Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks & Makers' Marks
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Thomas F. Googerty

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An Ironworker with Dreams..
Thomas Googerty
In 1938 the Chicago Daily News captioned a front page story about Tom Googerty with the phrase, "Iron Worker With Dreams Helps Forge Men at Pontiac." The reporter described a group of eager young men busy at forge and anvil and praised the nearby exhibit room filled with elegant ornamental iron work. The soft-spoken master of the shop spoke proudly of his artisans' command of ancient skills. "I think we're doing something," said Mr. Googerty modestly. "You won't find much better workmanship anywhere than this. The lads who made these screens are artists. They have learned an interesting craft and, what is more important, they are able to do something toward preserving a vanishing art." The most remarkable thing about it all, concluded the reporter, was that the place was a prison and the artisans all inmates.


By 1938 Tom Googerty had been forging iron and men at the Illinois State Reformatory for nearly half a century. His calling stemmed from native talent and personal choice, channeled by broad-ranging progressive reform movements that energized many Americans at the end of the nineteenth century.
Thomas F Googerty and two students, Illinois State Reformatory, 1910
Several converged to give Googerty's career purpose, direction, and a social setting. A humanitarian urge to save children from poverty and crime focused on a newly-named social malady, "juvenile delinquency," and invented new juvenile courts and reformatories to cure it. An educational crusade to integrate thinking and doing prompted the creation of manual training programs throughout the country. An aesthetic revolt against declining quality and taste in an age of mass production found expression in an artistic movement called Arts and Crafts.


Chicago was a hotbed of these overlapping progressive reforms, and the city's cultural influence spread out across the prairies of northern Illinois. Pontiac, a county seat farming community of a few thousand people and no paved streets, was nearly a hundred miles southwest of Chicago but just hours away on the Chicago and Alton Railroad main line. However rural its setting, Pontiac lay well within Chicago's expansive cultural sphere.
Silver Bowl, date unknown

Thomas Francis Googerty was born in Pontiac about 1863 (in later years he claimed various birth dates) to a barely literate Irish immigrant family. His father, Thomas, worked for the railroad; his mother, Mary, kept house and occasionally took in boarders, and probably laundry. Tom junior was the second child and the first son, born a year after his sister Jennie. Younger brothers Andrew and William followed Tom a year apart.

Thomas senior died in 1865, leaving Mary with little besides four young children and a modest house next to the tracks. She somehow eked out a living and sent the children to St. Mary's Roman Catholic Parochial School. Home and school doubtless instilled the religious devotion, social conscience, and moral rectitude that governed Tom's adult life. Pontiac offered him growing-up space that was small enough to be nurturing but large enough to give an inquisitive child a hint of the wider world. All four Googerty children matured into popular, successful adults who traveled widely but continued to live at home with their mother. None of them ever married.
Spring latch, before 1914

By 1880 Tom was working in a local blacksmith's shop. Sometime during the 1880s he left Pontiac on his journeyman's quest, traveling the country, practicing his trade. Chicago would have been a natural destination, a booming nearby city with plenty of smithing work and an active arts community. Where Tom journeyed during the '80s and early '90s remains unclear, but he must have spent as much time in museums, schools, and libraries as he did at the forge. By the time he returned to Pontiac in 1894 Tom had transformed himself from a skilled
Oak box with brass trim, 1911
small town blacksmith into a sophisticated master craftsman. Somewhere in his travels he had steeped himself in the traditions of medieval European ironwork and embraced the most energetic social and cultural reform movements of the day.


By 1910 Tom was gaining a national reputation as a manual arts teacher and exhibiting artist. He approached his teaching, writing, and craftsmanship as complementary parts of one creative whole. Pieces initially made as instructional examples appeared later in museum exhibits and as illustrations in Googerty's three books and nearly fifty published articles. For years the influential American Blacksmith featured pictures of ISR ironwork as exemplars of taste and craftsmanship, "exquisite in their apparent simplicity." Stout Institute, a major manual training school in Menomonie, Wisconsin, invited Googerty to teach during the summersbetween 1911 and 1913. Another measure of his growing artistic reputation was his 1914 election as a Craftsman (and later Master Craftsman) member of Boston's prestigious Society of Arts and Crafts.


Table Lamp, 1914
Googerty usually taught about thirty students at a time, who split their days between the classroom and the shop floor. His full course ran about 18 months. Only a few inmates had the natural aptitude or interest to benefit fully from a Googerty apprenticeship. His inmate-artisans were a cross-section of the general reformatory population, which during his years generally fluctuated between one and two thousand. Almost all ISR inmates were teenagers, though many were under twelve and some were as young as eight. The majority were incarcerated for burglary or larceny, or simply as juvenile delinquents who had gotten into trouble once too often. About five per cent were African American, more often than not from southern Illinois.


Googerty probably first showed his and his student's work in the ISR display rooms. He soon reached a wider audience, exhibiting at the annual juried Arts and Crafts fairs sponsored by the Art Institute of Chicago. He exhibited there almost every year between 1906 and 1921, winning Chicago Municipal Art League prizes in 1914 and 1921. His ISR ironwork exhibits were also a hit at the 1905 Illinois State Fair and at other regional arts events well into the 1930s. A panel of ISR student work won a "best-of-show" gold medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
The Substance of Style
Door Knocker, c.1920

Tom Googerty usually wrote simple, how-to-do-it instructional prose. Occasionally, however, he tried to express the aesthetic that guided his artistic vision and artisan's hand. Googerty believed that a blacksmith earned the right to be called an artist if he acted on the "universal, divine impulse within us...to make things beautiful." The artist-blacksmith was one who "understands and follows God's law, Truth, the laws of Nature, the laws of Art, and abides by the possibilities and limitations of this sturdy, honest material." Googerty's aesthetic principles stressed honesty and integrity; graceful line, form, and due proportion; and creativity grounded in Nature and History.



Silver Serving Spoon & Fork, date unknown
Honesty and integrity governed the relationship between the worker and the work. Googerty drew particular inspiration from German and Belgian ironwork of the 12th to 17th centuries, in part because he believed that in medieval times the craftsmen had also been the designers. Art and technique had fused naturally at the Gothic forge.

The modern factory, however, had alienated the "studio trained artist" from the "shop trained man." The former could dream but not do, the latter do but not dream. Unlike some handcraft purists, Googerty did not object in principle to laborsaving machinery. He did insist, however, that hand work had "a beauty which the machine cannot produce."

Honesty and integrity also demanded a natural fit between material and object, form and function. Because iron was a crude, sturdy metal most often used for everyday things, ironwork should be "fashioned into
Wall Lantern, before 1920
shapes that are suitable and practical for the material." Ornamentation should relate to use, as in the case of visible rivets and decorative bolt heads that served both as fasteners and design statements.

Googerty particularly disliked efforts to mimic Nature. He insisted that delicately wrought iron rose petals and realistic leaves might show off technical virtuosity, but failed as art. "Nature does not furnish us with readymade designs.... It is impossible to utilize things in nature...without the play of human invention and imagination." The true artist-blacksmith "conventionalized" organic forms. "We simply use things in Nature as a motif to get our ideas," he explained, "and arrange them according to fixed rules and principles." The rules and principles were the traditional (Googerty would have said universal) notions of ordered line, mass, form, and due proportion that had characterized Western art since the time of the Greeks. Within these bounds the artist-blacksmith should let invention play.


Things always reflect their times...
Door Knocker, 1920
Decorative arts make more sense in their historical and social settings than they do in the splendid isolation of museum displays. Tom Googerty's peculiar workplace helped shape his art because it largely insulated him from market forces and critics' jibes. His forge shop was not part of the malingering ISR contract labor system, so none of its products were for sale. Since there was no commerce in ISR ironwork it had no ascertainable cash value. Both literally and figuratively priceless, the products of Googerty's shop were peculiarly pure art, valuable only for the intangible pleasures they gave to those who made and later enjoyed them.


If material conditions affected Googerty's creative output, artistic fashion helped shape his style. His time, place, and taste all put him squarely within the genre called Arts and Crafts. English in origin, Arts and Crafts was less a coherent movement than a set of widely shared attitudes toward art and life. It gained momentum in the late 1880s and quickly spread to the United States.


Credits:
925-1000.com would like to thank The National Ornamental Metal Museum for the images and text used in this article. Images and excerpts taken from the publication "Forging Character, Forging Iron: The Work of Thomas F Googerty" by Howard S. Miller, © 1999 National Ornamental Arts Museum. Images and text used here are © copyrighted to their respective owners. Please contact the National Ornamental Metal Museum before reprinting or reusing any part of this article.

To purchase a copy of this informative 40 page catalog, please contact
The National Ornamental Metal Museum



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