Tag Archives: property woman

An All-Women’s Theatre Company from 1905

I came across the following article in The Bystander, No. 98, Vol 8, Wednesday, October 18, 1905. Sexist language aside, I thought it gave a glimpse of an interesting theatre company that many of us would not have thought existed at the time. It is also a fascinating article to present during Women’s History Month.

A Novel Theatrical Company: Financed, Managed and Run by American Women

(Mailed by our Correspondent in America)

Miss Gertrude Haynes directing the setting of the scenes
Miss Gertrude Haynes directing the setting of the scenes

The American woman is proud in the knowledge that she can stand alone without the support of mere man. She has taken her place in the world of affairs, and now she is to prove that she can run, entirely on her own, that most difficult of businesses—a theatre. Miss Gertrude Haynes is at the head of a Company which will present a woman’s play, written by a woman dramatist, financed by a woman “angel” (this is as it should be). Advance agent, doorkeeper, treasurers, scene-shifters, attendants—all will be of the fair sex.

In the Treasurer's office, where the "ghost" walks every Friday. For the benefit of the unitiated, it should be explained that the payment of salaries is referred to in the profession by the spiritual simile of a ghost walking.
In the Treasurer’s office, where the “ghost” walks every Friday. For the benefit of the uninitiated, it should be explained that the payment of salaries is referred to in the profession by the spiritual simile of a ghost walking.

Miss Haynes is one of the best-known new stars in the country, her “Choir Celestial” having been presented in all of the theatres of the big circuits. She was the originator of the religious act on the stage, and has won both fame and fortune. But let her speak of her own project:—

“My determination to use women stage hands, advance women, and ticket-takers, is not a freak notion,” said Miss Haybes. “I have tried women for the work and found them better than men. They are faithful, work harder, and can always be trusted to be on hand. And that is more than can be said for some of the men who have been in my employ.

“My sister, Miss Tessie Haynes, went out as my advance agent two years ago, and her success was remarkable. No man ever did so well for me. And it wasn’t six months before she was engaged.

Some of Miss Tessie Haynes’ experiences were more strenuous than most men in the same position are called upon to undergo. In Chicago, she encountered a strike of bill-posters, and could not get the Company paper out. Finding that appeals to the strikers availed nothing, the plucky little woman determined to put up her own bills. Hiring a wagon, she went out supplied with paste bucket and brush, and posted the bills.

Her action caught the fancy of the men, who cheered her bravery, and her bills were not disturbed. She has the record of being the only woman bill-poster in the world.

Miss Tessie Haynes, sister of the manageress, acting as a bill-poster
Miss Tessie Haynes, sister of the manageress, acting as a bill-poster

Miss Gertrude Haynes is not exactly preparing for trouble, but she is prepared to meet it if it comes. The man who thinks to have a joke at her expense will “get left” as his countrymen say.

Thus: “My property woman weighs 160 pounds, is strong and vigorous, and can hustle a trunk if necessary,” declares the indomitable manageress. Nor will she stand any love-making nonsense to interfere with the work in what she calls her “Adamless Eden.”

“No, my doorkeeper won’t flirt with the men. She is a fine, handsome woman with grey hair, inexpressibly dignified, and no man will take liberties with her. At least, I pity the one that tries.”

Man will not be entirely banished from the Company. He will be suffered to play the male roles, but otherwise will be quite subordinate. Listen to this strike-loving scene-shifter of the sterner sex!

“I expect to get a cleaner production by reason of my woman stage director. A woman is naturally artistic. She will not take more time to set the stage than a man, but it will be done infinitely better.

“My artists would fall down every night if I did not go after the men and smooth the wrinkles out of the carpet. A woman would never do such clumsy work.”

Miss Haynes’ final word breathes the very spirit of determination. “I have always come off ahead in our battles, and I’m sure that my new venture of an Adamless troupe will succeed.”

Members of the manless theatrical company engaged in scene-shifting
Members of the manless theatrical company engaged in scene-shifting

This article and images were originally printed in The Bystander, No. 98, Vol 8, Wednesday, October 18, 1905.

Women in Props

Earlier this month, I shared an article about a busy prop shop in midtown Manhattan, circa 1898, which was owned and operated by a woman. It reminded me that I’ve neglected to research the contribution of women to the world of props throughout the centuries.

Just as “property man” was the common term for one who works in props from the early 1600s through World War II, so too does “property woman” appear in the descriptions and literature on theatre. The Oxford English Dictionary tracks its earliest usage to a one-act play published in 1795 titled New hay at the old market. An actor playing a prompter speaks the line:

Oh ! that alters the case. Well, let it be handsome; do you mind? Stud it with brass-nails, and cover it with the best Morocco—and tell the Property-woman to put a good soft velvet cushion in it, dye hear ?

I’ve dug up an even earlier reference from 1780. In his Remarks upon the Present Taste for acting Private Plays, R. Cumberland, Esq., writes:

Happy author, who shall see his characters thus grouped into a family-piece, firm as the Theban band of friends, where all is zeal and concord, no bickerings nor jealousies about stage-precedency, no ladies to fall sick of the spleen, and toss up their parts in a huff, no heart-burnings about flounced petticoats and silver trimmings, where the mother of the whole company stands wardrobe-keeper and property-woman, whilst the father takes post at the side scene in the capacity of prompter with plenipotentiary controul over PS’s and OP’s.

The use of the term “property-woman” appears in both America and England throughout the nineteenth century up through the early twentieth century. In many instances, it is the gender equivalent of “property-man”, describing anyone who works in props, from what we consider today to be a property master, to a property artisan and even a run crew person who handles and tracks the props backstage during a performance. In other cases, it appears to define a more specialized backstage role, used interchangeably with “wardrobe woman” and even “dresser”.

In today’s theatre, we have ceased using these gender-specific terms, and have switched to more descriptive titles, such as properties artisan, properties carpenter and properties director. However, you occasionally hear the term “property mistress” used clumsily in place of “property master” when the property master is a woman. It turns out this term was actually used fairly frequently in the early twentieth century. An example comes from a 1921 article in Century Magazine, by George P. Baker:

Just before a piece goes into rehearsal it is read to the artistic and producing force as well as to the actors, all of whom watch it for the special problems it may have for them. Immediately after the reading, copies of the play are handed to the costumer, designer of scenery, property mistress, the person in charge of lighting, and the stage-manager. As soon as possible, these meet individually with the author to make sure that they know exactly what he wants, and, as groups, to establish their plans cooperatively.

While the twentieth century may seem late in the game for women to take charge of props, keep in mind that the idea of a property master in general did not take shape until the mid-nineteenth century. People may have had the duties of a property master, but it fell under a different job (usually the prompter or an assistant).

Strangely, the term all but disappears throughout the middle of the century, only to start popping up again in the late 1980s. By the twenty-first century, more and more theatre companies were switching the job title to the more appropriate (and gender-neutral) “properties director” to describe the person in charge of the props shop. Individual shows still use the term “property master”, and most Playbills and programs use that term whether it was a man or woman doing the job. “Property mistress” shows up only in informal usage and in fluffy news articles.