Webb, Electra Havemeyer (1888–1960)
Webb, Electra Havemeyer (1888–1960)
Collector of American folk art whose founding of the Shelburne Museum contributed to the popularization of "Americana" as fine art . Born on August 16, 1888, in Babylon, Long Island, New York; died on November 19, 1960; daughter of Henry O. Havemeyer (a sugar refiner) and Louisine (Waldron) Elder Havermeyer (1855–1929, an art collector); attended Miss Spence's School in New York City; married J(ames) Watson Webb, in 1910; children: five.
Born on Long Island, New York, in 1888, Electra Havemeyer Webb enjoyed a privileged upbringing as the daughter of Henry O. Havemeyer, the president and a founder of the American Sugar Refining Company, and Louisine Havemeyer , a well-known art collector. The Havemeyers made sure that their daughter acquired the skills expected of young society women, supplementing her education at Miss Spence's School in New York City with a private study of fine art. Electra began collecting American folk art at the age of 18 when she purchased a cigar-store Indian. Her fascination with "Americana" baffled her parents and many others, who considered such items outside the realm of art. At the time of Louisine's death in 1929, Electra inherited her mother's collection of Chinese bronzes and Tanagra figurines and such grand masters as Degas, Corot, and Manet. Although she had developed a keen appreciation for this art, she was happiest collecting the works of anonymous artisans. She treasured everyday objects that were simple and unpretentious, anticipating a trend that would take another 20 years to develop.
Electra's marriage in 1910 to J. Watson Webb, the great-grandson of Sophia Johnson Vanderbilt and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt I, brought her into extraordinary wealth. J. Watson Webb built on the family money by founding the Webb and Lynch insurance company in 1933. Among the many properties owned by the Webbs was a magnificent estate in Shelburne, Vermont, which boasted the largest hackney breeding stud farm and the first private golf course in the country. The Webbs and their five children lived in a 110-room house, while the horses resided in a barn as big as Madison Square Garden.
After her marriage, Electra Webb continued to pursue her collections, and the idea of creating a museum occurred to her shortly after her mother's death. Her early collections of dolls grew to include those made of Bisque, china, papier mâché, wax, wood shells, rubber, rawhide, rag, and celluloid. Unable to resist such collectibles, she expanded her collection to include their accouterments such as clothing, houses and carriages. Her keen enthusiasm for collecting in quantity soon progressed into other categories, until she eventually acquired more than 125,000 objects, among them quilts, rugs, furniture, pewter, glass, ceramics, toys, carriages, sleighs, tools, folk art, clothes, and decoys. After her husband saved a small, brick Vermont-type house on his father's property from being destroyed, it became the nucleus of their summer home in Vermont and was expanded to include numerous wings to accommodate her collections. In 1947 she began to establish an outdoor museum at this house on Shelburne Farms.
By this time both of her in-laws had died, and the family gathered to determine what to do with the grand collections of carriages. The Webbs secured eight acres of land on Route 7, south of the village of Shelburne, and constructed an appropriate building for a public display. By the time of its completion, Webb had collected additional carriages as well as fire equipment, wagons, sleighs, and coaches. She also began acquiring architecture, including a red-brick schoolhouse from 1830, a small barn, and the Stagecoach Inn, built in 1783. When she learned of the planned destruction of a double-lane covered bridge in Vermont, she purchased the structure, had it disassembled and moved it to the museum grounds where she created a large lily pond to accommodate it. She also acquired a lighthouse, a stone jail, a wooden meeting house, and stores, in addition to boats and trains.
Webb, who had accompanied her own father duck shooting and on trips to the West when she was young, loved the outdoors and especially enjoyed hunting for game animals. Between 1931 and 1941, the Webbs had traveled to Alaska and the Canadian Northwest seven
times, with Electra usually the only woman in the party. It was during these trips that she began collecting specimens of large and small game, and many of her trophies continue to hold official records for size and quality. Although Webb could have settled into a luxurious routine of international travel and hunting excursions with her husband, she was active throughout both world wars. She drove an ambulance during World War I, and was rewarded for her efforts with a promotion to assistant director of the Motor Corps of the Red Cross. She became more involved with blood-drive recruitment during World War II as assistant director of the Red Cross' Blood Bank and was the first Vermont donor to give 16 pints of blood during the course of the war.
The Shelburne Museum, opened to the public in 1952, is neither a reconstruction nor a restoration but a collection of everything Americana. By 1953, Webb had saved the S.S. Ticonderoga, a steamboat 220' long and three decks high. Although it had been used for several years as a tourist attraction in Burlington, Vermont, the costs associated with it made it impossible to maintain, so Webb made the inevitable decision to move the Ticonderoga to the museum. The Shelburne Museum, which occupies more than 40 acres of land and comprises nearly as many buildings, preserves an extraordinary record of America's heritage. In 1956, in recognition of the discernment and affection with which the collections were assembled and displayed, Webb received an honorary degree of Master of Arts from Yale University, one of only five women ever so honored at that time. She died in 1960.
Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Saarinen, Aline B. The Proud Possessors. NY: Random House, 1958, pp. 287–306.
Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland