In the Driver’s Seat

A photo exhibit documents a century of women on the sea
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A young woman leans into life as she steers her Century Rascal past the photographer in this image from the Mystic Seaport exhibit On Land and On Sea: A Century of Women in the Rosenfeld Collection. The caption states, “Although a model, this young woman seems determined to stay on course.” She is one among countless women who discovered the hobby of boating—once thought of as the province of men—when Morris Rosenfeld & Sons became famous for their images of 20th-century yachting. The 70 photographs in this exhibit capture the various ways in which women took to the water at that time.

The Rosenfeld Collection is built on the inventory of Morris Rosenfeld & Sons photography business, which was located in New York City from 1910 until the late 1970s. The firm grew as Morris’ sons David, Stanley, and William joined the business. They did commercial work for a variety of corporate clients, but they became famous as yachting photographers.

In this collection, there are images of women as models, showing off boats and outboard engines, as well as high-society sailors such as Phyllis Sopwith and Gertrude Vanderbilt at the wheels of their husbands’ J-Class yachts. There also are images of women caulking hulls, painting names on transoms and drying sails. Perhaps the most engaging images are of young women and kids racing in sailboats, or driving dinghies and prams with 2-hp outboards. They’re not just along for the ride; they’re at the helm.

The photos are taken from the book On Land and On Sea: A Century of Women in the Rosenfeld Collection by Margaret L. Andersen Rosenfeld, who is Stanley Rosenfeld’s daughter-in-law and a sociology professor. Her essays accompany the photos and give social and historical context to each image. 

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue.