What comes to mind when you hear the name Madam Nora? Perhaps a woman, draped in colorful fabrics and jangling bracelets, reading a fortune over a crystal ball or channeling spirits at a seance?
Nora Allen, popularly known as Madam Nora,1 was a traveling entertainer who used glass in her act, but there were no thumping chairs or dire predictions. Instead, she conjured fantastical sculptures made of glass, like the animals and ships pictured on this broadside for Madam Nora’s Original Troupe of Glass Blowers, Glass Spinners, and Glass Workers. Allen led this troupe of itinerant glassworkers for several decades as they traveled around the Northeastern United States.
The broadside advertised a show in April (possibly 1876) featuring Allen; Mr. Oliver Lock [sic], “the prince of glass blowers”; Mr. Wm. Allen, “the youngest and most talented artist before the public”; Prof. Thos. Edwards, “glass worker and descriptive lecturer”; and Mr. T.J. Jordan, “glass spinner and weaver”; along with manager Alfred Seabury. Allen was billed as “the only lady glass artist in the profession” (not quite true, but we’ll get to that in a minute).
Nora Allen’s troupe is a good example of two trends in the itinerant glassworker business. First, she employed family members, namely William Allen (her son) and Alfred Seabury (her second husband). Later, when William married, her daughter-in-law Adalorra also joined the troupe.
A second trend was the movement of artisans between troupes. Oliver Locke was a member of The Great Bohemian Troupe of Fancy Glass Blowers before joining Allen’s troupe, and later led his own group of glassworkers on tour.
Curiosity seekers could pay 15 cents to see Allen’s troupe demonstrate lampworking techniques including glass spinning, blowing, and weaving. They would also see the “art” of silvering glass. If this show followed later examples of the troupe’s exhibitions, each glassworker would demonstrate a particular skill for the audience.
General Garfield, the troupe’s glass steam engine, was on display and in motion. As an added bonus, Saturday’s entertainment included a baby show (a contest to decide the town’s most beautiful baby). What more could a 19th-century entertainment seeker want?
Women in charge
While the show boasted an impressive lineup, perhaps the most interesting detail appears in tiny type at the bottom of the broadside. Not only was Nora Allen the group’s headliner, she was also the “Sole Proprietress,” an unusual role in an era when women had limited rights and career opportunities.
As mentioned above, Allen was not the first or only woman glassworker in the business, but it is possible that she was the first to lead her own troupe. Others that followed her example include Madam J. Reith and Madam Anderson.
Allen and her troupe continued to tour for several more decades. The troupe’s lineup changed over the years, but Allen remained the headliner until they disbanded. Thanks to the survival of this broadside, part of Allen’s remarkable story is preserved.
A version of this post was originally published on the Corning Museum of Glass blog on June 24, 2015.