Skip to main content

Foster Brothers records, 1875-1973, bulk, 1893-1942

Foster Brothers records, 1875-1973, bulk, 1893-1942

Foster Brothers (Boston, Mass.)

Collection Information

Size: 12.5 linear ft.

Summary: The records of the Boston picture frame company Foster Brothers measure 12.5 linear feet and date from 1875 to 1973 with the bulk of the material falling between 1893 and 1942. Correspondence, stock records, financial records, writings, miscellaneous business records, printed material, scrapbooks, and photographs document the history of the picture frame company that operated a factory, retail store, and wholesale and mail order businesses between 1893 and 1942. A small number of family papers are included, including items from periods when Foster Brothers was not in business. Scattered throughout the collection are small slips of papers with explanatory notes and background information supplied by the donor, Helen Foster Osborne.

Correspondence mostly concerns routine business with suppliers, distributors, and wholesale and retail customers and is relatively sparse for 1897-1941. Foster Brothers' last year in business, 1942, is well documented and includes letters from S. W. Osborne (Margaret Foster's husband) written while traveling to meet with wholesale clients in cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest.

Stock records include stock cards, inventory records and price lists. Also found are a large number of paper stencils that were used to transfer carving designs to frames, and extensive drawings of frames and moldings including finished, colored drawings by master craftsman C. F. Richter.

Financial records consist mainly of routine accounting records, but also include annual financial reports, orders, and sales records. Among the writings and lists are an unsigned article concerning Foster Brothers' craftsmen and their early use of machinery. Notes include material for a history of mirrors by Helen J. Foster, and "The Art of Framing" by John R. Foster.

The majority of printed material relates to advertising and consists of catalogs and brochures about frames, mirrors, and published reproductions. Eight volumes of scrapbooks also contain printed material consisting of advertising, brochures and catalogs, form letters, and reproductions of miniatures and silhouettes published by Foster Brothers.

Family papers consist of a small number of personal papers of the founders, John Roy and Stephen Bartlett Foster, and also of Helen Foster Osborne (John's daughter). They include Foster Oborne's 1973 reminiscence of having her portrait painted by William Paxton in 1923, John R. Foster's personal account book, and Foster Osborne's correspondence with Ernest Donnelley concerning the sale of printing plates and dies from the miniature reproduction business.

Photographs are of founders John Roy and Stephen Bartlett Foster, some of their employees, and early pictures of the first Foster Brothers frame factory on Cambridge Street.

Biographical/Historical Note

Established by Stephen Bartlett Foster (1856-1932) and John Roy Foster (1863-1931), Foster Brothers opened in 1893 at 164 Boylston Street, Boston. Makers of picture frames, mirrors, etc. Also sold prints and reproductions.


Donated 1973-1976 by Helen Foster Osborne.


Funding for the processing of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

A Finding Aid to the Foster Brothers Records, 1875-1973, (bulk 1893-1942), in the Archives of American Art
Biographical/Historical note
Established by Stephen Bartlett Foster (1856-1932) and John Roy Foster (1863-1931), Foster Brothers opened in 1893 at 164 Boylston Street, Boston. By 1896, Foster Brothers had moved to 3 Park Square, just around the corner from its first location. Eventually, the business relocated to 4 Park Square, where it stayed for the remainder of its existence. The original Foster Brothers factory was housed in the old Parkman's Market building on Cambridge Street in Boston. In 1918, the Fosters built a new factory in Arlington, the suburb in which the brothers lived.
Foster Brothers was known for high quality frames that featured expert carving and gilding by fine craftsmen, consistent with the esthetic and philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement of the time. Their frames that incorporated elements of early Dutch frames especially appealed to Boston School artists such as Edmund Tarbell and William MacGregor Paxton. Custom orders were welcomed from museums, galleries, collectors, and artists. In the 1890s, Foster Brothers operated a small gallery that featured watercolors and sketches by local artists; sporadic exhibitions continued throughout the 1930s. Early business cards and advertisements indicate that the company sold "wedding presents, etchings, engravings, water colors and picture frames." Among its best selling merchandise were mirrors in a wide variety of styles. As early as 1898, Foster Brothers began to copyright and publish reproductions of paintings, drawings, silhouettes, and miniatures. These were framed in sets and sold by Foster Brothers in its retail shop and by mail order; in addition, they were distributed through department stores, furniture stores, gift shops, and interior decorators.
John Roy Foster was in charge of promotion and merchandising, designing the retail line, and managing the company's wholesale and mail order businesses. Stephen Bartlett Foster managed the factory and oversaw all aspects of the manufacturing. Helen J. Foster, John's daughter, studied art at Smith College and by the late 1920s was a successful manager and saleswoman in the retail store. The Depression brought a sharp decline in sales. After the deaths of John and Stephen Foster, Helen and her husband, Shattuck Osborne, owned and managed Foster Brothers for another decade. Although the business closed in 1942, Foster Brothers frames continue to command high prices and are highly prized and sought after today.
The collection is arranged as 9 series:
Series 1: Correspondence, 1897-1942 (Box 1; 1.0 linear feet)
Series 2: Stock Records, 1905-1942 (Boxes 2-6, 11, OVs 23-24, BVs 13-15; 6.2 linear feet)
Series 3: Financial Records, 1892-1959 (Boxes 7-9; BVs 16-19; 3.3 linear feet)
Series 4: Writings and Lists, 1920s-circa 1942 (Box 9; 0.25 linear feet)
Series 5: Miscellaneous Business Records, 1898-1939 (Box 10; 7 folders)
Series 6: Printed Material, 1893-1947 (Box 10, OV 25; 0.25 linear feet)
Series 7: Scrapbooks, 1906-1942 (Boxes 10, 12, BVs 20-22; 1.3 linear feet)
Series 8: Family Papers, 1875-1973 (Box 10; 6 folders
Series 9: Photographs, circa 1880s-1918 (Box 10; 5 folders)
Donated 1973-1976 by Helen Foster Osborne.
Processing Information note
The entire collection was processed to an intermediate level by Catherine S. Gaines in 2007 with funding provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Restrictions on Access

Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center. Contact Reference Services for more information.

How to Cite This Collection

Foster Brothers records, 1875-1973, bulk, 1893-1942. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

  • No downloads available