Toor, Frances (1890–1956)

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Toor, Frances (1890–1956)

American author, publisher, anthropologist and ethnographer whose books and journal Mexican Folkways introduced Americans to the folk traditions and art of revolutionary Mexico. Name variations: Paca Toor; Panchita Toor. Born in Plattsburgh, New York, in 1890; died in New York City on June 16, 1956; had brothers Bernard, Elliott, Harold, and Herbert, and sisters Dorothy, Esther, and Mary; University of California, Berkeley, B.A. and M.A. degrees in anthropology; married J.L. Weinberger (a dentist, divorced early 1920s).

Selected writings:

Festivals and Folkways of Italy (NY: Crown, 1953); Frances Toor's Guide to Mexico, including Lower California (8th ed. rev. and augmented by Fredericka Martin. NY: Crown, 1967); The Golden Carnation, and Others Stories Told in Italy (NY: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1960); Made in Italy (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957); Spanish for Your Mexican Visit (Mexico City: n.p., 1935); The Three Worlds of Peru (NY: Crown, 1949); A Treasury of Mexican Folkways: The Customs, Myths, Folklore, Traditions, Beliefs, Fiestas, Dances and Songs of the Mexican People (NY: Crown, 1947).

Born in 1890 into a large Jewish family in upstate New York, Frances Toor moved west to study at the University of California at Berkeley, where she earned a B.A. and an M.A. in anthropology. In 1922, she went to Mexico along with her husband Dr. J.L. Weinberger, a dentist who headed the B'nai Brith office in Mexico City. Determined to become part of the intellectual life of the Mexican capital, Toor first attended courses for foreign students at the National University's summer school. Later, she taught English in government schools. In her leisure time, she visited local markets and shops and began to explore the nearby world of traditional peasant villages. What she found there, particularly folk art, music and dance, astonished her with its richness and colorful spontaneity. Like many foreigners, she fell in love with the Mexican people, whose passionate approach to life contrasted dramatically with the inhibited behavior deemed appropriate in the Anglo-Saxon world she had grown up in. The splendor of Mexico's folk art would change the course of her life: "The beauty of it was one of the motivating factors in my remaining. I wanted to know more of the country in which humble people could make such beautiful things."

Although she always remained somewhat quiet and reserved in manner, soon after her arrival in Mexico Toor divorced her husband and became part of a growing circle of artists and intellectuals, both American and Mexican. Her apartment was located in a building overlooking a shared courtyard, and her neighbors quickly became her close friends and colleagues. These included the radical journalist Carleton Beals and the Communists Bertram and Ella Wolfe . Known to her friends as either "Paca" or "Panchita" (the diminutive of Francisca, her name in Spanish), Toor could often be seen, a squat figure in khakis and boots, hoisting herself into the saddle of a horse or mule to scour the Mexican countryside for new treasures of folk and popular art untouched by commercialism and modernity. Seemingly indefatigable, she investigated backwater Mexico by bus, auto, train and plane. Of particular interest to her were the local fiestas, which she followed round the calendar. She joined in pilgrimages to shrines, feigned illness to be cured by Indian healers and witches, and questioned locals and aged storytellers. Back in her apartment, she would check for corroborating details in the centuries-old chronicles left by conquistadors and their padres.

In Mexico City itself, Toor became a supporter of the rapidly emerging mural movement associated with such artists as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Jean Charlot, a French painter of Mexican ancestry who after arriving in Mexico in 1920 was to play a crucial role in the revival of the fresco mural technique as well as the art of woodcuts. Toor also introduced the work of Carlos Mérida and David Alfaro Sequiros to art collectors in the United States. As a champion of the social reforms of the Mexican revolution, Toor hoped that her writings about the country's new artistic achievements, particularly the murals which defined the ideals of social progress, would be sympathetically received by American readers.

Convinced that Mexico's artistic Renaissance would be of permanent significance, not only for that revolution-racked nation but for the rest of the world as well, Toor decided to publish a magazine to disseminate these largely unknown cultural riches. With its first issue dated June–July 1925, Mexican Folkways appeared as a small bilingual journal with profuse illustrations. From its inception, Mexican Folk-ways had an ambitious agenda; its purpose was to inform readers about Mexico's "legends, festivals, art, [and] archaeology." "Because of my own joy in the discovery of an art and civilization different from any that I had previously known," wrote Toor in the premiere issue, "I thought it would interest others as well." With a modest subsidy from the Mexican Department of Education, Toor was able to publish Mexican Folkways on a somewhat irregular basis from 1925 through 1937. Starting as a bimonthly, the journal became a quarterly in 1928, ceasing to publish entirely in 1931 due to a temporary but severe financial crunch and again for most of 1933. It was revived in 1934, being published again as of that year on an irregular basis, until the last issue finally appeared in July 1937.

Many of the subscribers to Mexican Folk-ways were convinced that in Mexico art and life had remained closely bonded. Critic Walter Pach celebrated the continuity modern Mexico had been able to maintain with its Indian past, particularly through its artifacts: "The millions of

little earthen sculptures of heads that the soil contains, like the grand figures in stone, tell of people whose life was essentially that of today." Mexican Folkways contained articles on a great variety of subjects, including reproductions of the murals being painted by Toor's friend Diego Rivera, who for a number of years was a co-editor of the journal. Most of its contributors were also acquainted with its editor-publisher. For several years, Toor and Tina Modotti were close friends, and in 1929 the journal published an article by Modotti on photography. Sociable and blunt, Toor was regarded by some as being scholarly and even pedantic, but despite such eccentricities she always found herself welcome in the convivial party scene of Mexico City's avant-garde artists and radical writers and journalists. For a number of years during the late 1920s, the conservative U.S. ambassador considered Toor to be a dangerous radical, his evidence being her close friendships with such subversive individuals as Modotti and, even more incriminating, with the Soviet ambassador to Mexico, Alexandra Kollontai.

In the pages of Mexican Folkways, its readers were introduced to ephemeral or recently rediscovered aspects of Mexico's popular culture, ranging from folk songs and dances to pulqueria painting, children's art, and the woodcuts of José Guadalupe Posada. Posada (1852–1913) was an engraver of crude popular woodcuts whose ruthless social commentary easily matched that of the great French lithographer Honoré Daumier. With her sharp eye for cultural energy and quality, Toor brought the body of Posada's work to the attention of collectors and scholars, viewing his art as a forerunner of the mural movement of the 1920s, and "the stirring events of those days." Although subsequent scholarship on Posada has not always agreed with Toor's interpretations, her efforts on behalf of a deeper appreciation of his work—which in 1930 was crowned by the first publication of a book on his woodcuts—played an important role in bringing his art to the attention of the world.

By the early 1930s, the innocent enthusiasms of the previous decade were being changed by a new era of world economic depression and growing political rigidity. Some of Toor's friends, including Modotti, now became supporters of a Stalinist version of Communism. Toor's political enthusiasms had always been subordinated to her interest in art and folklore, and by the 1930s she had become strongly opposed to Stalinist ideas and practices. As a result, her friendship with Modotti collapsed.

Toor's other friendships sometimes suffered as well, probably because she had become so determined to succeed as an editor and publisher. For each negative evaluation, however, there were at least as many words of praise. In 1931, Tina Modotti's lover, the photographer Edward Weston, characterized Toor in his daybook as the "always generous and thoughtful Frances."

By the mid-1930s, Toor had become a successful entrepreneur. Her Frances Toor Studios published a highly popular series of tour guides, including Frances Toor's Guide to Mexico, which appeared in many editions, and language handbooks for tourists, including Spanish for Your Mexican Visit. Other popular books from her publishing firm included interpretive guides to the Orozco frescoes in Guadalajara and Diego Rivera's frescoes in Mexico City's Ministry of Education. These books brought Toor a measure of financial success which enabled her to enjoy a lifestyle of considerable affluence, moving from her modest apartment to a modern house designed by the noted architect Juan O'Gorman.

At least as important as material success to Toor, however, were her contributions to deeper cultural understanding between Mexico and the rest of the world, particularly the United States. In a letter of December 1932 to Elsie Clews Parsons , Toor indicated that although she did not claim to be a scholar, "I'm more than content to have won the respect of people like you, Dr. [Franz] Boas, Dr. Paul Rivet and others for folkways." In 1947, Toor published A Treasury of Mexican Folkways, an encyclopedic reference work which has remained in print ever since and remains an important source of information not only for scholars but for the general reading public as well. For her achievements as a scholar and popularizer of Mexican cultural achievements abroad, Frances Toor was awarded one of the nation's highest honors, the Order of the Aztec Eagle.

In the 1940s, although she remained attached to Mexican culture and art, Toor's interests shifted considerably. She was now drawn to regions and cultures she had long wanted to visit and better understand. As a result of these extended travels, Toor published a number of books, including The Three Worlds of Peru (1949) which provides insights into that country's "three worlds," the coastal world, the sierra world, and the montaña world. She then decided to become acquainted with Italian folk traditions, producing after several years of intensive travel in that country a number of volumes that received positive reviews. Toor was pleased by the critical response received by her 1953 book Festivals and Folkways of Italy. The voluminous notes she had taken in Europe as well as her vivid memories allowed her to complete several more manuscripts during the next few years.

She did not, however, live to see their appearance in print. Frances Toor died in New York City on June 16, 1956. She had returned to the United States from Italy two weeks before and was planning to go to Mexico City in early July to give a course in Mexican folklore traditions at the National University. Instead, she became seriously ill and died of peritonitis in Manhattan's Mount Sinai Hospital. Frances Toor's last two books, Made in Italy (1957) and The Golden Carnation, and Other Stories Told in Italy (1960), appeared posthumously.


Albers, Patricia. Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti. NY: Clarkson Potter, 1999.

Britton, John A. Carleton Beals: A Radical Journalist in Latin America. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.

——. Revolution and Ideology: Images of the Mexican Revolution in the United States. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1995.

Brown, John. "Exuberancia México-Norteamericana, 1920–1940," in Anglia [Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México]. No. 1, 1968, pp. 95–122.

Delpar, Helen. The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican: Cultural Relations Between the United States and Mexico, 1920–1935. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1992.

"Diego Rivera," in Mexican Folkways. Vol. 6, no. 4, 1930, pp. 161–204.

Folgarait, Leonard. Mural Painting and Social Revolution in Mexico, 1920–1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

"Frances Toor, 66, Wrote on Mexico," in The New York Times. June 18, 1956, p. 25.

Frank, Patrick. Posada's Broadsheets: Mexican Popular Imagery, 1890–1910. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.

Mérida, Carlos, and Frances Toor. Frescoes in Ministry of Education. Mexico City: Frances Toor Studios, 1937.

——. Modern Mexican Artists. Mexico City: Frances Toor Studios, 1937.

——. Orozco's Frescoes in Guadalajara. Mexico City: Frances Toor Studios, 1940.

Schmidt, Henry C. "The American Intellectual Discovery of Mexico in the 1920's," in The South Atlantic Quarterly. Vol. 77, no. 3. Summer 1978, pp. 335–351.

Smoot, Sharene Lowery. "Frances Toor as an Authority on Mexican Folk Dance," M.A. thesis, East Carolina College, Greenville, NC, 1963.

Toor, Frances. "The Arts in Mexico," in School Arts Magazine. Vol. 31. February 1932, pp. 322–336.

——. "A Glimpse of Oaxaca," in Mexican Folkways. Vol. 2, no. 6, 1926, pp. 5–8.

——. "Máximo Pacheco: A Revolutionary Artist," in Bulletin of the Pan American Union. Vol. 62, no. 3. March 1928, pp. 286–290.

——. "Mexican Folk Dances," in Hubert Clinton Herring and Herbert Weinstock, eds., Renascent Mexico. NY: Covici, Friede, 1935, pp. 179–198.

——, et al., eds. Monografia, Las Obras de José Guadalupe Posada, grabador Mexicano. Reprint ed. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes-Instituto Cultural de Aguascalientes, 1991 (originally published by Mexican Folkways in 1930).

Werner, Michael S., ed. Encyclopedia of Mexico: History, Society & Culture. Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997.


Carleton Beals Collection, Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University.

Elsie Clews Parsons Papers, The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Frances Toor Papers, Department of Special Collections, University Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.

Joseph Freeman Papers, Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Stanford, California.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia