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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Julie Carlsen

The history of fencing – and specifically, women’s participation in the sport – has interested me since I first took up a sabre as a freshman in high school. After I started working professionally with rare books, I knew that I wanted to develop a personal book collection, but I had no idea where to begin. So, naturally, I started amassing items of interest without any real direction.

Everything clicked for me when I acquired a copy of the April 1, 1933, issue of The Saturday Evening Post at a charity auction at a local fencing tournament. The cover illustration was of a woman fencer after a painting by Alfred F. Cammarata, and I knew in that moment what I wanted to collect.

My interest is the depiction of women fencers in print; I tend to focus on the image itself, so my collection includes everything from books and pamphlets to photographs and postcards. I have found this practice extremely rewarding: studying the history of women’s fencing has pushed me to engage with printed material outside of my usual scope and deepened my affinity for the sport.

Photograph of a woman holding a foil

Photograph of a woman holding a foil.

Burr McIntosh. Chicago: American Plate and Picture Co., 1902.

Contemporary viewers would have recognized the woman in this photograph as a fencer by her outfit as much as the weapon in her hand. This signature “uniform” of a white blouse with black sleeves emblazoned with a red heart on the chest, a belted black velvet skirt, stockings, and buckled shoes was popularized around the turn of the 20th century by Jean Béraud’s L’escrimeuse portrait paintings of 17th century French swordswoman Julie d’Aubigny.

Photograph of a woman holding a foil

Photograph of a woman holding a foil.

Burr McIntosh. Chicago: American Plate and Picture Co., 1902.

Although she is holding a fencing foil, the woman in this photograph was unlikely to have been a competitive fencer. Burr McIntosh photographed numerous Broadway actresses at his studio on West 33rd Street, and many of the models wore theatrical costumes. The woman here is quite possibly an actress herself; she could easily pass for one of Anna Held’s “fencing girls” from the chorus of The Little Duchess produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. from 1901-1902.

Photograph of a woman holding a foil

Photograph of a woman holding a foil.

Burr McIntosh. Chicago: American Plate and Picture Co., 1902.

Hearts were popular adornments on fencing jackets in the late 19th century. These were purely decorative, but the symbol harkens back to the sport’s dueling origins: a thrust through the heart would be an immediate victory (i.e. the opponent’s death). Despite the violence behind it, a red heart over the left breast was increasingly associated with women fencers in popular culture in the 20th century. The heart on this photograph was added by hand.