Courtney Thomas’ Red Feather Fan


The museum’s collection contains many fans including this red one made of ostrich feathers.  

red ostrich feather fan

Unlike most of the other fans, this one was not meant for everyday use. What we know of the owner Courtney Thomas (1868-1959) suggests how it might have been used.

In the 1870s, Courtney Thomas was living with her father in Missouri but mostly raised and tutored by a neighbor, Sarah Armstrong. Courtney attended the local Baird College for Young Ladies where Mrs. Baird recognized Courtney’s musical ability and helped develop her talent. Even after Courtney graduated in 1887 Mrs. Baird continued to help, raising money for Courtney to study in Paris.  After studying with noted opera composer Charles Gounod, Courtney debuted at the Paris’ Opera Comique in 1896 under the stage name of Mademoiselle Vera Courtney.  Comic opera combines speaking with the arias of opera.  Courtney was the primary coloratura soprano of that company for six seasons.  She then began traveling, appearing with five different companies and performing over thirty different roles.  In 1909, she returned to Missouri where she performed with the Metropolitan Opera Company in “Carmen.” The fan might have been used in one of her performances or was an accessory she carried at a fancy party that she likely attended.

She married Frenchman William Ungerer in 1919 but kept performing until the late 1920s. Later in life she lived in the Washington D.C. area.

In 1924, on a trip to Alaska, she met Isabella (Mrs. Curtis) Holt; Mrs. Holt also visited Courtney in Paris in 1928.  There, she helped Courtney (now using the name Vera Courtney Thomas) pack some gowns to be sent to Margaret Truman.  The red fan she gave to Mrs. Holt who later gave it to the Horner Museum along with many other items.

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