Alice's father abandoned the family before she was born, and she was baptized 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 now consisted of: Alice's mother, Alice Cornell Austen (1836-?); Alice's maternal grandparents, John Haggerty Austen (c1800-?) and Elizabeth Alice Townsend (c1800-?). Also in the house were her mother's siblings: Peter Austen, who was a chemistry professor at Rutgers University; and Mary Austen (1840-?) aka Minnie Austen, who was married to Oswald Müller (1840-?) who was the owner of a shipping company. Oswald was born in Denmark. (Picture: Alice Austen & Gertrude Tate)
The house was built in the 17th century, but was expanded during the 19th century 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. It is also known as "Alice Austen House" and is located in the Rosebank neighborhood.
Elizabeth Alice Austen (March 17, 1866 - June 9, 1952) was a Staten Island photographer. In 1899 Alice met Gertrude Amelia Tate (1871-1962) of Brooklyn, New York. She became Alice's lifelong companion. Gertrude moved in with Alice at Clear Comfort in 1917. Clear Comfort was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark on April 8, 1976, one month after the 110th anniversary of Alice's birth. It is also known as "Alice Austen House" and is located in the Rosebank neighborhood.
©Captain Oswald Müller. Twenty-two-year-old Miss E. Alice Austen poses in her Sunday best - a smart overskirt, and a hat decorated with white lilacs. She holds a parasol and a silver change purse, 1888 (©1)
Photo by Alice Austen
Alice became interested in photography when her uncle, Oswald Müller, brought home a camera around 1876. Alice's uncle Peter Townsend Austen was a chemistry professor at Rutgers who taught her photographic processing. Peter and Oswald converted a closet on the second floor into Alice's darkroom. The earliest extant photograph by her is dated 1884. Over the next 40 years she produced around 8,000 photographs.
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-?).
Alice lived off the interest from the money left by her grandfather but the principle was lost in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and by age 63, she had no income. She began to sell off her silver, art works, and furniture to get enough money to buy food and fuel. She then took out a mortgage on the house which was taken by the bank in 1945. She sold her remaining possessions for $600 to a second-hand dealer from New Jersey and called her friend Loring McMillen from the Staten Island Historical Society to take the photos. He stored them at the Third County Courthouse in Richmondtown. She then moved to an apartment then a nursing home. On June 24, 1950 she was declared a pauper and was admitted to New York City Farm Colony, Staten Island's poorhouse.
In 1950 Picture Press started a project on the history of American women and contacted archives for unpublished images. C. Copes Brinley of the Staten Island Historical Society had 3,500 extant, uncatalogued Alice Austen glass plate negatives of the roughly 8,000 she took. In October of 1950, Constance Foulk Robert met with Brinley and McMillen to take a look at the negatives. Oliver Jensen came along on the next trip and he published several of the photos in his book Revolt of Women. He also wrote an eight-page story in Life magazine, and he published six-pages of travel photos in Holiday magazine. The publications raised more than $4,000 for Alice Austen's and she was able to move out of the Farm Colony and into a private nursing home. On October 9, 1951 Alice Austen was the guest of honor at the first 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 continued to be supported by the Staten Island Historical Society and lived the next eight months in the nursing home, where she died on June 9, 1952. The Society arranged for her funeral and she was buried in the Austen family plot in the Moravian Cemetery at New Dorp, Staten Island.
The Staten Island Historical Society at Historic Richmond owns over 7,000 original items (glass plate negatives, film base negatives, and original prints) by Alice Austen. This collection is cataloged, digitized, and stored in an archival manner at Historic Richmond Town, and it is available for study by appointment. The Alice Austen House Museum also has a collection of photographs. And about 300 are on display in the resource room, which is open to the public.
The Alice Austen School, PS 60, located on Merril Avenue in the Bulls Head neighborhood of Staten Island, is named in her honor.
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
Amazon: Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time
Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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