Nova Scotia Archives

The Prat Sisters: Free Spirits of the 1890s

Background Essay

Annie, Minnie and May Prat, adventurous sisters from Wolfville, Nova Scotia, established unusual artistic careers in the United States in the late 1890s. In 1896, Annie, 35, began a career as a professional artist by enrolling at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1897, Minnie, 29, moved to New York City to learn bookbinding with Evelyn Nordhoff, North America's first fully-qualified woman bookbinder. May Rosina, 26, joined Minnie shortly afterward to study decorative leatherwork and bookbinding with Nordhoff. By 1900, Minnie and May had opened their successful bookbinding and leather working studio in New York City.

We do not know what motivated the Prat sisters to go to the United States to study. We can, however, identify some of the factors that paved their way. The 1890s brought greater opportunities for women. Beginning in the 1880s, women entered the workforce in increasing numbers. By the 1890s, they were wearing bell skirts and separate shirtwaists far more comfortable and practical than the tight bodices and elaborate bustles of a decade before. Middle class women, in particular, became active in women's organizations promoting female suffrage and social reform. Some, like Annie Prat, were able to take advantage of increasing opportunities for secondary education for women. Others, like Minnie and May Prat, to were able to take advantage of opportunities offered by the Arts and Crafts movement to learn crafts, such as bookbinding, leather working and furniture making, not previously open to women.

Annie was fortunate to have relatives in Chicago she could stay with while studying. Minnie's move to New York was facilitated by family friend Bliss Carman. He had moved to New York to be an assistant editor (1890-92) of the newspaper, The Independent, and was gaining international recognition as a poet. Carman arranged for Minnie to apprentice with Nordhoff, and Minnie's apprenticeship paved the way for May Rosina's.

The sisters were well-connected. Annie, in particular, was interested in her Prat ancestry in England. Her family was descended from Samuel Prat DD (1657-1723), Dean of Rochester Cathedral. Annie's grandfather, Samuel, was a solicitor at Glastonbury who married into a landowning family. However, he lost heavily by investing in extending the canal system to Glastonbury, just before the coming of the railway. His bankruptcy likely contributed to his death in 1845, at the age of 52. In 1846, his widow, Elizabeth, and four sons emigrated to Paradise, Nova Scotia, to join a fifth brother recently settled there. Two of the brothers, George and Samuel, moved to Wolfville. Samuel, father of the Prat sisters, became the first station master at Wolfville for the Windsor and Annapolis Railway. In 1870, he was promoted to general superintendent of several stations.

Samuel married well. His wife, Elizabeth, also of Paradise, was the sister of John Morse, founder of Morse's Tea at Halifax. Her father, Samuel Morse, was a first cousin of Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph. Annie, in particular, benefitted from the Morse family connection. In 1877-79, she lived with her uncle and grandfather in Halifax and attended Morris Street School. Annie's younger and only surviving brother, Rupert, was already living with the family, in order to learn the tea business.

With the exception of Annie, there was little sign in the sisters' earlier lives that they were marked for creative adventure. Annie won honourable mention for her watercolour painting at the 1879 Nova Scotia Provincial Exhibition, and she built up a local reputation as a painter. By 1889, Minnie was engaged to be married to Goodridge Bliss Roberts, who was studying for the Anglican ministry at King's College, Windsor.

Goodridge was the younger brother of Charles G.D. Roberts. Charles G.D., professor of English literature at King's College (1885-95), was winning recognition for his early poetic work. He occasionally hired Annie to be his secretary, when funds permitted. Charles and Goodridge were cousins of Bliss Carman, soon to become one of Canada's leading poets. Charles Roberts and Bliss Carman became good friends of the Prat sisters and frequent visitors at 'Acadia Villa,' the Prat family home at Wolfville.

Carman wrote affectionate poems about the sisters, giving them pet-names, 'Nancy' for Annie, 'Rose Mary' for May Rosina, and 'Malyn' for Minnie. Annie nicknamed him 'Kelly.' Annie and Bliss became close friends, and corresponded, although not always regularly, from 1889 until at least 1904.

In 1892 tragedy struck the Prat family circle. On February 4, a month before Minnie's 24th birthday, her fiancé, Goodridge, 22, died of influenza at 'Acadia Villa.' Her father, Samuel, died of the same illness nine days later. Minnie poured out her grief over Goodridge in a letter to Bliss Carman, dated March 28, 1892: 'You know what happiness he gave me, how his life made mine all bright as the summer sun. Tell me what in God's world I am to do without him...with so much grief and only the heart of a child to bear it.'2 Five years later, Minnie found the courage to go to New York to apprentice with Evelyn Nordhoff, in a field in which women were still pioneers.

In her apprentice book, begun in October 1897, Minnie noted that she was Nordhoff's first apprentice. Nordhoff had studied with master-bookbinder T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, a noted figure in the British Arts and Crafts movement. May Rosina soon followed Minnie as Nordhoff's apprentice. However, Nordhoff died unexpectedly in November 1898, at the age of 33, after a short illness. Minnie, May Rosina, and other former students kept her bindery going after her death. By 1900, Minnie and May Rosina had opened the Primrose Bindery on 37 West 22nd Street. Minnie did exquisitely designed and executed hand-bookbinding. May did outstanding leatherwork, usually both decorative and functional, and was a competent bookbinder.

In 1896-97, Annie Prat studied at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. The school's records show that she studied figure painting and still life, advancing rapidly and winning citations for her work. She also studied privately with miniature artist Cecile Payen. Annie's choice of art schools was no doubt influenced by the presence of her mother's relatives in Chicago. While studying at the Art Institute, Annie lived with her mother's cousin, Rose, and her husband, Charles Knickerbocker. The Knickerbockers had children, Annie's second cousins, still living at home. The exhibit includes Annie's delightful miniature of her second cousin, Marian.

Annie's artistic talents apparently exceeded her business acumen. At best she earned a modest living as a miniature portrait painter. She spent considerable time in New York State, painting and teaching art, and visiting her sisters and assisting them at the bindery. She frequently visited Dorothy Cornell, a close friend and bookbinding enthusiast, at 'Forest Park,' the Ezra Cornell family estate at Ithaca.

Minnie and May soon found success in their work. In 1900, they were featured in an article in Harper's Bazaar. Minnie won a silver medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition and a bronze medal at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo, New York. However, she did not live to receive her bronze medal. She died of typhoid fever at Wolfville on September 4, 1901, at the age of 33. In a letter to his sister, Jean, six days later, Bliss Carman wrote a touching tribute to Minnie: 'I try to remember how her own divine radiance, her great heart, and sureness of spirit would bade us not to grieve. But I grieve terribly...'3

After Minnie's death, May Rosina, herself recovering from the effects of typhoid, found it difficult to carry on the bindery without her. Annie supported May's return to work by assisting her at the bindery. In the autumn of 1903, May became engaged to be married to Richard Starr of Starrs Point, Nova Scotia. The following spring, she closed the Primrose Bindery and returned to Wolfville to be married. May set up her bookbinding equipment in her new home, and later taught bookbinding to her niece, Marion Wilcox. May Rosina had two children, Charlotte (Sally) and Charles Harry (Harry), who later donated the Prat-Starr family papers to the Public Archives of Nova Scotia. May died in 1965, aged 92.

Annie continued her career as a semi-professional artist in Nova Scotia. She was the first Dean of Women at King's College, Windsor, 1917-20. Annie lost the sight of an eye in an accident during a child-minding visit to New York in 1926, bringing an end to her work as a miniature painter. Her closest friend, Dorothy Cornell, died the same year. Annie lived for many years at Windsor with her sister, Charlotte Wilcox; after her sister's death in 1957, she remained in the Wilcox family home with her niece, Marion. In 1959, Annie donated her delightful and charmingly annotated watercolours of Nova Scotia wildflowers and fungi, over 200 in all, to the Public Archives. She died in 1960, after a short illness, a month before her 99th birthday.

This virtual exhibit has been adapted from 'The Prat Exhibition: Three Talented Sisters,' at the Public Archives, October 1986- March 1987. It showcases a generous selection of Annie's watercolours, as well as examples of Minnie's bookbinding and May Rosina's leatherwork. The exhibit also features several significant new items, notably letters from Bliss Carman to Annie. Through an interesting mix of correspondence, photographs, and memorabilia, it illuminates the sisters' creative spirits, warm personal and family relationships, and passion for life.

End Notes

1 Title taken from Elissa Barnard, 'The Prat Sisters: Free Spirits of the 1890s' in Mail Star: Nova Scotian, 31 January 1987. Barnard's article described 'The Prat Exhibition: Three Talented Sisters,' whose catalogue (Public Archives of Nova Scotia, 1986) characterized the sisters as 'free-spirited.'

2 Quoted in Muriel Miller, Bliss Carman: Quest and Revolt. St. John's: Jesperson, 1985.

3 One of several letters by Carman to his sister, Jean Murray Ganong, at Smith College: Neilson Library, published in Letters of Bliss Carman. Ed. H. Pearson Gundy. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's U P, 1981.



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