The busy life of Candace Wheeler spanned nearly a full century in an age of rapid transformation. She compared her early years on her father’s farm in Delhi, New York, to life in Puritan times; she died in jazz-age New York City. At the height of her career, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Wheeler was not just an observer of the changes affecting the lives of American women but one of the instigators of those changes. Although a feminist, she was not a radical; her leadership grew in large part from the responsibility she felt for women younger and less fortunate than herself and from her vision of how to help them achieve financial independence. The product of an era that included a devastating war and successive financial panics, Wheeler viewed economic power, rather than political power, as women’s most immediate need. While she supported the goal of voting rights for women, she was not an activist in the quest, instead turning her energy toward training women to earn their own living.
At first Wheeler worked within the framework of the not-for-profit benevolent organization. Since the earliest years of the nineteenth century, there had been an acknowledged place for women in charity work, with efforts focused for the most part on the welfare of society’s weaker members. But Wheeler did not fit the mold of a typical charity lady and, in fact, reveled in not being a “lady,” with the dilettante status the term implied. A middle-class woman, she did not have either the financial or the social backing to rise into the high-ranking levels of society that typically spawned charity leaders. Wheeler’s weapons in her struggle to make a difference were artistic talent and a strong social conscience. Her effectiveness as a leader drew strength from her love of art, her friendships with well-known painters and designers, a supportive husband, well-to-do brothers, and her supreme self-confidence and drive. Drawing on these combined resources, she created a substantial career for herself as a designer of textiles and interiors and as a teacher, lecturer, and author. In the years between 1877 and 1893, from Wheeler’s first important public venture (the founding of the Society of Decorative Art) to her last major commission (the interior design of the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition), she was the acknowledged national expert on all things having to do with decorative textiles and interiors. She remained an articulate part of the design world, by writing books, articles, and an autobiography, Yesterdays in a Busy Life (1918).
In an era that did not always appreciate strong women, Wheeler ambitiously promoted art and design as paying careers for women, rather than hobbies. She was one of the first American women to produce designs for American manufacturers and paved the way for thousands of female designers who followed—some of whom she trained in her woman-run firm, Associated Artists. She was also one of the first women to be well known as an interior decorator, a profession she helped to create. Over the course of her long life, she produced many beautiful objects and promoted a uniquely American style of textile and wallpaper design, with colors and patterns modeled on American flowers and responding to the qualities of American light. But undoubtedly, Candace Wheeler’s most significant accomplishment was that, as both an early “career woman” and a designer, she became a role model for women at the dawn of the twentieth century, inspiring them to demand a place in the workforce as the equals of men.