Biographical Sketch of Helena Smith Dayton

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of HELENA SMITH DAYTON, 1879-1960

By Mindy Johnson - author, historian, professor of film/animation history – California Institute of the Arts & College of the Canyons, Los Angeles, CA.

Earliest known female animator and activist in the Suffrage Movement

Born in Burke County on the northern border between New York and Canada, Helena Smith was the only child born to Anne and Ira Smith. Upon the unexpected passing of her father while still a girl, Helena and her mother moved to Hampden, Massachusetts to live with extended family. A gifted writer, upon graduation Helena began writing for the leading newspaper in Hartford, CT. As one of the earliest women writers for the Hartford Courant, Helena established a strong following of readers with her whimsical fictions and serial stories. Helena soon met and married another young journalist in Hartford, Fred Erving Dayton.

Helena and Fred set up their home in New York City where their careers began to thrive. Fred advanced within corporate circles, while Helena's success continued with her writing. Her stories were illustrated by leading artists and suffragists Angie Breakspear and Ethel Plummer. Around 1914 Helena began sculpting whimsical characters based on various street scenes and clever caricatures of her socialite friends. Soon, she garnered nationwide fame for her noted "Mud People."

The Daytons moved within leading social and artistic circles. Helena's Sunday Salons were a regular society event and her sculptures were featured in numerous exhibitions and galleries alongside the day's leading fine artists. One of the earliest women to break the all-male ranks of the Illustrators Society in 1915, Helena also applied her talents to a number of causes including the Suffrage movement. Throughout 1915, Helena's frequent Suffrage Sculpture exhibitions were crowd-pleasing attractions to raise funds, awareness and votes for the Empire State Suffrage cause.

By late summer of 1915, noted star of stage and screen May Irwin mobilized 5,000+ volunteers for "The Women Who Watch and Wait" army, to participate in the Women's Suffrage Parade planned for October 23rd, 1915. Helena chaired the Publicity Committee for this landmark march under the leadership of Mrs. Norman Whitehouse. A week before the event, scores of prominent ladies and their supportive husbands lined Helena's studio for a dress rehearsal of the Empire State Campaign Committee's patriotic outdoor pageant spectacle - The Banner Suffrage Parade for Victory.

Helena and her publicity teams ensured strong participation through ample news coverage, canvassing and coalition communication throughout suffrage networks. The regional response was overwhelming; on Saturday, October 23, 1915, Inez Mulholland and other key leaders of the suffrage cause, assembled in the largest demonstration ever held in the history of women's fight for equal representation! This historic march built momentum towards the New York vote, but ultimately, despite this monumental assemblage, weeks later the referendum failed by more than 80,000 votes. It would take two more years before the suffragists of New York achieved the right to vote in 1917, but the parade proved women suffrage was no longer a joke.

From this landmark event, Helena met filmmakers J. Charles Davis and H. D. Ashton. Throughout much of the following winter and spring of 1916, Helena trained with Davis in the technical aspects of filmmaking and developed mechanical techniques of the ‘stop motion' process to make her ‘Clay Cartoons.' At the forefront of stop-motion animation, Helena made several early clay animated films, including an epic two-reel clay cartoon of ‘Romeo & Juliet' featuring over 30 articulated characters in one final scene. Her films received international distribution and wide acclaim, yet with the US involvement in WWI, Helena abandoned her filmmaking and joined the Red Cross, as Secretary for the National War Work Council of the YMCA and managed the main canteen in Paris.

Following WWI, Helena continued writing, contributed to several shows on Broadway, collaborated on two books and later explored Fine Art with paintings shown in various leading galleries throughout New York and Connecticut. Fred Dayton passed in 1954, and Helena remained artistically active until her death on February 22, 1960.

 

Helena Smith Dayton, New York Tribune, February 28, 1915.

Sources:

"Helena S. Dayton Has Achieved Fame" Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, March 3, 1915

"Suffrage Picture in Plaster" The Evening Post (New York), June 28, 1915

"Suffrage Events Today" The Sun(New York), June 29, 1915

"Cigar for Suffrage Guess" New York Times (New York), June 29, 1915

"May Irwin to Lead Suffrage Army" The Day Book (New York), October 8, 1915

"'Suffs' Discover Brand New Hero for Big Parade" New York The Evening World (New York), October 16, 1915

"'Suffs' Hubbies See Their Wives Rehearse Parade" Evening World (New York), October 19, 1915

"Woman Suffrage Banner Parade" The Broad Ax (Chicago), November 20, 1915.

"Comedies in Clay" Scientific American, December 16, 1916. (w/ Photos)

"Woman's Place, If You Insist..." New York Tribune, December 17, 1916 (w/ Photo)

"Prominent Sculptor in Film" Moving Picture World, November 24, 1917 (w/ Photos)

"Imperator In With Soldier Athletes - New York Women Aboard" The Sun (New York), August 11, 1919

"Helena S. Dayton Back From France" Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, August 11, 1919.

"Theatrical Notes" The New York Times, August 25, 1931

"Mrs. Helena Dayton (obituary)" The New York Times, February 23, 1960

Ink & Paint – The Women of Walt Disney's Animation (Disney Editions), by Mindy Johnson, pp. 23.

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