An intriguing series of advertising cabinet cards have piqued the curiosity of staff and researchers ever since they were given to the New-York Historical Society by Mrs. Elihu Spicer in 1960.

Unidentified Merchant.  Mrs. G.M. Bown, Photographer (Subject File, PR068).

Both the images and their maker are unusual. The photographs, which appear to have been taken around 1890, depict women in elaborate, imaginative costumes designed to promote various Waterloo, Iowa businesses.  For example, a woman holding a banner for “Snowden Drugs” wears a gown bedecked with brushes, fans, sponges, spools of thread and other items for sale at a drugstore.

Bowden Drug.  Mrs. G.M. Bown, Photographer (Subject File, PR068).

Another holding a banner for “Popcorn Commission Budd Park” is festooned with garlands and necklaces of popocorn as well as a row of corncobs along the hem of her dress.

Popcorn Commission Budd Park.  Mrs. G.M. Bowen, Photographer (Subject File, PR068).

Last but not least, the photographer “artist” who took these images, Mrs. G.M. Bowen, represents her own Banner Gallery with a model sporting a photograph-trimmed skirt and bracelets and necklaces made of small photograph portraits.

Banner Gallery.  Mrs. G.M. Bowen, Photographer (Subject File, PR068).

So who was Mrs. Bowen?  How did she come to have her own photography business at a time when businesswomen were still rare?  Were these advertising photographs a unique product of hers?

Back of one of Mrs. Bowen’s cabinet cards (Subject File, PR068)

In 1982, N-YHS’s then-curator of prints, Helena Zinkham, set out to find the answer to these questions.  She sent a letter (no internet!) to the Grout Museum of History and Science in Waterloo, Iowa, and a research librarian there searched local city directories dating back to 1887 but did not find a listing for Mrs. G. M. Bowen (she did find a listing for a “Griswold M. Bowen, carpet weaver” at 1201 E. Fourth Street, in the 1894-1895 directory).

“Fascinated and frustrated,” this librarian, Mary B. Miller, published the photographs in the local Waterloo paper in the hopes that readers might be able to provide some additional information.   Several readers responded with information about similar advertisements done by other area photographers, but no one was able to provide any further information about Mrs. Bowen or identify any of the models in her photographs.

Four years later, in 1986, while doing unrelated research on Waterloo women, Mary Miller came across an article in the June 20th, 1954 Waterloo Courier, which included one of Mrs. Bowen’s photographs — an advertisement for the newspaper, wearing a skirt of pleated copies of the Courier with copy pencils stuck through her hair bun.

The Waterloo Courier.  Mrs. G.M. Bowen, Photographer (Subject File, PR068).

The article identified the model as 18-year-old Emma Hackett and the occasion for the photograph as a Merchants’ Carnival on May 21 and 22nd, 1889.  Mary Miller sent a copy of the article to N-YHS in 1986, and I found it in our collection files in the course of my own investigation into these intriguing images.

Like my predecessors (but with much less effort, thanks to the internet), I have found a few similar advertising images produced by other photography firms.  According to the website Luminous Lint, these “banner ladies” were “hired by retailers to cover themselves with the items sold by their employers.  They were then photographed for advertising purposes.  Many would march in ‘merchants parades,’ carrying their banners, and sporting their wares.”  Even the awesome power of the internet, however, has — so far — failed to turn up any additional leads on the mysterious Mrs. G. M. Bowen.

Geraldine Ferraro, who in 1984 became the first woman Vice-Presidential candidate on a major party ticket, is rightly being heralded as a political trailblazer in the wake of her death this week.

More than a century before Ferraro, however – indeed, almost 50 years before American women even had the right to vote – another pioneering woman made a bid to become America’s first female President.  On May 10, 1872, Victoria Woodhull was nominated for President by the Equal Rights Party at the Apollo Hall in New York City. Her Vice Presidential candidate was abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass (although Douglass never acknowledged the nomination).

Victoria Woodhull

Admittedly, some people question whether she was really the first woman to run for president, since she was not legally permitted to vote and was also under the constitutionally mandated age of 35 at the time of her campaign (Woodhull’s 35th birthday was in September 1873, six months after the presidential inauguration in March, 1873).

Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, April 22, 1871.

Legal niceties aside, Woodhull was a “maverick” if ever there was one and very controversial in her time for her beliefs as well as her ambitions.  She was known for promoting ideas such as women’s rights, sex education, spiritualism, worker’s rights, “free love” and vegetarianism. Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, blazed a trail for female Wall Street brokers,  using their profits to publish a weekly newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, that promoted Woodhull’s presidency and her unconventional ideas.

Detail of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly announcing Woodhull’s nomination, April 22, 1871.

Among a number of notable firsts, her newspaper published allegations that the famous and well-respected Reverend Henry Ward Beecher was having an affair with a married woman (one of his parishioners) after Beecher publicly criticized her stance on free love. She exposed Beecher to protest the double standard and show his hypocrisy.  The story caused sensationalized legal proceedings that strained Woodhull and Beecher, both financially and emotionally.

Woodhull died in England in 1927.  Her radical ideas left her largely ignored by contemporary suffragists, if not by history; however, Woodhull was a remarkable figure who deserves greater recognition as a woman ahead of her time.

Admittedly that would make much more sense to  pre-1752 New Yorkers. Until then England and its colonies still used the Julian calendar, by which the New Year  began on March 25th, rather than January 1st.

“The Orrery”, The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, 1749.

Because the formula used by the Julian calendar did not accurately measure a true year (i.e., the time it takes the earth to orbit the sun), in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII adjusted the 365-day Julian calendar to align more closely with the actual time required for the earth’s orbit around the sun. Perhaps for more terrestrial reasons, he also restored the beginning of the New Year to January 1st.

While most Roman Catholic countries adopted this Gregorian or “New Style” calendar, protestant countries which did not recognize the authority of the Pope, such as England, took considerably longer.  In consequence, for quite some time two calendars were in use in Europe. Moreover, years until 1752 actually started twice in domains under English rule: the “legal” year began on March 25th, but use of the Gregorian calendar elsewhere and lingering memory of the traditional celebration that had itself been supplanted in the Middle Ages, led to January 1st being regarded as New Year’s Day.

To avoid misunderstanding (if not confusion!), documents created in the period between the new New Year (January 1) and the old New Year (March 25th) were often dated with the both the “Old Style” and “New Style” years – a system known as “double dating.” Such dates are usually identified with a slash mark between the “Old Style” and “New Style” year, as depicted here.

John de Witt to Lewis Morris, January 2, 1733/4. (Rutherfurd Collection, MS 531)

Needless to say, this continues to cause puzzlement among researchers and even more so when authors, such as Benjamin Franklin below, neglected to double date.

Benjamin Franklin to Cadwallader Colden, January 27, 1747/8. (Benjamin Franklin Papers, MS 1348)

Finally, in 1752, an Act of Parliament instituted the Gregorian calendar. However, the discrepancy between the two calendars amounted to 11 calendar days, so the calendar year in the year of adoption went from September 3rd to September 14th – a change reflected in a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote on the very day the “New Style” calendar was adopted (note the “NS.” above the year).

Benjamin Franklin to Cadwallader Colden, September 14, 1752. (Benjamin Franklin Papers, MS 1348)

For more details about the two calendars, you may want to read this slightly more comprehensive explanation of how they work.

Creative: Tronvig Group