Born in Delhi, New York in 1827, Candace Thurber Wheeler was one of eight children and described her childhood upbringing as “Puritan”. In this upbringing, it was the ideal of her abolitionist father, Abner Thurber, that women of the house should live a domestic life, one in which she were the chief of the home conditions, and her occupation was needlework. Wheeler was raised with the Bible being the only reading in the home and her exposure to pictorial art was limited to that which could be stitched.
Growing up in a time when marriage was the only way forward, Candace married Tom Wheeler in 1844, a businessman from New York. It was her husband who provided her with a window to the world and introduced her to an education of artists and writers. At first she worked for a not-for-profit organization because this was the traditional and acknowledged place for women in charity work during the 19th century. Being an ambitious and strong woman, she did not like the implied dilettante status that accompanied such positions. She was an early feminist determined to promote and spread art and design as a career for women who can support themselves and not simply just a hobby. A few of her first endeavors were the American School for Needlecraft and the Decorative Arts society; her hope was to empower women and give them the ability to be financially independent. Her foundations proved very successful and over thirty branches were opened across America within a year. Soon after, she became a partner with Louis Comfort Tiffany’s firm, The Associated Artists, and had a hand in such projects as: the re-decoration of the White House, Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, The Seventh Regiment Armory, as well as many houses of affluent families of the time. This experience was a large reason why she opened her own Associated Artists firm, an all-women enterprise.
A native of the Catskill Mountains, Wheeler is considered to be the "mother" of interior design and known as America's first female interior and textile designer. In 1887 she and her brother, Frank Thurber, founded Onteora Park, in Tannersville, as an artists' colony where many famous painters, artists, and literary figures stayed in the summer months including Mark Twain. In her later years, she wrote several books on design, as well as some fiction for both children and adults.
Some of her works include* :
- Household Art. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893.
- Content in a Garden. New York: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1901.
- How to make rugs. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1902.
- Principles of Home Decoration. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1903.
- The Annals of Onteora: 1887–1914. New York: E.W. Whitfield, [1914?]
- Yesterdays in a busy life. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1918.
- The Development of Embroidery in America. New York: Harper & Brothers, .
Wheeler was one of the first female designers of textiles and interior, as well as, a teacher, author, and lecturer. She helped to create the profession of interior design paving the way for many women to follow. It was her hope to empower women and instill a feminist message as an instigator of cultural change.
Wheeler passed away in 1923 at the age of ninety-three. She left behind a legacy that remains just as important today as it was then, promoting self-supporting women and equality to men in the workplace.