Ellen H. Clapsaddle 1865-1934

Ellen H. Clapsaddle    Ellen Clapsaddle


"MY HEART IS A CHILD".  These words were taken from a poem Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle once wrote to her mother. Ellen was born January 8, 1865 in South Columbia, New York, about 200 miles from New York City. She was shy and delicate and loved to draw and illustrate. Her young life was very uneventful but filled with her art which, until her death, expressed an innocence and joy of life that a sense of child-like happiness emitted from her deep within.

Ellen graduated from Richfield Springs Seminary, New York, in1882 and followed with a couple of years at the Cooper Institute in New York City for art training. Then she returned home and placed an ad in the local paper announcing she was offering painting lessons in her home at South Columbia.

When Ellen's father, Dean, died in 1891, Ellen and her mother moved in with an aunt in Richfield Springs. She spent her next 14 years teaching art lessons to people.  Ellen started doing illustrations, landscapes, portraits, and some free lance work through the mail.  International Art Company purchased several of her designs. 

After the purchase and use of several of Ellen's designs, International Art offered Ellen a paid two year trip abroad for her and her mother. There she would study and refine her art talents at the parent company and be closer to the actual manufacturer of paper goods.

The Richfield newspaper announced the display of some of her work locally, especially a 1900 calendar. She received praise for "its daintiness, originality and little verses illustrative of her drawings."  International Art used her designs where they appeared on Valentines, booklets, water-color prints, calendars and trade cards.

It would be the Wolf Company, an outlet for International Art, that would hire her when she got to New York around 1906 . That's when her post cards first began to be published and exclusively by Wolf. Few women were hired as full time illustrators during this period. Ellen began producing post cards under Wolf's name and became their sole artist and designer. 

Ellen was forty years when she accepted the full time position with  Wolf Company. She had been free lancing for International Art, along with several other artists, for six years.

During the eight years with Wolf, her success had reached such a peak that there seemed to be no limit to the growth potential for her, the company, or the post card industry.  Ellen invested heavily into German post card industries upon the advise of the Wolf brothers who did the same. The company was doing so well they sent her to Germany to work with the their engravers.

In August, 1914, Ellen was in Germany and got caught up in the outbreak of World War 1. Factories were burned, records destroyed, and messages never received. It wasn't long before she became a displaced person, penniless and alone in a foreign land.

In the meantime, back in the States, the Wolf brothers had been cut off from supplies coming from Germany and most firms went out of business or were severely financially handicapped.

The Wolf brothers were among them and completely wiped out.  One of the brothers borrowed the last bit of money left and went to Europe in search of Ellen.

Six months later, Ellen was finally found. She was walking the streets, hungry, sick and alone at the age of
fifty-one. She barely recognized Mr. Wolf when he approached her.

Wolf brought her back to New York where he could take care of her.  She no longer had the ability to earn
a living and her health declined rapidly.

Her mother died while Ellen was in Europe and Mr. Wolf died desolate and poor a few years after bringing
her back. No one knows how long she lived alone mentally incapacitated.

On January 27, 1932, Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle was admitted to the Peabody Home on Pelham Parkway in New York City. Ellen had lost all mental reason and sat and played with toys until her death two years later. 

January 7, 1934, one day short of her 69th birthday, Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle died. She died penniless and alone with no record of her accomplishments

Ellen never married, had no sisters or brothers, and spent one half of her life illustrating for a small group
of people. Her talent started to be recognized ten years after her death.

It wasn't until after World War II that she would find her resting place next to her parents in Lakeview Cemetery in Richfield Springs. Her marker is at her feet and simple says, "ELLEN." International Art Publishing
continued to produce Clapsaddle cards after Wolf Company folded.


- Carol Rae

By Alexandra Rudenko
Contributing Writer
The Daily Star, New York

RICHFIELD SPRINGS — Growing up on a farm in this village on the northern fringe of Otsego County, Dorothy Ames knew of Ellen Clapsaddle's reputation as a world-famous artist.

But it wasn't until much later that she became a collector of the Richfield Springs artist's work.

"Ellen often visited my husband's aunt, who lived on the farm next door to her," recalled Ames. "My aunt was not a collector, but she did have 25 Clapsaddle postcards, which she gave me in 1980. That got me started. I went to my mother and looked through her albums and we found another 25."

These launched a collection of Clapsaddle memorabilia that now includes some 1,600 postcards, as well as dolls, prints and sweatshirts. On a warm, sunny October afternoon, Ames rearranged her collection on a table in the living room of the old farmhouse and talked about its history.

"Most of the cards came from antique stores and shows," she said. "Recently, my daughter has been actively buying cards for me through the Internet and I've just gotten a computer myself to look for cards. When I started buying the cards in 1980, they could often be found for as little as 50 cents. But now their cost has risen to average $10 and up."

Most dealers know Clapsaddles and generally have them separated out, but there is always the chance to find one among the stacks, said Ames, who is often invited to share her collection.

Mabel Chase of Milford said she was inspired when she saw Ames' vintage postcards.

"That was in 1991. I had heard about Dorothy's collection and called her up. She invited me to come visit," Chase said.

"Dorothy has some very beautiful cards. I thought they were really very nice and different. We had a nice talk and she gave me some information. Since then I've bought about 1,200 postcards and we've become very good friends. We particularly enjoy sending each other reprints of vintage Clapsaddle cards which are still being published"

Chase had built up her collection by going to postcard shows locally, as well as in Kingston, Amsterdam, Clinton and Syracuse.

"One year I went to a show in Tampa, Fla., and that was very good," she said. "The prices were better than they are in this area because less was known about Clapsaddle. My favorite cards are those she made for Thanksgiving."

Clapsaddle was born in the town of Columbia, near Richfield, in 1865, according to a relative, James Parker, who lives on Clapsaddle Farm in Ilion. The farm was settled by the Klepsettle family in 1737. The German name was later changed to Clapsaddle. During the Revolution, all residents had to leave and in 1779, the Indians burned down the log cabin.

That was when Ellen Clapsaddle's family moved to safety at Columbia Center. "Ellen grew up in that community and attended a one-room schoolhouse until eighth grade. She then boarded in Richfield, which had an academy that could prepare the young lady for college," Parker said.

Clapsaddle attended Cooper Institute in New York City. For several years, she worked out of an art studio in downtown Richfield Springs and painted portraits and landscapes for local wealthy families. She then made some postcards and sent two to New York City. They became bestsellers and the publisher asked her to move to the city in 1890, according to Parker.

Clapsaddle designed about 2,000 postcards, which she signed, and then there were many that she did not sign so they can't be directly attributed to her, Parker said. Because the best printing plants were in Germany, Clapsaddle lived in Berlin until World War I. The factory where her work was stored was bombed and everything was destroyed.

That's why there are very few paintings or original prints that have survived, Parker said, and Clapsaddle is mostly known today for her postcards. 

Clapsaddle returned to the U.S. with meager funds and lived modestly in New York City. Upon her death in 1934, an appeal was made in Richfield Springs to help fulfill her dying wish to be buried in Lakewood Cemetery. Local generosity made this possible, and the artist is buried next to her parents.

Theresa Willemsen, vice president of the Richfield Springs Historical Association, said there was a good turnout for a recent talk on the life of Clapsaddle.  "I live on McKoon Road, which is the street she lived on," Willemsen said. "This makes me very interested in her. Her work is so beautiful that I have begun collecting it also. The prices range from a few dollars to the hundreds."

Ames' daughter, Carolyn Wilston, said she had always heard about Clapsaddle when she was growing up in Richfield Springs. "Now I live in Pennsylvania and one of our favorite pastimes is to look for postcards and other souvenirs for my mother. So far I have given her three sweatshirts — two Halloween and a Christmas design. I bought the Clapsaddle iron-on appliqués in a chain store."

Like her mother, Wilston has developed something of an addiction to the thrill of discovering a new Clapsaddle piece.

"Clapsaddle's work is popular and it does get reproduced, so you have to keep looking to build a collection," she said. "You see her work on popcorn and cookie tins and old advertisements as well. Basically, I love collecting for mom. She really enjoys adding to her collection. It makes her day."

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