The Cobweb Club
The Cobweb Club Installation, Portland Museum of Art, Maine 2008
About the Installation
The installation was inspired by the writings of Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat, and it consists of cast paper animal sculptures, a wall painting of the imagined room where the Cobweb Club met, a maquette of the imagined meeting room which is based on a room at the McLellan House which was owned by Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat, and furniture belonging to Margaret Jane.
The Cobweb Club
In the aftermath of the civil war, women’s organizations began to spring up across the nation as women increasingly desired involvement with the intellectual, philosophical and social issues resonating in the public sphere. The Cobweb Club was one of the earliest such organizations in Washington D.C., meeting from 1890-92 and later becoming the well-known Washington Club. Each week, the group of twelve women met in a different member’s parlor room, presenting papers to one another on topics including religion, history, current events, literature, and natural history. The club also occasionally invited notable guest speakers, one of whom was Susan B. Anthony. The group functioned as something of a secret society, cherishing its air of mystery and guarding the details of its activities from the public eye.
Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat, noted literary figure and world traveler, was both a founder and president of the club. In keeping with the nineteenth century’s fascination with the natural world and Sweat’s own peculiar brand of whimsy, she devised the club’s name and motto and presented her own natural history of spiders at one of its early meetings. Part of the purported goal of the club was to improve the reputation of spiders, which came to be revered as the Cobweb Club’s “patron saint” and served as a metaphor for the women themselves.
Margaret Jane Mussey was born in 1849 in Portland, Maine, and raised in the family home on the corner of Danforth and High streets. In 1849 she married Colonel Lorenzo D. M. Sweat, a member the Maine House of Representatives and later a United States Senator. After purchasing the McClellan House in 1880, the Sweats spent winters in Washington and summers in Maine. Margaret Jane was active in both the Portland and Washington communities through her published writing, club activity and historic preservation work. She was also an enormous supporter of the arts and a pivotal figure in the formation of the Portland Museum of Art. Upon her death in 1908, she bequeathed her house along with $100,000 to the Portland Society of Art to build a museum adjacent to her home – which today is known as the Portland Museum of Art, McClellan House.
Special thanks to Maine Women Writers Collection, University of New England; Portland Museum of Art; Rose Marasco; Elliott Teel; Jaclyn Shirley; Alaina Harris and Daniel Sonenberg.
Research for this project was done at the Maine Women Writers Collection, University of New England which has a large collection of journals and photographs belonging to Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat including the Cobweb Club Journal. In addition, Susan Danly who was curator of the show "New Natural Histories" which the installation was a part of, allowed me access to the documents and records relating to Margaret Jane at the Portland Museum of Art.