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The Mysterious Mrs. G. M. Bowen

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.

Creative: Tronvig Group