|Birth: ||Mar. 17, 1866|
Richmond County (Staten Island)
New York, USA
|Death: ||Jun. 9, 1952|
Richmond County (Staten Island)
New York, USA
Elizabeth Alice Austen (1866-1952) aka Elizabeth Munn, Photographer (b. March 17, 1866, Woodbine Cottage, Rosebank, Staten Island, Richmond County, New York City, New York, USA - d. June 9, 1952, Staten Island, Richmond County, New York City, New York, USA) She was born in Woodbine Cottage in the Rosebank section of Staten Island in 1866 to Alice Cornell Austen (1836-?) and Edward Stopford Munn (c1835-?). Woodbine Cottage is less than a mile away from the building known as Alice Austen House or Clear Comfort. Alice's father abandoned the family before she born, and she was baptised under the name "Elizabeth Alice Munn" on May 23, 1866, in St. John's Church on Staten Island. She never used the name Munn and would initial her glass photographic negatives with "EAA" for "Elizabeth Alice Austen". With no household income and no husband, Alice's mother moved back to her own parent's home, which was known as "Clear Comfort". Alice was the only child in the household which consisted of Alice's mother, Alice Cornell Austen (1836-?); Alice's maternal grandparents, John Haggerty Austen (c1800-?); and Elizabeth Alice Townsend (c1800-?); and her mother's siblings, Peter Austen, a chemistry professor at Rutgers University; and Mary Austen aka Minnie (1840-?) who was married to Oswald Müller (1840-?) the owner of a shipping company who was born in Denmark.
The house was built in the 1600s, but was expanded during the 1800s by Alice's grandparents: John Haggerty Austen; and Elizabeth Alice Townsend. Clear Comfort was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark on April 8, 1976, one month after the 110th anniversary of Alice's birth.
Alice became interested in photography when her uncle, Oswald Müller, brought home a camera around 1876. Alice's uncle Peter was a chemistry professor and he showed Alice how to use the developing chemicals in a darkroom. Peter and Oswald converted a closet on the second floor into Alice's darkroom. The earliest extant photograph by her is dated 1884. By 1900 her uncle Oswald was the head of household and the family had two servants: Katherine Wertz (1857-?); and Constance Rasmusth (1876-?). They also had a cook, Mary McDonald (1873-?). In 1899 Alice met Gertrude Amelia Tate (1871-1962) of Brooklyn, New York. She became Alice's life long companion. Gertrude moved in with Alice at Clear Comfort in 1917. Alice lived off the income from the money left by her grandfather but all was lost in the stock market crash of 1929. Alice at age 63 now had no income. She tried serving tea on her lawn with Gertrude for a few years but it never provided enough money to pay her bills. She began to sell off the home's silver, art works, and furniture to get enough money for food and fuel. She eventually mortgaged the house which had been owned outright, but lost the title in 1945. Forced to move, Alice sold her few remaining posessions for $600 to a second-hand dealer from New Jersey. While moving she asked Loring McMillen from the Staten Island Historical Society for assistance. He came across her collection of glass plate negatives and took as many as he could to the basement of the old court house in Richmondtown for storage. Alice then moved to a small apartment but eventually moved into a nursing home. Her final indignity was on June 24, 1950, when she was declared a pauper and was admitted to the Staten Island Poor House known as the Staten Island Farm Colony. In 1950 Picture Press started a project on the history of American women. Oliver Jensen of Picture Press sent out a standard form letter to various archives and historical societies, asking if any had useable images. C. Copes Brinley of the Staten Island Historical Society responded and invited someone to look through the 3,500 extant, uncatalogued Alice Austen glass plate negatives of the roughly 9,000 she took in her lifetime. In October of 1950, Constance Foulk Robert, a research assistant, met with Brinley and McMillen to go through the negatives. Constance brought Oliver Jensen with her on a next trip and an agreement was signed with the Historical Society. Oliver Jensen then published several of Alice's photos in the book Revolt of Women. He also wrote an eight-page story in Life magazine, and six pages of Alice's travel photos in Holiday magazine. The publications raised more than $4,000. Alice Austen's 1/3 of the proceeds was enough to move her out of the Farm Colony and back into a private nursing home. On October 9, 1951 Alice Austen was the guest of honor at an exhibition of her photographs at the Richmondtown museum where over 300 guests had been invited to celebrate Alice Austen Day. She said: "I am happy that what was once so much pleasure for me turns out now to be a pleasure for other people." Alice lived the next eight months in the nursing home, where she died peacefully in her sleep on June 9, 1952. She was buried in the Austen family plot in the Moravian Cemetery at New Dorp, Staten Island. The following is the biography from the Alice Austen Museum: "Alice Austen was born on March 17, 1866, to Alice Cornell Austen and Edward Stopford Munn in the area of Clifton known today as Rosebank. She was not born in her grandparent's house, but in 'Woodbine Cottage', about a quarter of a mile away. Since Alice's father deserted her mother before she was born her mother never used her married name. Alice was christened Elizabeth Alice Munn on May 23, 1866, in St. John's Church but she never used the name Munn and would later mark her glass plates with EAA for Elizabeth Alice Austen. With a small baby and no means of support, Alice's mother moved back to her parents home 'Clear Comfort' where Alice would grow up the center of attention in a household that would eventually contain six adults and no other children. Alice was introduced to photography when her uncle, a Danish sea captain named Oswald Müller, brought home a camera when she was ten years old. This camera, long since lost, is believed to have been a dry plate camera of' British manufacture, possibly purchased by Captain Müller during one of the regular round-the-world voyages of the clipper ship he commanded. As Müller experimented with the bulky wooden box, demonstrating it to his wife and other members of the Austen family in their garden, Alice watched, enchanted. Although she was only ten years old, she was patient and intelligent, and strong enough to hold the big camera steady on its tripod; her hands were naturally skillful at adjusting the simple mechanism. When it was time for uncle Oswald to sail away again, he gave Alice permission to use the camera in his absence. Alice's uncle Peter, by now a newly-appointed young professor of chemistry, realized that in her hands the camera would become something more than a toy. On his frequent visits home from Rutgers University he showed his enthusiastic niece how to use chemicals to develop the glass plates she exposed, and how to make prints from them. He and uncle Oswald helped Alice even further by installing, in an upstairs storage closet, a tiny home-built darkroom where Alice would spend hours on end developing plates, and toning and fixing her prints. Since there was no running water in the house when she was young, she carried her plates and prints down to the pump by the well in the back garden, winter and summer, to rinse them in basins of icy cold water (sometimes changing the rinse water as many as twenty-five times, according to her memory in later years). By the time she was eighteen years old (the earliest year from which any of her photographic plates or prints survive), Alice Austen was an experienced photographer with professional standards. Everywhere she went she took her photographic equipment with her. Weighing as much as fifty pounds and sometimes filling a steamer trunk it included cameras of different sizes, a tripod, magnesium flash attachment, and glass plates as big as eight by ten inches. In a horse-drawn buggy in the 1880's and 1890's, she carried her equipment around the unpaved roads of Staten Island...to Midland Beach, South Beach, to winter skating parties on the Island's frozen ponds and creeks and private parties at the homes of friends. Popular and extraordinarily athletic, Alice enjoyed many of the new sports of the time. The game of lawn tennis was the sport she enjoyed the most and her camera was as much a companion as her racquet. In 1885 the first tennis club in the nation was established in Livingston. It was there that nineteen-year old Alice spent countless summer afternoons, on the courts and behind her camera, photographing the players and the crowds of spectators. As she neared the age of fifty Alice Austen increasingly found herself playing the role of a prominent member of Staten Island society. Having lived such a privileged life, Alice was not at all prepared for the fate awaiting her in her final years. The once substantial income from the capital left by her grandfather had dwindled to a modest sum by the 1920's. Then, when the stock market crashed in 1929 Alice, at sixty-three years of age, lost everything. From then on life was a desperate struggle to survive. She opened a Tea Room on the lawn for a few years but it never yielded enough profit to support the household. As it became harder and harder to meet the expenses of daily living Alice began to sell the silver, art works and furniture that filled 'Clear Comfort'. She also mortgaged and re-mortgaged the house but finally lost it in 1945. In a final desperate act, Alice sold the remaining contents of her home for $600.00 to a dealer from New Jersey. However, before he came Alice called an old friend from the Staten Island Historical Society for help. It was Loring McMillen who came across a stack of dusty cardboard boxes full of glass plate negatives. With Alice's permission he loaded as many as he could into two cars and took them to the basement of the restored old court house in Richmondtown for safekeeping. Alice Austen moved to a small apartment at first but as she became increasingly crippled with arthritis she was forced to enter a series of nursing homes. Finally, on June 24,1950 she took an oath declaring herself a pauper and was admitted to the local poor house, the Staten Island Farm Colony. Unbeknownst to Alice, a small publishing company called Picture Press was planning to do a book on the history of American women. One of the two partners, Oliver Jensen, sent out a routine letter of inquiry to various institutions concerning suitable photographs. C. Copes Brinley of the S.I. historical society responded by inviting him to look at those dusty boxes containing 3,500 of Alice Austen's glass plate negatives. So, on a cold dark night in October 1950, Constance Foulk Robert, a young researcher, met with Brinley and McMillen to go through the negatives. Realizing that she had stumbled on the work of a great woman photographer, she brought Oliver Jensen with her on a return trip. Signing an agreement with the Historical Society, Oliver Jensen then published many of Alice's photos in the Revolt of Women. He also placed an eight-page story (with later sequels) in Life, and six pages of Alice's travel photos in Holiday, raising more than $4,000. Miss Austen's third of the proceeds was enough to move her out of the Farm Colony and into a private nursing home. On October 9, 1951 Alice Austen was driven to see an exhibition of her pictures in the Richmondtown museum and to meet the three hundred guests who had been invited there to celebrate Alice Austen Day. 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.' Alice lived the next eight months in the nursing home, where she died peacefully in her sleep on June 9, 1952. A simple funeral service was conducted beside the Austen family plot in the Moravian Cemetery."
Richmond County (Staten Island)
New York, USA
Plot: Section A
Created by: Richard Arthur Norton (1...
Record added: Oct 06, 2003
Find A Grave Memorial# 7955241