Occasionally one article leads directly to another. Such is the case this week. In corresponding with commenters on last week’s Friday Favorites article, What About Bobbs?, a mystery surfaced that you, my dear Watson, might be able to help solve! Here is the comment in question:
“I work with the James Whitcomb Riley Home in Greenfield, Indiana. I have a mystery that is connected to Bobbs Merrill. A couple of years ago, an original Tiffany stain glass window design that was based upon artwork by Ethel Franklin Betts came up for auction. The Riley Home was contacted to see if we knew anything about it. The only thing the auction house knew was that the Tiffany design originally came from Bobbs Merrill. We do not believe the window was ever made, as it doesn’t seem to be anywhere. In your research, have you run across anything about this window or who within Bobbs Merrill may have commissioned the design?” — Brigette Cook Jones, Hostess at the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum, Greenfield
A Little Background: As most Hoosiers know, James Whitcomb Riley (1849 – 1916) was a celebrated writer, prolific poet, and best selling author. During his lifetime, he was renowned for his dialect works and his children’s poetry. One of those famous works, “Little Orphant Annie,” spawned innumerable comics, cartoons, stage plays, story spin-offs, musicals, radio shows and… eventually… movies (not to mention the associated dolls, toys and other commercial swag).
Riley is most certainly chief among our Hoosier historical treasures. There are many memorials dedicated to Riley, including the aforementioned Boyhood Home in Greenfield, the James Whitcomb Riley House in Indianapolis where he spent the last two decades of his life, and the James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children, his namesake. He is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery.
While Little Orphan[t] Annie is perhaps Riley’s most enduring character, few people know that she was based on a real girl named Mary Alice (Smith) Gray (1850-1924), a young orphan who, at the age of eleven, worked for the Riley family in Greenfield, Indiana during the mid-19th Century. She came to help the family, “… wash the cups an’ saucers, an’ brush the crumbs away.” As part of her duties, Smith looked after the Riley children, and told tales of goblins. Though she was with the family for less than a year, the girl left a lasting impression on young James Whitcomb Riley. Smith is buried in Philadelphia, Indiana.
The Mystery: Here’s what we know… a stained glass window preparatory design celebrating Little Orphant Annie was offered at auction on August 11, 2012. The design was confirmed to be from Tiffany Studios’ Ecclesiastical Department, and signed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, himself. The gauche on paper design is based on Ethel Franklin Betts’ original illustration for Riley’s “Ef you don’t watch out,” published by the Indianapolis-based Bobbs Merrill company in 1908. The artwork was eventually purchased by a fellow Hoosier who is graciously loaning the piece to the JWR Boyhood Home later this year.
Here’s what we don’t know:
1. It cannot be confirmed that this window was ever created for (what is believed to be) its intended owner, the Riley Hospital for Children. (The hospital was briefly named Orphant Annie Memorial Hospital.)
2. It is rumored, but cannot be confirmed, that the piece was commissioned by the Bobbs Merrill company and that either a window or the artwork were once located on that property.
Can you help us solve the mystery?
Special thanks to the members of the Marion County Indianapolis History Facebook discussion group and Brigette Cook Jones, Hostess at the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum, for their help in bringing this mystery to light. Jones also hosts a Facebook page on the subject called “Orphan Annie’s Author,” which may be of interest. Check it out!
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