LGBT History Month: Museum Updates Its History of Alice Austen

  • by Cynthia Laird
  • Sunday October 9, 2016
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Penny photograph of Alice Austen, left, and Gertrude Tate, Pickard's Penny Studio, Stapleton, Staten Island, 1905
Penny photograph of Alice Austen, left, and Gertrude Tate, Pickard's Penny Studio, Stapleton, Staten Island, 1905

Tucked away on the shore of Staten Island is a handsome house that was saved from demolition in the 1980s and today is on the National Register of Historic Places. But it's who lived there and who she lived with that is most interesting to LGBTs.

Alice Austen was one of America's earliest and most prolific female photographers. She lived in the house, called Clear Comfort and now formally known as the Alice Austen House, with her mother when she was growing up, and later, with her longtime partner, Gertrude Tate. That the women didn't consider themselves lesbians is not lost on historians, who are now working to reinterpret Austen's story to more fully include Tate.

"We're providing a new framework for Alice and Gertrude," Shiloh Aderhold Holley, a straight ally and acting executive director of the Alice Austen House, told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview last week.

The museum received a $35,000 planning grant last year from the National Endowment for the Humanities for its major initiative, "New Eyes on Alice Austen: Redefining the Museum's Interpretation." The project involved convening a team of five prominent scholars who advised the museum on contextualizing, expanding, and updating the museum's interpretation of the life and early work of Austen.

According to a museum news release, the areas of the scholars' investigation included: New York City history and urban development; immigration history; women, gender, and sexuality studies; and photographic history.

"Notably, the museum intends to explore the relationship between Alice Austen and her lifelong companion, Gertrude Tate, to align with current approaches to LGBTQ interpretation," the news release stated.

The work culminated in March with a lecture at the Whitney Museum attended by about 200 people. It was sponsored by the NEH. And, Aderhold Holley said, the museum is currently working with the New York City LGBT Historic Sites project to amend Alice Austen House's National Register of Historic Places description to become a national LGBT monument.

Alice Austen House is also a designated New York City and National Landmark.

Aderhold Holley said that Alice Austen House has applied for a $400,000 NEH grant to update the interior of the house and other projects.

About 18,000 people visit Alice Austen House each year, Aderhold Holley said.

Professor Lillian Faderman was one of the scholars who participated in the project and panel discussion. She is thrilled about the project and that the house is being looked at as an LGBT historic site.

It is not known if Austen ever identified as a lesbian, but she lived with Tate for 50 years. The Alice Austen House's website biography of Austen includes numerous references to Tate, and Austen took many photographs of her.

Faderman, a lesbian, historian, and author who has studied late 19th and early 20th century relationships of women, is retired from California State University, Fresno and now lives in San Diego. She told the B.A.R. that she has given much thought to using the "L" word to describe Austen and Tate.

"It's sort of analogous to my generation and the word 'queer,'" Faderman, 76, said in a phone interview. "I'm not queer but that doesn't mean I don't love women. I think they'd respond the same way."

She added that there really wasn't a word commonly used to describe lesbian couples back then.

"'Invert' was used, but that is saying someone had psychological problems but they didn't," Faderman said. "I would say that their relationship was what we would call lesbian today."

She noted that the most likely term would have been "Boston marriage," which was used at the time to describe two women who lived together without the financial support of a man.

Faderman said that Austen and Tate wanted to be buried together but that Tate's family wouldn't allow it.

"Gertrude's sister interfered," Faderman said.

The museum's website noted that both women's families denied their wishes.

Austen, who was born in 1866, lived a life of privilege until her later years. After her father left, Austen and her mother moved to Clear Comfort, "where Alice would grow up the center of attention in a household that would eventually contain six adults and no other children," the museum's website states. Austen was introduced to photography when her uncle, a Danish sea captain named Oswald Muller, brought home a camera when she was 10.

Austen's uncles installed a tiny home-built darkroom where Austen would spend hours developing the glass plates and toning and fixing her prints.

"By the time she was 18 (the earliest year from which any of her photographic plates or prints survive), Alice Austen was an experienced photographer with professional standards," the website notes.

Austen was active and social, lugging her camera equipment around. It was also during this time that she took up the new sport of lawn tennis, and the website states that she spent countless summer afternoons on the courts and behind the camera, photographing the players and the crowds.

Austen met Tate at a Catskill hotel during the summer of 1899. Tate moved into Clear Comfort in 1917.

A Serious Side

Austen later began photographing people and events outside of Staten Island. Her pictures of arriving immigrants held in quarantine - as well as New Yorkers going about their business - provide a visual window on 19th century America, the museum's website notes.

Austen didn't sell many of her photographs, living off her inheritance. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Austen, at age 63, lost everything.

She and Tate opened a tea room on the lawn of the house, but it never generated enough income. From there, Austen mortgaged and re-mortgaged Clear Comfort but lost it in 1945.

"In a final desperate act, Alice sold the remaining contents of her home for $600 to a dealer from New Jersey," the website states. "However, before he arrived, Alice called Loring McMillen, a friend from the Staten Island Historical Society, and asked him to take her glassplate negatives for safekeeping."

That turned out to be her salvation, although she remained poor and in dire economic straits. Austen and Tate moved to a small apartment, but soon could not afford the rent. Tate's family offered housing, but only for Tate. In June 1950, Austen took an oath of poverty and was admitted to the local poor house, the Staten Island Farm Colony.

Unknown to Austen, her 3,500 glassplate negatives were discovered, and in 1950, many were published, generating more than $4,000. Austen's share was enough for her to move out of the poor farm and into a private nursing home.

"On October 9, 1951 Alice Austen was driven to see an exhibition of her pictures and to meet the 300 guests who had been invited to celebrate Alice Austen Day," the website states. "She is quoted as having said, 'I am happy that what was once so much pleasure for me turns out now to be a pleasure for other people.'"

Austen lived another eight months, and died in her sleep June 9, 1952. She was 86. A simple funeral service was conducted at the Austen family plot in the Moravian Cemetery.

According to Wikipedia, Tate died in 1962 at the age of 91.

The Alice Austen House, 2 Hylan Boulevard, Staten Island, New York, is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, March-December. It is open by appointment in January and February. There is a $3 suggested donation. For more information, visit

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