At a time when women had little voice and less agency in public affairs, the Nautilus Club was established on 15 February 1907 by Hannah B. Holway (1860-1934) in the cause of civic betterment, social advancement, and personal improvement. According to a history of the club written in 1938 by its first vice president, Hilda Winslow Patrick (1893-1985), the name was taken from a similar club that Holway had visited in Topeka, which chose the chambered nautilus because it “conveyed the idea of constant growth from a small beginning.”¹ (There is also a club tradition that the name was inspired by Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem “The Chambered Nautilus.”)
In its earliest years, the club met in members’ homes. It had its quarters downtown from around 1914 until a disastrous fire in 1927, after which it moved to rooms above Dr. Curley’s Garage at 225 Commercial Street. Clio Rachel (Hull) Curley (1879-1939), the landlord’s wife, was active in the Nautilus Club.
The 1938 Sanborn insurance map (Plate 5) clearly identifies the “Nautilus Club” at 161 Commercial Street. I’ve added the “Grozier House” and “Grozier Park” labels to give a sense of context. This comes from the Town’s Sanborn Maps collection.
This (not-too-successful) composite of 161 Commercial Street, by the author, joins a half-tone photo and a high-contrast photocopy. Both images were posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection Facebook page, 1 January 2017 (half-tone photo) and 6 December 2016 (high-contrast photocopy).
The Nautilus clubhouse is at the far left in this September 1952 photograph taken by Althea Boxell. The building with the portico is 156 Commercial Street, to the right of which is 158 Commercial. It comes from the Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell (Book 2, Page 65) in the Dowd Collection of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 700.
During the presidency of Helen S. Allen (1881-1964), which ran from 1934 to 1936, the club moved to this building, on the western edge of Grozier Park. This tax lot, paralleling the Fifth Town Landing, was not included in the original park assemblage by Edwin Atkins Grozier (1859-1924). It was owned by Charles H. Nickerson, and Grozier did not acquire it until 1917. That may explain why Grozier let the main house and the boat house remain, as he had already completed the park — and protected the view of the harbor from his veranda at 160 Commercial Street. Before the Nautilus Club moved in, this building had briefly served as the West End branch of the New York Store downtown, at 308-310 Commercial Street. It closed in 1931.
The Nautilus Club was in its prime during the roughly 20 years it was quartered at 161 Commercial Street.
The club’s colors — shell pink and silver — were shown on this program cover, in the collection of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum.
Advertisement in The Provincetown Advocate, 11 August 1938. Retrieved from Provincetown Online: The Advocate Live! by the Provincetown Public Library.
Members heard from such speakers as the sculptor William F. Boogar Jr., who loosely envisioned the National Endowment for the Arts 28 years before it was created; the artist Donald Witherstine, who urged club members in 1938 to help preserve and protect the old charm and natural beauty of Provincetown; and the journalist Mary Heaton Vorse, who spoke of the great need of American aid to the Allies in Europe battling Adolf Hitler’s Germany, a year before the United States entered World War II.
As the country struggled out of the Great Depression, the club began sponsoring the annual Community Flower Show in Town Hall. The first was in August 1936. Residents were invited to participate in the categories of Flower Arrangement, Specimens, Miniatures, Shadow Boxes, Wild Flowers, Tables, Children, and Commercial Exhibit. “The Town Hall has been transformed into a large garden,” The Advocate reported.²
Not surprisingly, the first prize in the Tables division went to the artist Peter Hunt “for his peasant table tastefully arranged with flowers balancing the dishes in arrangement and color.” The Shadow Boxes category drew some of Provincetown’s most prominent artists: Blanche Lazzell won second prize, while Henry Hensche and Donald Witherstine earned honorable mention. But it was the club’s own Conservation Committee that produced the real show-stopper: “a wild woodland scene set up on the stage and arranged to blend with the curtain.” The tableau was designed by Henry Helmer, superintendent of the Province Lands.³ (Steps leading up to the superintendent’s house can still be glimpsed at Beech Forest, though the house is long gone.)
Emily Hiebert appeared in top hat and tails for her role as a Walter Winchell-like narrator at the club’s 1937 celebration of its 30th anniversary. The other members were identified (in the unfortunate style of the day) as, from left: Mrs. Frank Freeland, Mrs. William Gilman, Mrs. Eugene Watson, Hiebert, Mrs. Charles Hannum, Mrs. Earl McFee, Mrs. William H. Healey, and Mrs. Anna Young. From the first scrapbook of the Nautilus Club, in the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 5332.
Emily Hiebert (1894-1985), whose husband was the town doctor, decked herself in top hat and tails for the club’s 30th anniversary celebration, held here in 1937. Imitating the radio commentator Walter Winchell, she recalled “every aid the club gave to the advancement of Provincetown for three decades.” These included the installation of a water fountain and horse watering trough downtown, the cleaning of streets (before the town took charge), and the establishment of a visiting nurses association.⁹
Among the club members’ most serious causes was the plight of children caught up in the Spanish Civil War — behind both the Nationalist and Republican lines. A week-long show at the clubhouse in August 1938 offered 80 children’s drawings for sale from $1 to $10 (about $18 to $180 in 2020 dollars), to benefit the American Friends Service Committee’s relief work in Spain. While some drawings were pastoral and peaceful, others “show the impact of war on the young artists and present children’s versions of cities being bombed, aeroplanes fighting, ambulances collecting the wounded, and ships sinking.”⁸
During the great local culture war of 1939, when Town Meeting was poised to ban the wearing of a “bathing suit, shorts, halter, or immodest dress” in public, the Nautilus Club joined the considerable opposition to such municipal prudery.
“The pure in mind are not obliged to see evil in the human body,” Helen Jones, the club president, said. Sensibly enough.¹⁰
Helen Jones, at far right, was the president of the club in 1939, when the Town considered banning bathing suits, suits, and halter tops on the streets. “The pure in mind are not obliged to see evil in the human body,” she said, in opposing the measure. Around the table, from right to left, are Hilda Winslow Patrick, Dorothea Murchison, and Mrs. John H. Kimball, director of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Clipping courtesy of the Rev. Alison Hyder, president of the club from 2008 to 2009.
After the death of one the club’s most prominent members, the playwright Susan Glaspell (1876-1948), the club began sponsoring an annual essay contest named in her honor. Students from the second through seventh grades were invited to write on the subject of kindness to animals, reflecting that “the prevention of cruelty to animals and encouraging a kindly interest in them” were important concerns to Glaspell. The contest earned the praise of the American Humane Society.⁴ The program was run by Mildred Greensfelder (1904-1999), after whom the playground at 211½ Bradford Street is named.
Women artists were brought to the forefront of public consciousness in November 1953, when the club enlisted local businesses to display artworks in their front windows. With their help, Mary “Molly” (Silva) Tarvers (1906-1997) created an outdoor art gallery from the clubhouse to Land’s End Marine Supply. A 15-minute walk took the stroller past paintings by Mary Cecil Allen, Ada Gilmore, Dorothy Lake Gregory, Mary Hackett, Blanche Lazzell, Grace Pfeiffer, Hope Voorhees Pfeiffer, Mab Pfeiffer, and Ada Rayner.⁵
In 1954, the organization moved from 161 Commercial Street to a club room at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, 236 Commercial Street. There was a long-established connection between the club and the church, to which Holway belonged.
“My mother, Joan, was a proud member of this prominent ladies’ civic/social-oriented organization,” Christopher Snow said in 2020, “and I can fondly remember her dutifully baking into the night for their annual summer fund-raising bake sale in held on the front lawn grounds of the Universalist church, where these days drag bingo is played.”⁶
Remarkably, the Nautilus Club made it to the century mark, but not much farther. “It had mostly lost its purpose of fundraising, good works, and self-education,” said the Rev. Alison Hyder, the former minister of the U.U. church and, from 2008 to 2009, the last president of the club. “The real kicker was the increasing amount of snowbirds that made programming a meeting from January to March frustrating.”⁷
Its old clubhouse at No. 161 was demolished before the late 1960s, when the Boatslip Waterfront Hotel & Beach Club was constructed on this site and that of Grozier Park.
Left: Hilda Winslow Patrick wrote a history of the Nautilus Club in 1938, and was its president from 1940 to 1942. Uncredited clipping from the club’s first scrapbook. Right: The playwright Susan Glaspell was a club member. A memorial essay writing contest on the subject of kindness to animals was begun by the club in 1949. Photo by John Gregory. From the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 5332.
¶ Last updated on 13 May 2020.
161 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Also at 161 Commercial Street:
• Grozier Park.
• Boatslip Waterfront Hotel & Beach Club.
Thumbnail image: Nautilus Club program, 1940-1941, from the collection of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum.
For further research online:
• Helen S. Allen (1881-1964)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 54266123.
• Hannah B. Holway (1860-1934)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 119392485.
¹ “Hannah Holway Founded Nautilus Club Here After Visit With Kansas Group,” by Hilda Winslow Patrick, The Provincetown Advocate, 26 May 1938; “Nautilus Club of Topeka, Kansas,” Social Networks and Archival Context.
² “Community Flower Show Opens Friday,” The Provincetown Advocate, 13 August 1936.
³ “First Flower Show Praised by Judges,” The Provincetown Advocate, 20 August 1936.
⁴ “Contest to Award Prizes for Essays,” The Provincetown Advocate, 24 February 1949.
⁵ “Nautilus Club Sponsors Exhibit of Women Artists During Art Week,” The Provincetown Advocate, 5 November 1953.
⁶ My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection (Facebook), by Salvador R. Vasques III, 10 May 2020.
⁷ Correspondence with the author, 10 May 2020.
⁸ “Quakers Assist Spain’s Children; Will Exhibit Art Work at Nautilus Club,” The Provincetown Advocate, 11 August 1938, Page 6.
⁹ “Provincetown Nautilus Club Members Conduct Thirtieth Birthday Party,” 16 February 1937 (otherwise uncredited), from the first scrapbook of the Nautilus Club, in the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 5332.
¹⁰ “Crisis on the Cape,” The Baltimore Evening Sun, 6 March 1939, Page 15.