The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Collections in Focus
One highlight of the Washington, D.C., social season during the 1920s and 1930s was the annual Arts Club “Bal Bohéme.” Unlike Presidential Inauguration parties, these January celebrations had no political agenda, only the bipartisan goal of displaying local artists’ creative talent and dancing into the wee hours. Politicians, painters and society dames, diplomats, scientists, and businessmen, most in elaborate costume, reveled in what the American Magazine of Art called “royal play-times for the artists.” For the sixth ball in 1929, club members chose an Egyptian theme and “reincarnated” the Willard Hotel ballroom “into the streets of Cairo” (albeit, one reporter observed, with “the tang of Coney Island”). Government employee Mrs. Margaret Russell Roller won the prize that year for “most original costume” by dressing as a “telephone doll” – “all done up to represent the Washington telephone book.”
Such creativity characterized Roller’s workday life as well. In the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of Exhibits, Margaret Jane Russell Roller (1888-1973) had begun to specialize in fabricating lifelike wax models of food and animals.
Born in Paige, Virginia, Margaret had moved to Washington, D.C., to live with her older sisters Mary and Agnes Russell in the Takoma Park neighborhood. In August 1913, Margaret married Samuel Kagey Roller (1883-1979), an artist and fellow Virginian, who was working then in DeRidder, Louisiana. Their two children, Jane Winona Roller (1916-2006) and Edwin Russell Roller (1917-1996), were born in Louisiana, but by 1918, the Margaret and Samuel had separated. Margaret returned to the Takoma Park home, where she raised the two children (one of whom, Jane, became a well-regarded botanical illustrator) and began working for the federal government.
In the December 26, 1919, Washington Times, a touching letter in the “Saving Money in the Home” section testified to Margaret’s resourcefulness as a single parent. Her three-year-old daughter’s doll had become (as toys do) “disreputable.” In “The Rejuvenation of Little Jane’s Doll,” the artist described how, with paint, skill, and imagination, she had transformed a “much-loved” object into a “new and lovely doll for almost nothing.”
Margaret soon became active in the Washington arts community, exhibiting her paintings and sculptures locally, often through the Art Promoters Club, and winning the prestigious poster competition for the 1933 Bal Bohéme. Such creativity proved especially useful once she began working at USDA. Even though these programs differed from direct federal support for the arts, the idea that the government would hire artists at all required some justification in response to political critics. Press coverage tended to emphasize the utilitarian nature of the work. As the Washington Post chided in 1926, “Art has an absolutely practical value which is often overlooked by those who deride it.”
By 1929, Roller was being celebrated in the news as “The only ‘animal sculptress’ in our government or any government,” and photos of her appeared in Science Service reports about USDA efforts to communicate about nutrition and best agricultural practices. Roller’s models of “tasty food combinations” included displays of “the best cuts of meats ... sent out to show the housewife what to buy and why.” To enhance the durability of the replicas, Roller used fine grade plaster of Paris combined with beeswax and Canada balsam. For authenticity, she would often begin with the actual foods. As the New York Times explained, custards would be cast in the dishes within which they were ordinarily served but “chops and standing roasts” required fabricating several parts. A turkey might, in fact, be roasted, disassembled, cast in separate pieces, and then reassembled, painted, and shellacked to produce the sheen of a Thanksgiving meal hot from the oven.
Reporters, of course, liked to spice such topics with humor. Many news stories about Roller’s work included predictable “proofs” of realism (“wax models so skillfully fashioned that the gustatory reactions of the observing crowds send them to the nearest hot-dog stands”) and anecdotes (“a small boy, visiting one of the government exhibits, noticed what looked to him like a luscious piece of lemon pie and did not learn of his mistake until his teeth had sunk into a thick wad of colored wax”).
Roller’s other USDA projects included special action models for agricultural exhibitions in the 1930s. “A gigantic hen, seven feet tall, speaking English, French and Spanish, which lays wooden eggs, will occupy a prominent position in the Department of Agriculture’s exhibit at the London Poultry Congress,” one article noted. Roller was seen in an accompanying photograph “putting the final touches on the bird.” The “Talking Hen” proved such a hit that the department created replicas for state fairs in the U.S. Each hen was built “with her various internal organs rightly placed” and “turned her head and talked to farmers about what she really wanted fed to her, the various combinations that were essential to her health and to get the best result in eggs.” The talking hen was soon accompanied by similar exhibits – “talking cows” and “robotic pigs” that chatted about the best feeds for maximum milk or meat production.
Roller continued to work as an artist in Washington long after retirement from the government. But it was her roast turkey sculptures and luscious fruit displays that brought her acclaim as, one reporter explained, a “model magician.”
Record Unit 7091 - Science Service Records, 1910-1963, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Collection No. 12 - Arts Club of Washington, D.C., 1916-1990, D.C. Public Library