Alice Van Leer Carrick wrote “A History of American Silhouettes: A Collector’s Guide 1790-1840” in 1928, silhouette collecting was exceedingly popular. The Foster Brothers helped spread the popularity with their sales of reproduction silhouettes of George Washington, as well as other historically popular figures.
Today this pair has, as you state, little value, but a most interesting story. For the pair: $50.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written a number of books on antiques. Do you have an item you’d like to know more about? Contact them at Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or e-mail them at treasuresknology.net. If you’d like your question to be considered for their column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus, with your inquiry.