Mary Hallock Greenewalt (1871 – 1950) was an artist/inventor who was active during the first half of the 20th century. After beginning her career as a concert pianist, she became interested in the performance of light and color in addition to music. She went on to design and perform custom electric visual instruments that displayed colored light (i.e. color organs, though she did not use that term.)
While Hallock Greenewalt is known among scholars and enthusiasts of color organs and abstract cinema in general, her work doesn’t have as much historical visibility as that of some of her contemporaries, like Thomas Wilfred. It’s impossible to ignore gender as a likely factor; Hallock Greenewalt was one of the few women of her era working in either abstract cinema or lighting engineering. A partially resultant and perpetuating factor may be the limited availability of research materials on Hallock Greenewalt and her work.
Hallock Greenewalt, who was born in Beirut but spent most of her life in the Philadelphia area, left her papers to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The archive still resides there, in thirty-five boxes meticulously organized and indexed by the HSP. The archive contains Hallock Greenewalt’s writings, blueprints, drawings, patent applications, and texts of lectures, as well as jotted notes, newspaper clippings, correspondence with companies, scrapbooks, and other personal photos and documents. The quantity and detail of the thousands of items in the archive document the depth of Hallock Greenewalt’s work and the extent of her contemporary recognition in Philadelphia and beyond — as well as her seemingly obsessive commitment to protecting her intellectual property and obtaining recognition as the originator of various artistic and technical innovations. Historical Society of Pennsylvania posts a number of these items online in their Digital Library. But the large number of items in the archive clearly makes it impractical for HSP to post many of them. Since one must visit the HSP in Philadelphia to view the bulk of the materials, their availability to researchers globally is limited.
The Mary Hallock Greenewalt Visibility Project is a side project by Amy Alexander that seeks to increase Hallock Greenewalt’s historical visibility by increasing the number of publicly available research materials on Hallock Greenewalt that are available online. Currently, Alexander makes periodic visits to the HSP archive, where she photographs selected materials and uploads them to an online site. The images included in the Visibility Project are currently posted to Flickr and tagged with keywords. This is obviously not an ideal solution for databasing research materials — but Flickr is free of charge and feasible to work with given the time constraints of an informal side project.
The images are presented for research purposes only and include a label indicating they may not be reproduced commercially, as required by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Since the images cover only a small fraction of the materials in the archive, serious researchers are encouraged to visit the archive at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
In addition to the online postings from the HSP archives, Amy Alexander also operates a
where she posts discussions of the HSP materials, as well as of other texts and documents by and about Hallock Greenewalt.
* Amy Alexander is based in San Diego but occasionally visits Philadelphia.