E.J. Perry, African-American Silhouette Cutter of America's Leisure Circuit
By Eric K. Washington
Although ancient Lenape Indians once called it the “land without shadows,” Coney Island would perfectly suit one artist who made shadows his stock in trade.
E.J. Perry was a king of keepsakes. Within the first decade of the 20th-century, thousands of men, women and children—from ordinary folk to eminent society1—gladly surrendered themselves to his colorful spiel and flash of scissors. Perry’s talent persuaded them to reduce their three-dimensional lives to flat silhouetted profiles. Before their eyes, he tailored their portraits from leaves of black gum-paper, which he matted to white cardboard billets as souvenirs.
Perry was renowned from such fashionable Florida hotels as the Royal Poinciana and The Breakers at Palm Beach, to the more generally popular New York amusement grounds of Luna Park and Dreamland at Coney Island. His winsome brand of shadow-play earned him concessions at both the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, and the 1907 World’s Fair in Jamestown, Virginia.
But although E.J. Perry’s artistic celebrity is a matter of record (albeit a scattered one), his personal life is an enigma.
At Forefront of New Silhouette Craze
E.J. Perry was born circa 1879 in Monroe, North Carolina, but a quarter of a century later was living in New York City, and working at one of its most famous pleasure grounds.
“The silhouettes and the artist are both black,” a Coney Island reporter observed in the spring of 1904. “He is surrounded by crowds all day. He will ‘cut you out’ an outline sketch of yourself for a quarter or for $1, according to your desires.”2
The public’s desire drew Perry far beyond the Coney Island leisure circuit.3 On October 8, 1904, he was at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, known informally as the St. Louis World’s Fair, where he’d been granted the right to make and sell silhouettes of individuals at the German Tyrolean [sic] Alps exhibit.
The arrangement rankled Bruno Frankel, who’d been granted a house to run three photographic booths in the ersatz Alpine village. Perry was only relegated to set up in the imitation Alpine streets. Nevertheless, Frankel witnessed the customary throngs defect from his booths to Perry’s stand and alleged “a great falling off in his business.” Forty days after Perry had set up, the disgruntled photographer claimed the infringement had cost him $2500 in losses and sued the German Tyrolean Alps Company for a breach of contract.4
Although Frankel’s lawsuit did not target Perry directly, the courts effectively backed up the silhouette artist. “No one but an expert can cut one out of paper,” the St. Louis Court of Appeals stated. The court denied the merits of Frankel’s complaint. It clarified that he “did not contract for a monopoly of all and every means known to science or art whereby pictures of persons may be made.” Moreover, the court added, “Scissors are not in the least similar to a camera… The art of cutting a silhouette out of a piece of black paper…did not in the least infringe upon the privileges granted plaintiff.”5 Frankel lost his case.
By 1905, silhouette making was already an old art. Advances in photography had overshadowed the quaint form of portraiture, yet pundits observed the novelty was “again fast becoming the craze of society.” One magazine writer cited the 26-year-old Perry as one of the country’s exceptionally few silhouette artists “clever enough to make it a paying profession.” On July 24, 1906, U.S. Speaker of the House Joseph “Uncle Joe” Cannon visited Coney Island, where he accepted from “E.S.[sic] Perry… a silhouette made of him by that artist.”6
Jamestown Exposition of 1907
Two years later, E.J. Perry was fascinating patrons at another World’s Fair. From April 26 to December 1, 1907, the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition commemorated the 300th anniversary of the nation’s first permanent English colony at Hampton Roads in Norfolk, Virginia.7 Perry was set up in the Negro Building.
The exposition’s Negro Building was the first federal commission awarded an African-American architect, William Sydney Pittman from the Tuskegee Institute.8 Although the stately $100,000 structure was erected entirely by black laborers, some African-American leaders criticized its premise. W.E.B. DuBois argued that it segregated blacks within the fairgrounds as much as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws did everywhere else in the state. But Booker T. Washingtonan—an exposition spokesman, who was also the architect’s father-in-law—praised the building as a testament to African-American achievement.
Irrespective of DuBois and Washington’s difference of opinion about the Negro Building, critics lambasted the fair as a whole. The New York Times called the Jamestown fair “the most colossal failure in the history of expositions.” By year’s end, critics blamed the fair’s bad management and transportation problems for two and a half million dollars of debt, of which the U.S. Government was owed $900,000.
Conversely, the handsome Negro Building garnered praise as the Jamestown fair’s singular triumph. It was the only venture said to have recorded a profit, a sum of $75,731.87. E.J. Perry held court within its halls, captivating patrons as “a lightning silhouette artist [who] makes a life-like shadowgraph of your features while you wait.” We may wonder if President Theodore Roosevelt (who opened the exposition), writer Mark Twain, industrialist Henry H. Rogers and other notable fair visitors were also Perry’s artistic subjects.
A month after the Jamestown Exposition closed, Perry appeared at a more modest fair closer to home. On January 27, 1908, the women’s committees of several African-American churches threw their annual benefit fair for the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. The five-day-long festivities at the borough’s Jefferson Hall, Court Square, included about eighteen booths from various congregations. St. Augustine’s booth featured “E.J. Perry, Silhouette Artist.”9
Our silhouettist’s talents may also have extended to music. In December 1908, the Moving Picture World promoted a “Piano Orchestra Attachment of four pieces, capable of giving the effect of an eight piece orchestra.” The vendor of the one-man band apparatus, the periodical noted, was “E.J. Perry, Sole Agent 43 West 66th Street.10 The address, a five-story building predominated by black residents for at least fifteen years, was as likely a place as any for Perry to live.11
Educator Booker T. Washington—who very probably had met Perry at the Jamestown Exposition—knew the address quite well. In 1909, he wrote about the purchase almost a decade earlier12 by the New York African Society for Mutual Relief—the first African-American association to incorporate in 1810—of “a five-story flat at No. 43 West Sixty-Sixth Street… which the society still owns.”13 In the late 1920s, Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston sublet her apartment in the same building to her literary colleague Dorothy West. The building was supplanted by the ABC-TV studios in the mid-1960s.
Dance Judge and Community Activist
By June 1914, the African-influenced Tango had danced across the Atlantic from Argentina and Uruguay to European capitals, then coursed back across to New York. Above the city’s new railroad tracks, the Grand Central Palace exhibition hall hosted a swank Tango Ball for black patrons with a $500 dance contest prize. E.J. Perry was among the affair’s celebrity judges.14
Five months later, Perry joined other authorized Harlem volunteers “to assist in the collection of subscriptions for the Y.W. and Y.M.C.A. Building Fund.”15 The Young Women’s and Young Men’s Christian Associations of New York had launched a $4,000,000 building campaign the previous year. The fund promised to provide new buildings “for the colored branches of the two associations,” which were still racially segregated on the national level, at an allotment of $100,000 for the Colored Women’s Branch and $150,000 for the Colored Men’s Branch.16
An official letter of the Young Men’s Christian Association written a few years later indicates Perry, might then have been living at the men’s facility and working for The Crisis, the magazine of the NA.A.C.P. “Mr. E.J. Perry, an agent of the Crisis lives in our building at 252 West 53d Street,” Thomas E. Taylor, the Y.M.C.A.’s executive secretary wrote on May 29, 1918, referring to the address of the association’s Colored Men’s Branch.17
Coney Island of the Mind
E.J. Perry shuttled regularly between Manhattan and Brooklyn. From at least 1911 to 1915, he appeared to maintain a working partnership with a kindred spirit. “Ed. J. Perry and Prof. Joe Albrizzio are doing wondrous work and a steadily increasing business at their silhouette stand in Luna,” The Billboard reported in August 1912. “They are real artists in their line.”18 In late June of 1915 Billboard reported “E.J. Perry, the one and only silhouette man, is back on the job” at his usual Coney Island haunt, where he was said to be waiting for his “old-time partner, Alvizo” [sic] to come back from Puerto Rico for the park’s busy season.19 Another unclearly dated Billboard clipping observed the artist’s dexterity at Coney Island, remarking that “Perry, the silhouette cutter, is certainly doing business in Luna, as he is there with a nice spiel and he cuts your picture with the scissors in a minute.”20
In May 1917, Billboard extolled the dazzling diversions of Coney Island’s Luna Park and observed “E.J. Perry, America’s most famous silhouette cutter, and Bernstone, the well-known sketch artist, have become well established with the park patrons.” A few pages further, an ad promoted the two artists immediately below another for the fourth season of The Whip, “The most popular and best patronized pleasure ride in this country.” The repeated adulatory phrase for Perry finished with the words, “still trimming ‘em.”21
From Scissors to Cutlery
The leisure circuit called for alternate work during the off-seasons. Perry may have been as deft with cutlery as with a scissors. By February of 1919, “E.J. Perry, the famous silhouette cutter, and more recently a caterer” was miles away from Coney Island, working at the Dolphin Hotel at 695 Lenox Avenue in Harlem.22
E.J. Perry was employed at the Dolphin Hotel during one of the most auspicious moments in Harlem’s history. It’s not known if he was working on the particular Monday, February 17, 1919, that 3,000 African-American soldiers of the 369th Infantry—the Harlem “Hell Fighters”—paraded past at the southwest corner of Lenox Avenue and 145th Street.23 But it was just outside the Dolphin’s door.
High energy was the norm inside the Dolphin, which was known for dancing and lively music. The place had been quite popular for about four or five years. Variety had cited it in 1915 as one of Harlem’s preferred resorts for a good time:
The dancing privilege having been revoked at McAvoy’s on 145th street and Lenox avenue [the northwest corner], that particular section of upper Harlem that frequents the cabarets are now patronizing the Dolphin, just across the street, where a bill of professional entertainers hold forth.24
But this spectacle outside the Dolphin on February 17, 1919, was exceptional. Present or absent, Perry and the usual clientele could not have been unaware or unimpressed. The Dolphin’s patronage was racially mixed by this time; about 90-percent black, according to Perry. Harlem’s burgeoning African-American population had fueled the establishment’s black majority. In addition to the dancing, the immediacy of all variety of athletics on the Lenox Oval just outside the Dolphin’s backdoor may have also contributed to place’s 10-percent non-black clientele.
Some cite the extraordinary pageant outside the Dolphin as heralding the birth of the Harlem Renaissance. If such a birth date is subjective, the event’s singularly galvanizing effect on bystanders is easy to imagine. Just days later, E.J. Perry pointed out the absence of “the Race” behind the Dolphin’s bar. He took the white owner to task for giving the black customers a raw deal, and quit the hotel’s kitchen.25
Perry’s timing might have been prescient. In only a few months, the entire block where the Dolphin stood was sold at auction. The undeveloped lots comprising the Lenox Oval were built up, and the renovated Dolphin reopened the next year as the Hotel Olga, which instantly became the swankest hotel for black travelers in Harlem.
Running with Scissors
After quitting the Dolphin Hotel, E.J. Perry resumed the artist’s life at Coney Island. His precisely-scissored portraits flowed like black ghosts from Coney Island for many more years. In March 1925 “a black man named Perry” had cut out a portrait of H.P. Lovecraft, according to a biographer of the famous writer. Lovecraft was said to return a few months later for Perry to cut out a portrait of his wife.26
Perry’s silhouette of Lovecraft has become one of the most iconic portraits of the writer, whose racism and anti-Semitism appears to be as topical as his talent. But by some irony,, a bronze rendering of Perry’s silhouette ornaments a Lovecraft Memorial Plaque—unveiled in 1990 for the centennial of the author’s birth—on College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island.
The date of E.J. Perry’s own death is still a question. But this writer’s friend recently extracted an old portrait of her grandfather that had been pressed in a book for ages. A lamentable water-stain haunts the card’s lower right hand corner, but the clear central portrait is unblemished. The card portrays composer J. Rosamond Johnson, the musical lion. In the left-hand corner beneath the image is hand-signed, “Silhouetted by Perry 1934.” Beyond that date, the artist’s life remains in the shadows.
1. The Voice of the Negro, Thompson, W.O., “A Negro Silhouette Artist,” May 1905, p. 343-345. Thompson notes “Eminent financiers, actors, musicians, senators and diplomats” among Perry’s customers.
2. New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser, “Silhouettes Again,” May 30, 1904, p. 9.
3. Neary, Janet Eileen, “Fugitive Testimony: Race, Representation and the Slave Narrative Form,” Dissertation-University of California, Irvine; footnote: “The Voice of the Negro published a short feature on Mr. E. J. Perry, a silhouettist who traveled the leisure circuit offering likenesses as his main economic support. The two brief sentences in the beginning of the 1906 article link the silhouettist and his art through their blackness: ‘Down at Coney Island there is a silhouette artist. The silhouettes and the artist are both black’.” (Thompson 343); p. 126.
6. The Sun [New York], “Cannon Shoots the Chutes,” July 25, 1906, p. 2.
7. New York Age, “Page of History Hampton Roads,” December 5, 1907, p. 2.
8. Wilson, Dreck Spurlock, African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945, (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis) 2004, p. 319-321.
9. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Howard Orphan Asylum, Annual Fair Opened…,” January 28, 1908, p. 6.
10. The Moving Picture World, “New Musical Wonder,” July-December 1908, p. 498; advertisement p. 502.
11. New York Times, “Shot His Sweetheart for Refusing to Marry,” September 20, 1893, p. 8.
12. New York Press, “Recorded Transfers,” November 12, 1901, p. 8.
13. The Outlook, “The Free Negro in Slavery Days,” September 18, 1909, p. 109.
14. New York Age, “Tango Ball and Dancing Contest,” June 4, 1914.
15. New York Age, “News of Greater New York,” November 26, 1914, [p. unclear].
16. New York Evening Post, “For Colored Y.W. and Y.M.C.A.,” November 1, 1913, p. 9
17. Thomas E. Taylor to Major W.H. Loving, Colored Men’s Branch Young Men’s Christian Association, ALS May 29, 1918.
18. The Billboard, “Coney Island Patter,” August 3, 1912, p. 15.
19. The Billboard, “ Coney Island Chatter – New York, June 24,” July 15, 1915, p. 86; “Alvizo” may refer a “silhouette artist…Joe Albrizo” that Billboard had reported working in Luna Park four years prior, August 12, 1911.
20. The Billboard, “ Coney Island Chatter,” [clipping posted on internet] no date, “continued from page 53.”]
21. The Billboard, “Luna, Coney Island-A Dream Developed Into a National Amusement Exposition,” July 28, 1917, p. 52; and “Perry, America’s most famous silhouette cutter,” advertisement July 28, 1917, p. 55.
22. Chicago Defender, “Caterer Perry Leaves the Dolphin,” February 22, 1919, p. 9.
23. New York Tribune, “Dinner for Old 15th to Follow Parade Monday,” February 15, 1919, p. 18.
24. Variety, “Cabarets,” [issue unclear, probably 1915], p. 15.
25. Chicago Defender, “Caterer Perry Leaves the Dolphin,” February 22, 1919, p. 9.
26. Joshi, S.T., A Dreamer and a Visionary: H.P. Lovecraft, (Liverpool University Press, 2001), p. 219. See Wikipedia for discussion of Lovecraft’s views on race and photograph of E.J. Perry’s silhouette on memorial tablet.
Eric K. Washington is a local historian, writer and photographer. He is the author of the book, Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem. His interpretive signage for West Harlem Piers Park, located in that historic neighborhood, earned him the 2010 MASterworks Award. His research and walking tours have contributed exponentially to the number of acknowledged notables buried in upper Manhattan’s Trinity Church Cemetery. As a tour guide, Washington has been highlighted at length in Phillip Lopate’s “Waterfront,” and Jonathan R. Wynn’s “The Tour Guide.” Washington was the arbiter, coordinator and host of the two pilot HARLEM Y TALKS speaker programs in the Harlem YMCA’s historic Little Theatre in December 2013.