P.W. Costello: A Master Penman and the Golden Age of Theater

By Kimberly Cole


Like the train tracks that threaded Pennsylvania in the late 1800s, two stories run parallel. One is the story of what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Theater in the United States (1880-1920) and one is the story of a Master Penman, Patrick William Costello. It is the story of how those tracks converged in Scranton, Penn. to produce a body of work: Costello’s magnificent drawings of the leading actors and actresses of that Golden Age, signed by the performers, capturing an era that is almost impossible to imagine in this day of paparazzi, Internet and global celebrity.

P.W. Costello

Patrick William Costello was born on March 11, 1866 in Scranton, Penn, the only child of Irish immigrants. His mother died when he was two, and his coal miner father fled the economic downturn and high unemployment in the United States to return to Birmingham, England in the early 1870s.

Coincidentally, Birmingham was the world center for the design and manufacture of steel pen nibs. Inserted into wooden holders and dipped in ink, these sharpened metal points of varying dimensions and shapes led to the development of new styles of penmanship. The mass production of the steel nib democratized writing, allowing the populace to learn the art of lettering and the skill of writing.

Costello’s father was able to find work in the Birmingham mines and the 5-year-old Costello was enrolled in school. While it wasn’t standard for the children in the grammar schools Costello attended to use steel nibs, their teachers certainly did. Something or someone sparked his interest and inspired a decision to practice lettering and drawing, for by the time he returned to Pennsylvania with his father in 1877, Costello had begun to develop skills that would lead to a career as a masterful penman, portrait artist and engrosser.

When the Costello’s returned to Scranton, the depression they had hoped to escape had worsened and young Costello left school to labor for two years as a “breaker boy” at the Bellevue Colliery. Boys as young as eight would sit on pine boards, perched above metal chutes, stopping the flow of coal with their feet in order to pick out foreign material. The boys were not allowed to wear gloves, and the sulphur-covered rock left their fingertips cracked and bleeding. Even as an eleven-year-old breaker boy, Patrick practiced after his job in the colliery, sketching on slabs of slate he found near the mines.

In his teens, Patrick escaped the mines and found work as a grocery clerk, a job that taught him people and business skills. After a nine year post as an appointed clerk for the City Engineer, he was elected to positions as Auditor of Lackawanna County and City Controller.

In his spare time, he continued to practice, refining the technique of stippling and cross-hatching in portraits and developing a style that began to earn him renown as an illustrator. In the mid-1880s, Costello opened his engrossing studio and began producing work that brought him to the attention of Charles Paxton Zaner, founder of the Zanerian College of Penmanship. In 1903, Zaner traveled to Scranton to meet with Costello. Zaner was amazed at the self-taught Costello’s skill, and a lifelong friendship began. Zaner encouraged Costello to leave politics and devote himself to his work as an engrosser. By 1910, Costello was at the top of his profession. Upon his death in 1935, an editorial in The Scrantonian Tribune wrote:

“Mr. Costello was possessed of the soul of the poet and the artist. Even in the nineties [1890s] when he was in politics, which are calculated to harden a man against the beauties of the world, he dreamed his dream – and out of that dream grew an art that made him famous throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. [He] was a great artist, a lover of beautiful things – but better still, he was a lover of his fellow man, and hundreds of them, who treasure his work and who admire his character, will mourn his departure…”

The Golden Age of Theater

The 19th Century saw an explosion of theater throughout the United States. Laws forbidding the performance of plays in the 18th century were repealed, the railroads made touring feasible, regional theaters were built, and by the end of the 19th Century, theater was America’s mass entertainment.

European stars and plays were imported, but America soon began producing, and exporting, its own stars and companies. While Broadway was growing, spreading tendrils from the Bowery up the Great White Way, touring companies were making national circuits. To ensure profitability, a syndicate was formed under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln Erlanger, a booking magnate who dominated the southern states. Legitimate theater, offering plays ranging from Shakespeare to adaptations of popular novels, and vaudeville shows, featuring musical and comedy acts, crisscrossed the country.

Pennsylvania, home to several of the oldest theaters, became an important touring destination, and the tough audiences, comprised of poor coal miners and immigrants still struggling to learn English gave birth to Scranton’s reputation as an important try-out for Broadway plays: “If you can play Scranton, you can play anywhere.”

In the late 1890s, as Costello was building his reputation as an engrosser, he was also co-owner of Costello and Fleming’s Arbor Cafe, a popular restaurant located in the heart of Scranton’s theater district. The restaurant was lined with Costello’s portraits and sketches of local and national figures, and it soon became a popular gathering place for the stage stars performing the Pennsylvania circuit. Stars such as Al Jolson, Gorge M. Cohan, Lillie Langtry and Edwin Booth played the Scranton cicuit. Costello drew their portraits from photographs, engravings and portraits, adding signatures from the stars, and providing for us an incredible collection of the faces and autographs of this Golden Age.

Collecting Golden Age Autographs

This era, extending from the late 1800s to the 1920s, is a rich field for collectors—and not an impossible one financially. It also offers aesthetic bonuses—vintage photos, carte de visite, playbills, posters, playing cards and beautiful signatures.

Pricing for signatures ranges from $15 for stars such as Maude Adams or Viola Allen to the $200-300 range for George M. Cohan, Will Rogers or Lily Langtry. You can find autographed letters in the $35-$1,000 range with Will Rogers topping the prices due to superior content. Signed photos are harder to come by, but can be had for as little as $25 or as much as $500 for Langtry or Rogers.

Finding items to pair with signatures for display is easy. Hundreds of items are available on eBay with tobacco cards and postcards selling for $1-$5, programs and posters in the $25-$250 range and a beautiful assortment of carte de visite for around $50.

A Master Penman and The Golden Age of Theater

Costello created a Marriage Engrossing to celebrate his marriage to Mary Agnes Mahon and their nine children. The flowers, which symbolize the children, were sized and positioned according to the children’s birth order. The large flower along the right border, just below center, represented Anna, the oldest, and moving clockwise, additional flowers represented the other children. All flowers were connected to the vine except for the one that represented John, who died at the age of seven months in July 1900. Costello positioned this flower to the left of the red capital letter “P” in his own name, to keep him close. (6×10, courtesy John Beemer)

Stars of the
Golden Age of Theater

Lillie Langtry (1853-1929) was nicknamed “The Jersey Beauty,” a nod to her birthplace on the island of Jersey and to her renowned beauty. While still in England, she had a string of prominent lovers, including the future King of England, Edward VII. When Sir John Milais’ portrait of Langtry was exhibited at the Royal Academy, ropes had to be set up to control the crowds. Her close friend, Oscar Wilde, suggested a career on stage. Her London debut was followed with many tours in America, where critics savaged her and the public adored her. (8×11)

Maude Adams (1872-1953) was born in Utah, the daughter of an actress. She began her career at the age of nine months, carried onstage by her mother, but her greatest success came as the lead character in Peter Pan and helped her become the highest paid performer of her day. Known to be shy, Ethel Barrymore called Adams “the original ‘I want to be alone’ woman.” Quiet and dignified, Adams was known for her generosity—augmenting the salaries of fellow performers out of her own pocket and giving small gifts to stagehands. (7×9)

Katherine Cornell (1893-1974), known as the greatest American stage actress of the 20th century, was famous for her portrayal of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the 1931 production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street. But her greatest impact may have been as a producer. With husband Guthrie McClintic, she was responsible for bringing many of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the 20th century to roles on Broadway. Cornell also appeared in one film, Stage Door Canteen, and in several television adaptations in the ’50s. (9×13)

Al Jolson (1886-Oct. 23, 1950) was lauded as “the world’s greatest entertainer.” A singer, actor and comedian, his musical style influenced Bing Crosby, Judy Garland and Bob Dylan. Between 1911 and 1928, Jolson had nine sell-out shows in NewYork’s Winter Garden and more than 80 hit records. He’s best remembered today for his role in the first full-length talking picture show, The Jazz Singer, in 1927. Jolson enjoyed performing in blackface make-up, a theatrical convention of the 19th century and, while he was the first openly Jewish man to become an entertainment star in America, he helped break the color barrier on the American stage—fighting discrimination and, with his introduction of African-American music, paving the way for Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. (8×15, courtesy John Beemer)

William Penn Adair “Will” Rogers (1879-1935) was, in addition to being a Cherokee cowboy and social commentator, a vaudeville performer and an actor. He made 71 films and wrote a series of New York Timesarticles that were syndicated in over 500 newspapers, bring his social commentary and homespun wisdom to millions. His work in the Zeigfield Follies led to the first of his many film roles and, in the 1930s he was the top-paid actor in Hollywood. Rogers’ aphorisms are still quoted today, including his final epigram. Buried in the Will Rogers Memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma, Roger’s grave stone reads: I never met a man I didn’t like. (8×15, courtesy John Leahey)

Edwin Booth (1833-1893) was famous as an actor both before and after the infamy of brother John Wilkes Booth’s, assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Born into a theatrical family, Edwin Booth toured throughout America and Europe and founded Booth’s Theatre in New York. In an odd twist of fate, Edwin Booth is credited with having saved the life of Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln. In a New Jersey train station, young Lincoln had fallen into the space between the railway car and the platform when the train began to move. He was pulled to safety and recognized his savior as the famous actor Edwin Booth. Booth was forced from the stage by the infamy, and was, according to the friends who comforted him in his exile, comforted by the idea that he had saved Lincoln’s son from injury or death. He made his return in 1866 playing the lead in Hamlet, which became his signature role. (9×16)

Tyrone Power (1797-1841) was as famous in his day as his namesake great grandson was in the Hollywood of the 1950s. Born in Ireland, Power joined a troupe of traveling players when he was 14. He became a star in England’s Drury Lane before conquering America. In addition to acting, Power was a speculator, buying the land upon which Madison Square Garden rests today. Returning to England, he was lost at sea on the SS President, leaving behind descendants such as Sir William James Murray Tyrone Power, the Commissary General in Chief of the British Army, notable British director Sir Tyrone Guthrie, Tyrone Power, Sr., a silent film star, and Hollywood star Tyrone Power, Jr. (8×13)

Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928) was the leading Shakespearean actress in Britain, before she toured the States in Henry Irving’s company. Famous for her portrayal of Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, she toured the U.S. and England for more than two decades. In 1903, she took over the management of the Imperial Theater in Britain, championing the plays of George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen. Terry’s descendants include her son, actor, designer, director Edward Gordon Craig and nephew Sir John Gielgud. (9×13)

Viola Emily Allen (1867-1948) was born to a theatrical family and first appeared on stage in the title role in Esmeralda at Madison Square Garden at the age of 14. Allen performed in both Shakespearean and modern plays, and starred in the 1915 silent film, The White Sister. She signed Costello’s portrait in person, perhaps one of the actors who celebrated Scranton success at Costello’s Arbor Cafe. (12×18, courtesy of Joyce Costello Deitrick)

George M. Cohan (1878-1942) did it all. A playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and producer, he was known as “the man who owned Broadway.” He started his career as a child, writing the songs and skits he performed with his parents and sisters in vaudeville as “The Four Cohans.” Cohan wrote and starred in over three dozen Broadway shows and is considered the father of American musical comedy. His life and music were the subject of the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy and the 1968 musical George M!. One of the founders of ASCAP, Cohan penned such popular songs as “Over There”, “Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway”. The Man Who Owned Broadway is still on Broadway today—his statue presides over Times Square. (6×16, courtesy of John Beemer)