Photograph of Ethel Reed, by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress
Ethel Reed was born in Newburyport in 1874, her father was Edgar Eugene Reed who married Mary Elizabeth Mahoney. Edgar is listed in the Newburyport City Directory as living at 41 Kent Street which today is 53 Kent Street.* Her father’s obituary describes him as a “Well Known and Popular Photographer.” Ethel and her family either lived with her father’s family on Kent Street or rented the house.
Very recently Ethel Reed has been rediscovered. There is a biography of her now by William Peterson. I would disagree with Mr. Peterson’s description of the bleakness of Ethel’s early life in Newburyport (see Ocean Mills historical district) and the desolation that he describes of Newburyport in general. I ended up with the opinion that Mr. Peterson understands very little about Newburyport, not much about artists, and very little about women.
There is a beautiful drawing of Ethel by Laura Coombs Hill in 1880 when Ethel was 6 years old. The drawing is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Ethel’s life on Kent Street might not have been quite as horrible as Mr. Peterson speculates.
In 1890 Ethel and her mother went to Boston (her father died in 1892). The Smithsonian Art Museum has this description of Ethel Reed:
“(Ethel) Reed briefly attended art school in Boston but was largely self-trained. Her circle included artists and writers in both Boston and London. She posed for photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston and F. Holland Day, and she provided illustrations for The Yellow Book, an avant-garde British periodical. One of the most talented and prolific artists of the 1890s, she made her name during the poster craze of the period. She produced book illustrations, cover designs, and more than 25 posters, mostly in just two years, 1895 and 1896. Her creative burst earned her international recognition and she traveled to Europe and completed a few commissions for British publications through about 1898. Then she disappeared from the historical record.”***
There was an art show in Washington DC in 1896 mostly containing Ethel’s art work. The Washington Post describes Ethel Reed as “the foremost woman poster maker in America” and “one of the most beautiful women Washington has seen in ages.”**
Helena Wright, the curator of the Graphic Arts Division at the Smithsonian Art Museum says that the Smithsonian Art Museum has a significant collection of Ethel Reed’s art work, including some of her earliest posters and a few unpublished designs. They were donated by Commander Charlotte Hume, U.S. Navy. The collection descended through Hume’s great-aunts, the Smith sisters of Newburyport, who knew Reed in the 1890s, but they lost touch when she moved to London. Reed presented the Smiths with her first posters soon after they were issued. Many are signed and dated in Reed’s distinctive, bold hand, “Compliments of Ethel Reed.” ***
Ethel got engaged to Philip Leslie Hale*^ who was from a prominent, Boston brahmin family,**^ he was the son of Edward Everett Hale, the brother of Ellen Day Hale, a relative of Nathan Hale and Harriet Beecher Stowe. He was part of Boston’s elite old upper class. It appears that the family did not approve of the engagement which was broken off. One can imagine a Boston brahmin family not approving of a fiancé from a Newburyport working class background. Philip and Ethel had been planning to go to Paris for their honeymoon and Ethel went to Paris without him. She ended up living in London, and nothing much is known about her from that time. She died in 1912 at the age of 36. Her biographer speculates that opium, alcohol and sleeping medication contributed to her death.**
* A big thank you to the Newburyport Assessors Office for helping me figure out the exact location of where Ethel lived.
** “The Beautiful Poster Lady, A Life of Ethel Reed,” by William S. Peterson, Oak Knoll Press, 2013
*** Biography on the Smithsonian website by Helena E. Wright, the Curator of Graphic Arts in the Division of Culture and the Arts at the Smithsonian Art Museum
*^ Philip Leslie Hale https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Leslie_Hale
**^ New England Historical Society, The Beautiful Poster Lady Who Disappeared
Many thanks to the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center for all their help in researching Ethel Reed’s life in Newburyport.
Check Out The Interactive History Map
More information about Newburyport and its history can be found on the interactive history map, “Newburyport – Keeping the Story Alive.”
Solve The Ethel Reed Puzzle
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