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Gilded Age Philanthropy: Helen Clay Frick's "Christmas Treats"

Gilded Age Philanthropy: Helen Clay Frick's "Christmas Treats"
December 19, 2019 By: Sue Morris, Clayton Docent

Gilded Age Philanthropy: Helen Clay Frick's "Christmas Treats"

The holiday season has always inspired meaningful giving at both intimate and charitable levels. As a young adult in the early 1900s, Helen Clay Frick hosted annual holiday parties in the Clayton Playhouse, which she referred to as her “Christmas treat” for Pittsburgh’s poorest children.

Helen Clay Frick, 1908, the year she made her formal society debut. Helen was beginning to shape her public philanthropy with events like annual holiday parties for needy children.
Photo courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

The first public mention of Helen’s parties was an article in the Pittsburgh Press in December 1907, where it was noted that “…as has been her custom for the past four years, [she] gave a Christmas tree and treat for all the people who remain at the Pittsburgh residence and for many poor families in the neighborhood and in East Liberty.” Although no other evidence has been found to substantiate earlier parties, Helen may well have begun hosting such holiday affairs in 1903, when she was just sixteen years old. 

Regardless of when she started, Pittsburghers grew accustomed to reading about these galas in the years leading up to WWI. According to a 1910 Pittsburgh Gazette article published on Christmas Day, Helen “royally entertained” 75 children at Clayton the previous morning. Her young guests had been invited from the Central, Lawrenceville, and Hilltop branches of both the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Association for the Improvement of the Poor. Helen and “several of her intimate friends” gathered in the Clayton Playhouse to provide lunch, candy, and presents for the children, where “…a large Christmas tree was shining, resplendent in bright candles and holiday tinsel and gilt.” An invoice for a local florist documented the purchase of “three dozen miniature trees” for the Playhouse, although, unfortunately, there are no details about how they were decorated! The Pittsburgh Press elaborated on the day:

They were received with a cordiality that at once made them feel happy because Santa Claus had appointed the hostess as one of his assistants. Miss Frick was aided by members of the household and every effort possible was made to show the boys and girls the most enjoyable afternoon that ever fell to their lot. In the words of one of the youngsters who enjoyed the feast, “everything was great,” as not a dainty that had ever caught the eye in market, bakery or confectionery shop seemed to be lacking. And, most appetizing of all, there was turkey; so much, in fact, the children considered the feast a success even before various other viands were served…Miss Frick also contributed to the future welfare of her young guests by presenting them with articles of clothing, the distribution being made according to the demands as indicated by the appearance of the little ones.

Playhouse on the grounds of the Frick family estate, Clayton. Constructed by Alden & Harlow in 1897, shown here in the summer of 1901. The Playhouse was the scene of Helen Clay Frick‘s annual holiday charity parties from at least 1907 to 1913.
Photo courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

By 1911. Helen Frick’s holiday parties were making national news. Mentions of the Clayton galas appeared in newspapers as far afield as Alabama, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Virginia, in addition to many parts of Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Daily Post once again likened Helen to Santa Claus as she distributed gifts at the Playhouse on Christmas Day, 1911. Children from needy families who lived in the Hill and Lawrenceville were transported by the YWCA on specially-chartered trolley cars, which were given right-of-way from downtown Pittsburgh to Clayton! Over the course of three hours, the children were feted in a room decorated with holly and southern smilax evergreen vine. They were given lunch with ice cream and cake, and gifts were distributed beneath the large Christmas tree.

A surviving list in Helen’s hand indicates that she purchased toys and supplies at Boggs & Buhl Department Store on Federal Street on Pittsburgh’s North Side for her party in 1911. The Post noted that “Sixteen boys received new suits of clothes and the 59 girls were given material to make them dresses. Each girl under 10 years of age was presented with a handsome doll and those girls over that age were given one of Dickens’ works.” Helen’s note confirmed these clothing purchases, along with mittens for all of the children. She also purchased “mechanical toys” listed as “10 or 12 automobiles” and “6 (?) banjo players.” The Gazette Times breathlessly described some of the other gifts:

…dolls for the girls, some with blue eyes and light, curly hair, and others which were typical brunettes, with dark brown eyes and brown curls. Pink dresses and blue dresses, white dresses and red dresses, dresses which made the little mothers hug their new dollies with delight, as they fondled their ribbons and their frocks and compared notes on the trousseau of each new baby. Then there were stockings and mittens, dress goods enough to make the little girls dresses of their very own, and books and candy, and so many other things…

Photographs of Helen as a young child often include her dolls. It is easy to imagine her taking personal delight in gifting dolls to girls who otherwise might not have enjoyed such treasures.

Four year old Helen Clay Frick posing with her dolls, 9 December 1892.
Photo courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

Helen was praised in fulsome terms for her holiday philanthropy in the Post: “She went among them like a charitable angel and made inquiry of their other needs.” The article ended with a quote making clear that such generosity was its own best reward: “‘It is one of the best days of my life,’ said Miss Frick after the children had left her home, ‘and I will remember this Christmas as long as I live.’” 

An undated photograph from one of Helen’s scrapbooks reveals a group of children of various ages and races, accompanied by female chaperones, all holding wrapped boxes while posing on the snow-covered path beside Clayton’s Playhouse and Conservatory.  

Undated Frick scrapbook photograph, presumably taken at one of Helen’s “Christmas treat” parties, circa 1910-11.
Photo courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

The Gazette Times reported that Helen’s party on Christmas Day, 1912 was attended by 90 children who had been “scrubbed until their faces shone with cleanliness.” The next year’s party exceeded its predecessors in size and largesse—and perhaps even in clean, shining faces. But press accounts differed regarding the number of attendees in 1913. There were at the very least thirty, or perhaps one hundred, but most likely 162 children aged 4 to 12 visited Clayton that Christmas Day.  

Pittsburgh Gazette Times headline, 26 December 1913.

The children were once again selected by local relief organizations, plus several unnamed churches. The young visitors were no doubt thrilled to see that a special Christmas tree in the Clayton Conservatory had been illuminated by electric lights, described as “small colored electric globes.” The second floor of the Playhouse “presented a rarely beautiful appearance, decorated as it was with abundance of evergreens and plants.” Helen was assisted by her brother Childs and his new wife Dixie, her parents Henry Clay and Adelaide Frick, and some friends. The children’s luncheon menu included hot roast beef sandwiches, coffee or milk, and dessert of cake and ice cream all served on “neat wooden plates, on which were laid laced paper covers.” 

This party was probably catered by W.R. Kuhn Company at East Liberty’s Rittenhouse Hotel. Receipts like this one for Helen’s “Xmas treat” parties in 1910 and 1911 confirm that an impressive spread of prepared sandwiches, breads, ice cream, and cakes were ordered for these events. 

Receipt for catering from W.R. Kuhn Company for Helen Clay Frick’s 1911 Christmas party.
Photo courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

And if this society page description was any indication, the children ate very well indeed: “‘Refreshments served by Kuhn & Co.’ has grown to be a synonym for all that good taste and seasonable delicacies can provide.”

Postcard image, circa 1910, of Pittsburgh's Rittenhouse Hotel. Built in 1908 by William R. Kuhn Rittenhouse at North Highland and Kirkland, it was the scene of many society events. The building was demolished in the 1960s during East Liberty's urban redevelopment.

According to the Gazette Times: “Each boy and girl was presented with a toy, the girls receiving dolls and the boys horses or other animals…a dress each, stockings and other clothes; and for the boys two suits of clothes and also stockings and other apparel.” The Gazette claimed that Henry Clay Frick himself “had a Victrola brought over from the big mansion and music delighted the wee guests, who also contributed songs.”

As charming as these parties were, they must be considered within their historical context, for philanthropy has always reflected the social values of its time. The moral standard of America’s Gilded Age reflected distinctions codified by England’s Elizabethan poor laws. The legacy of such legislation meant that the poorest members of American society were separated into two distinct categories. People deemed “worthy” of charity were those willing, but unable to work due to circumstances beyond their control such as sickness, disability, or old age. Individuals were also considered worthy of charity because of their status as needy orphans, widows, or children—like those attending Helen’s “Christmas treat” parties. The impoverished conditions of those “unworthy” of charity were attributed to laziness, drunkenness, or some other character defects. While the unworthy poor were held in contempt, the “worthy” poor were deserving of compassion and assistance.

These characterizations seem harsh and judgmental to us today. But as this 1910 headline illustrates, such was the standard language of the time when discussing charitable giving:

Pittsburgh Gazette Times headline, 23 December 1910.

Charity to the “worthy poor” was intended to help those unable to help themselves. But such charity was only meant to help the needy find some measure of comfort in their circumstances, not to change those circumstances. Helen’s parties for selected “worthy poor” children of Pittsburgh most certainly brightened the lives of those selected to attend, but the events were not designed to make lasting social impacts.

It is interesting to speculate about the inspirations for Helen’s Christmas philanthropy. One of the charities involved in selecting children to attend the parties was the Young Womens Christian Association (YWCA). Established after the Civil War, the YWCA was one of many organizations of the 19th century that expanded associational and civic life for women. The group’s president from 1905 until 1918 was Mrs. John Grier Holmes, who was the former Susan Horne, one of the daughters of local department store magnate Joseph Horne. The Frick, Horne, and Holmes families were close, and so it is no surprise to find that Mrs. Holmes’ organization figured prominently in Helen Frick’s earliest charitable endeavors. The Central YWCA was founded in 1891, and Henry Clay Frick himself contributed substantial financial resources to the building’s construction in 1909. (Central YWCA was demolished to make way for downtown’s City View Tower, designed as the Washington Plaza complex by famed architect I.M. Pei in 1964).

Helen may also have been inspired by the examples of charitable works undertaken by her female relatives. Helen’s mother Adelaide Howard Childs Frick, while never a leader in society due to a more retiring personality, always appeared on lists of those supporting various charitable fundraisers. Adelaide’s older, unmarried sister, named Martha, but called Attie, lived with the Frick family while Helen was growing up. Attie Childs was deeply involved with philanthropy to assist needy or ill children. In this she was most likely following in the footsteps of her own mother, Mrs. Martha Howard Childs. The Childs and Howard families were instrumental in the founding of two of the city’s earliest Presbyterian churches. Martha Howard Childs’ brother William D. Howard (an uncle of Adelaide and Attie) was an esteemed Presbyterian minister in Pittsburgh who would have preached the “social gospel” of the day espousing moral obligation to help the less fortunate. Against this backdrop of influence, Attie Childs would go on to chair a committee to establish a new ward, playroom, and veranda at the Pittsburgh Hospital for Children; help create a Fresh Air Camp under the auspices of the Association for the Improvement of the Poor; and devote herself to a Fruit and Flower Mission to local patients in hospitals.

Helen, like her Aunt Attie, would never marry. Although these “Christmas treat” parties for Pittsburgh’s needy children ended when the Frick family moved to New York in 1914, Helen Frick’s commitment to philanthropy never wavered. The Gilded Age was characterized by both extravagant wealth and equally extravagant displays of generosity. Helen Frick would go on to fund and establish many charitable endeavors during her long life, including a summer vacation home in Massachusetts for working girls in New England textile mills. Helen was certainly not the only daughter of Gilded Age capitalism who shouldered the moral burden of wealth (Helen Miller Gould Shepard, for example, the eldest daughter of railroad magnate Jay Gould, was also famously devoted to assisting the “worthy poor”). But Helen Clay Frick’s singular catalogue of philanthropy, which began with the “Christmas treat” parties in her own home in the early 1900s, exceeded the domestic scale of the prescribed social roles for women of her era.

This holiday season, Clayton's breakfast room is decorated to recall Helen's "Christmas treats," with sweets, toys, clothing, and books. Learn more about the Frick family and Christmases past on our special seasonal tour of Clayton, A Gilded Age Christmas: Holiday Traditions, running through January 5, 2020.
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