Have you ever looked at the delicately colored advertisements in the current magazines and wondered who had the skill and taste and imagination to plan such charming interiors to illustrate the use of such a moderately priced and altogether practical material as linoleum? If you belong to the older generation, who still call it "oilcloth" you may even look with suspicion on the advances which your old friend, whose chilly glazed surface and scaling paint were once considered fit only for bath rooms and kitchens, has made.
Perhaps few people in Indianapolis are aware that one of the most successful designers of linoleum interiors in the country today is an ex-teacher in the city public schools, a girl born and educated in this city, Mrs. Hazel Dell Brown, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. C. F. Snepp of Brookside avenue.
The official title of Mrs. Brown is “director of the bureau of interior decorating for the Armstrong Cork Company of Lancaster, Pa., said to be the largest manufacturers of linoleum in the world. Her illustrations appear in the newspapers of eight-one cities, including The Indianapolis Star, and her color designs in almost all the national magazines. She also gets out advertising books filled with large color plates which are themselves works of arts, and lectures at conventions of salesmen, magazine writers, art teachers, etc. She is a charming little woman, scarcely five feet tall and still in her twenties, always dressed in perfect taste, and generally full of “pep.”
She was reared in a home where there were few luxuries, for ill health and various misfortunes had prevented her parents from winning the success in life which their ability deserved. But that made little difference to Hazel Snepp and her sisters—perhaps it was even in advantage, for they were taught very early in life the value of hard work and ingenuity. Mrs. Snepp, the mother, was an all-around household genius. If she had no money with which to buy new materials with which to make dresses for herself and her daughters, she took half-worn garments and made them over with trimmings of hand embroidery such as she had seen in the most exclusive shops. And the hats which she made out of bits of material any milliner would have admired.
The family longed for a home of their own, but they couldn't afford to hire carpenters and other builders so they decided to make it themselves. The mother and the two daughters worked side by side with the father and proved themselves good workmen at many trades. Plastered partitions were expensive, so they decided to leave the first floor undivided. The large raftered room was broken only by bookcases, sideboards, and china closet and hand stenciled curtains in artistic colors. It was a delightful place to visit and every one in the neighborhood was proud of the house which the Snepps built.
When Hazel was 9 years old she had her first lesson in art in school No. 20 in Miss Kares's room, and she still remembers the tragedy of that day. The problem given to the class was to paint a beech tree with water colors. The other children had had considerable training in the work and were quite skillful. "Edna" especially could paint "wonderful landscapes," and Hazel expected to do the same. But Hazel used too much water and, to her distress, her beautiful tree spread all over the page in an untidy green splotch. She felt disgraced for life and rushed home to sob out her grief on her mother's shoulder.
Fortunately that mother, herself, had longed to paint trees and landscapes years before and she soon taught her little girl hoe to overcome her difficulties. All the next summer Hazel drew "Gibson heads" and "scenes"—dozens of them— on every scrap of paper she found and, in the fall, when she returned to school, she had outdistanced even the talented "Edna," and was accounted the best drawer in her room. Then and there she decided that she would some day be a departmental art teacher.
Years passed and Hazel Snepp entered high school and of course, chose drawing as one of her studies. She did such unusual work that she was appointed art editor of the annual when she was graduated in 1911. The following years she enter the normal training school for teachers. As she still intended to become a teacher of art, she spent long hours on that study. When Miss Fitch, director of art in the schools, assigned one exercise, Hazel Snepp often may six or eight for full measure.
Naturally her enthusiasm for art made her teach it with greater interest than her other work, and soon after she began teaching she was placed in charge of the art and music in school No. 3. There she gained a reputation as an unusual teacher. She loved color intuitively and she made the children love it. Moreover she had wonderful ability in adapting her lessons to the growing skill of her pupils. It is safe to say that few art teachers in Indianapolis have been more successful than Hazel Snepp.
Finally the Indianapolis school board decided to award her the Seegmiller scholarship in order that she might study in Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, N.Y., for one year. It came like a gift from the gods for she had long realized she could not hope to save enough money to pay for such training without some help.
The year 1918 wan an eventful year for Hazel Snepp in many ways. In June she was married to Glenn Brown of Indianapolis, two months before he sailed for France. Their romance had begun when they were working side by side on the Shortridge annual, Mr. Brown as literary editor and Miss Snepp as art editor, and the friendship had grown warmer as the years passed. And so, with the double incentive of developing her skill in her beloved art and of preparing for a home, while her soldier husband fought for his country, she began her work in Pratt Institute. At the end of the year she was awarded the Shattuck scholarship in competition with art students from all over the country and she knew that she would have one more year of work at the institute. But the news that Glenn Brown had made the great sacrifice for his country came at the same time and with a heavy heart she took up her work again.
In 1920 she was appointed one of the assistant supervisors of art in the Indianapolis public schools, and she expected to make the teaching of art to children her life work. She had charge of twenty-one grade schools, and in them 10,000 boys and girls, and she considered it a man-sized job. Moreover she had for years played the organ in the little church near her home, and established a summer school for the Sunday school children and had herself taught various kind of handicrafts. She was busy, and useful and satisfied.
But the following year a letter from the sales manager of the Armstrong Cork Company came to Miss Lillian Weyl of the Indianapolis art department asking her to recommend some one to take charge of its bureau of interior decorating, and she recommended Mrs. Brown. Everybody realized that it was a most difficult position to fill and one requiring incessant labor but Hazel saw great opportunities and decided to accept the appointment. Mr. Graff, superintendent of schools, was so unwilling to have her leave this city that he volunteered to keep her position open for her, and for the first year after she went to Lancaster Mrs. Brown was officially on leave of absence from the Indianapolis schools. What her employers thought when the 5-foot stylishly dressed young woman appeared in their offices in October 1921 history does not record. It was a modern and feminine version of the story of David and Goliath.
That Mrs. Brown has made good is evident to any one who talks with her or knows anything about her work. "Is your work interesting?” we asked her one day.
"Absorbing," she answered with a happy smile. “I fairly eat and sleep linoleum for I am always thinking out new ways to use it. Recently I designed a window display for one of the big New York department stores. I designed a fanciful background, showing a medieval castle and added various figures dressed in the costumes of the period. Every detail of the picture was worked out in linoleum of different patterns. A lady was represented with a most elaborate costume and two pages bearing banners announcing the store's special display of linoleum were all made of the material. You'd be surprised to find out what beautiful dress patterns some of these linoleum designs would make.
"And then you know I am still teaching, but now, instead of working with my classes of Indianapolis boys and girls, I am teaching the women of the whole country to love beautiful colors and harmonious combinations in their own homes. We usually invite correspondence in our advertisements and we get hundreds of letters every week. They come from everywhere—from Florida to Alaska— and each tells the story of some woman’s love of her home.”
She handed me a sheaf of letters appallingly thick and containing hundreds of questions about all kinds of domestic problems: the color of the woodwork in the new home, the proper materials problems; the color of the woodwork for a certain mantel, how to arrange a heterogeneous collection furniture in a living room, etc. They were a revelation of the influence of our large commercial firms in improving the art taste of the country. Almost all the letters spoke of the beauty of the color plates designed by Mrs. Brown. One letter of appreciation said:
"I find myself looking for your page when a new magazine arrives. They are so restful, so harmonious, so beautiful in themselves, as well as so full of suggestions for actual house furnishing. Of course, you have published these pictures to introduce your linoleum, but I am sure you have accomplished much more than that in showing great numbers of people how beautiful a simple home may be. You have accomplished more than the articles on 'Interior Decoration' in the same magazines in which your advertisements appear."
Mrs, Brown talks most entertainingly about the history of linoleum and its various uses, although she is mainly interested in the art side of its development. It was invented sixty years ago by Frederick Walton through a chance discovery that boiling linseed oil would produce a thick scum which would harden into a waterproof, durable material when combined with ground cork and faced with burlap. For many years the designs used were crude and the surface merely painted. Within the last ten years, the “inlaid" linoleum and plain color linoleum have been perfected so that the color in them is a part of the material itself and can not wear off. At present it is being used in many of the new apartment houses in place of hardwood on account of its greater cheapness, warmth and cleanliness.
Mrs. Brown Is pleasantly situated In an apartment in Lancaster, Pa. She claims that she has no time for fads or hobbies outside of her work, but her friends say that whenever there is any community need to be met, Hazel Brown is always called on to help. Lancaster is not a large city and until recently the schools were poorly financed and managed. A year ago several public-spirited men and women inaugurated a campaign to raise $1,000,000 as a school endowment. Mrs. Brown was greatly interested and volunteered to make a poster to advertise the movement. It bore the inscription:
"Better schools make better citizens. Your boy and girl will make the Lancaster of tomorrow. True Americans will vote “yes” for modern schools on June 20."
Five hundred of these posters were printed and placed in the stores and public places. The drive was largely oversubscribed.
Source: "Mrs. Hazel Dell Brown Designs Linoleum for Floors." The Indianapolis Star, June 17, 1923.
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