Only in Philadelphia

Posted by: Glyn Thompson

Written by Dr. Glyn Thompson

Philadelphia’s status as the birthplace of American avant-garde art has been obscured by the misattribution of a urinal, signed R. Mutt, to Marcel Duchamp – in 1935. For the urinal rejected by the Society of Independent Artists, at the Grand Central Palace in New York, on Monday April 9, 1917 had not been manufactured by, and so could not have been obtained from, the J. L. Mott Iron Works as Duchamp would claim in 1966, but by the Trenton Potteries Company Ltd, of Trenton, N.J. As the photograph of the urinal taken by Alfred Stieglitz, between the 13th and 23rd of April, proves, this was a Trenton Potteries flat-back lipped ‘Bedfordshire’ urinal – the most basic of models, Plate 3755-N, No. 1, in the TPCo Blue Book of Plumbing Catalogue ‘N’ of 1915, still current in 1917. (Fig. 1) And it was Duchamp himself who provided conclusive proof that he had not been responsible, informing his sister Suzanne, in Paris, in a letter of the 11th, that not he but a female friend had sent in the urinal. This Stieglitz independently confirmed in a letter to Georgia O’Keeffe of the 23rd.

The only female friend of Duchamp capable of conceiving and executing Mutt’s withering gesture – the only individual with whose practice Mutt’s gesture imbricated seamlessly – was Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven who, having printed the signature and date on the urinal was, at the time, in Philadelphia, from whence she sent it to Louise Norton in New York, at 110 West 88th Street, the address on the label attached to the urinal when it arrived at the Grand Central Palace. While Louise and Elsa were not members of the Society, and so had no right to submit anything – hence the rejection – their mutual friend Mina Loy was, and since she submitted only one work, Mina possessed a spare label.

Elsa would have found it simplicity itself to stroll into the premises of any Philadelphian master plumber and acquire the urinal cheaply, firstly, because there were literally dozens of Philadelphian plumbers with of German descent to whom she could speak in their native tongue, and perhaps, even, local German dialect. And secondly, as a comparison of the Stieglitz photograph with others taken of the same urinal by Henri-Pierre Roché in 1918, (Fig 2) and with the illustration in the manufacturer’s catalogue, proves, (Fig. 3) Mutt’s urinal had a fault which rendered it useless to a plumber.

According to industry practice, the plumber, who could not deal directly with the manufacturer, would have acquired the urinal from a local plumbing supply house, which in this case was the venerable Haines, Jones and Cadbury, still trading as Hajoca today. We know this because on that same April 11 two reviews of the exhibition, that had opened to the public the previous day, sans urinal, independently noted that a certain J. C. Mutt from Philadelphia had acquired the urinal from a well known firm in ‘The Quaker City,’ coincidentally a model name that Haines, Jones and Cadbury used for a variety of fixtures (Fig. 4.) ‘J’ and ‘C’ are, of course, the capital letters of the names Jones and Cadbury. Further, the crate in which the urinal had been transported would have had a waybill attached to it, revealing its place of origin, and Hajoca always placed on the fixtures they sold their own logo, not that of the manufacturer from whom the company sourced its vitreous ceramic sanitary ware. (Fig. 5) This was a cartouche containing the name of the company and the city, an image of a Quaker taken from the William Penn statue, and the brand name, HAJOCA. (Fig. 6) This was also conventionally attached to the side of the crate. (Fig.7)

And it had been Haines, Jones and Cadbury that had manufactured the Bennor Anti-Syphon Globe Trap known as ‘God” (Fig. 8) that Elsa could have picked up for virtually nothing at the same plumbers, since its condition, the same in 1917 as now, indicates that it was worn out, and possible thirty three years old, since the model was manufactured between 1884 and 1914. (Fig. 9) This item forms part of the Arensberg Collection gifted to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the 1950s.

The fact that Haines, Jones and Cadbury was the common source of both urinal and globe trap – not just any old plumbing trap, and unique to Philadelphia (Fig. 10)– drives the final of many nails into the coffin of the misattribution of Mutt’s urinal to Duchamp by confirming Elsa to have been authoress of both.

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