I was “free associating” online, searching for whatever sprang to mind. I thought to search for my grandmother’s maiden name (Mary Dickson). And I found it included in a list of photographs in the Jane Reece Photographic Collection. Her older sister, Sarah’s name was also there.
This was my first introduction to Jane Reece. Although best known as a photographer in the “pictorial” style, Reece had also “made many commercial portraits of Dayton’s prominent families.” See: Wikipedia’s entry on Jane Reece (photographer).
Say what you will about me, my 9 and 16 year old ancestors were once prominent. And photogenic, I think.
Photoshopping, circa 1911
I contacted the Wright State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives about the glass plate negatives that Reece made of Mary and Sarah Dickson. Toni Vanden Bos (Archivist for the collection) helped me obtain high res scans of the images and permission to publish them here.
Look at these images close up, and you’ll see how much hand retouching Reece had done on these photos.
Here at BEACH, I do most of the Photoshop work. Sometimes I work in “channel” mode where highlights and shadows can be reversed like a negative. But it must have been tricky and painstaking work for Reece to retouch her negatives by hand.
Handwork on Negatives
Using a special pencil, as they did in those days (107 years ago) she added these fine scribbly lines to the negative in areas that would become the highlights in the final photographic print.
Seeing the way Reece used her pencil to lighten the whites of my grandmother’s eyes, reminded me of how often I had to do the same thing in my early Photoshop retouching jobs. But, like a dentist, I also used to have to whiten a lot of teeth.
Granted, when you look at this scribbly retouching up close, it looks sort of crude. But photography has always been a pointillist exercise in building images from particulate elements. These particles used to be silver; now they’re pixels. Reece’s clients were no more likely to notice these squiggles of retouching than to notice the grain of the film itself.
Above is the first page of a how-to article about exactly this type of “handwork on negatives” published in a 1911 issue of Photo-Miniature — the same year that Reece took the portraits of the Dickson sisters.
More about Jane Reece and my Dayton relatives, after the fold….
Jane Reece photographing model on roof of her Dayton home (“The Bird House”) Photo courtesy: Dayton Art Institute
De Facto Diptychs
Jane Reece made these portraits on 4.25 x 6.5 glass plates. She apparently photographed each Dickson girl twice, making two exposures on each plate. So the images that Wright State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives provided us are essentially diptychs.
I’m not saying that Reece intended for the two images to ever be shown adjacent to one another. The fact that, in each case, she only retouched one of the two images, suggests that the dual plates functioned more like contact sheets. And that she only ever planned to print one of the images.
Do final prints by Jane Reece still exist somewhere in our family’s “archives?” So far nothing has turned up. I’m afraid they may have been lost or destroyed over the years.
Augusta Dickson & Jane Reece (compared/contrasted)
The Dickson sister portraits were undoubtedly commissioned by their mother Augusta, whose life we touched upon in some earlier posts about Sarah & Mary’s brother, Arthur Dickson.
Born in 1862, Clara Augusta Parkinson (Mrs. S. A. Dickson) was about 6 years older than Jane Reece.
Augusta’s father (like Jane Reece’s father) fought in the Civil War and died when she was a young girl. Thomas K. Parkinson, fought for the Union with the 12th Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Calvary.
Initially I had assumed that Jane Reece’s father also fought for the Union, but a careful reading shows that it’s not really clear which side he actually fought for. Wikipedia simply says that her father, William L. Reece (1833-1879) “was a veteran of the American Civil War, during which he was a prisoner of war.”
William Lindsay Reece: Confederate or Union Soldier?
William L. Reece appears to be William Lindsay Reece, born in North Carolina.
Could he have been a Confederate soldier? Reece made two photos of a Confederate soldier that are part of the same collection of glass plates as the Dickson sisters. (“dog lying by confederate soldier” and “boy lying by confederate soldier”)
Reece was known to have to have spent time with relatives in North Carolina while recuperating from an illness, “thought to be spinal meningitis or tuberculosis.”
William L. Reece was a common enough name that you can find it in the rosters of both armies. The Confederacy executed a private William L. Reece in 1864 for desertion and murder. So he cannot be the one who later married Mary A. Ransomer —Jane Reece’s mother— in 1867.
But then I found this:
A new cousin told me a family story about my great grandfather, William L. Reece, which stated that he deserted the Confederate Army, crossed the Ohio River and enlisted in the 18th Ohio Volunteer Infantry at Athens in October 1861.
And, indeed, we can confirm that a William L. Reece enlisted on October 3, 1861. (see pg. 608 of this pdf file) Was he Jane Reece’s father, William Lindsay Reece?
Augusta Dickson in 1926 high school yearbook, Jane Reece entering “The Rembrandt” 1904–1905 (The Soul Unbound)
Continuing with our comparison, both women supported themselves at a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote. Jane Reece did so with her photography studio and career. Augusta Dickson (a widow since 1906) supported herself (and her children) as a high school teacher.
Both appeared frequently in the social pages of Dayton’s newspapers, sometimes on the same page.
Dayton Daily News writer, Penelope Perrill, actually wrote about each of the two women at different times during the same year. In each case, she portrayed them in an empathetic, if somewhat pitiable light.
In April 1926 she wrote,
I met Mrs. Augusta Dickson of Steele high school yesterday afternoon almost in tears. She had laid aside her bag in one of the big dry goods places, and turning around discovered it was gone. It contained her checkbook, letters, keys, etc., and was in addition a very expensive bag.
She wears one of the most stunning opal necklaces I ever saw (bought at Wembley last summer), and I wondered if it mightn’t be the bad luck usually attending these gems, but she couldn’t say with anything like surety, being too grief-stricken over her loss to do more than mourn mutely.
And then in November 1926 she wrote,
I was over to see Jane Reese [sic] yesterday—that fragile bit of humanity who is trying with all her strength and hopefulness to make her studio the art center it should be. … It seems a most pitiful thing that we who know the artistry of this diminutive photographer… cannot do something to make her studio a permanent thing…
Let us hope that all things will come to our Jane. I always think of a tablet in the cloisters of Westminster (in London) that says merely, “Jane—Dear Child.”
Penelope Perrill also published remarks about Mary Dickson (my grandmother)
In February of 1909 Reece left Dayton to study with photographer Clarence H. White at Columbia University in New York City. (Her 1909 photograph of “Clarence White in his Studio appeared in Dominique Vasseur’s 1997 book, The Soul Unbound.)
She returned to Dayton in October 1909 and opened a new studio in the Callahan Building… Although she was not Dayton’s only portrait photographer, it is evident that her local reputation was greatly enhanced by the recent New York experience. It became a fashionable thing in Dayton to have one’s portrait taken by Jane Reece, consequently, there are few old Dayton families of a certain financial or social means who did not have their portraits taken by Jane Reece.
Dominique H. Vasseur
The Soul Unbound: The Photographs of Jane Reece
Like Reece, Augusta Dickson, also left Dayton and studied at Columbia. Once for a summer session in 1923, and then again for a summer session in 1926—the same year that Penelope Perrill wrote about Augusta’s stolen handbag.
And yet, although Jane Reece and Augusta Dickson were contemporaries with certain things in common, they don’t appear to have been friends.
Aside from these commissioned photos of Augusta’s daughters, we find no evidence of them interacting at all.
Of course, for all that they might have shared in common, there were also clear differences.
Reece aspired to a bohemian career, leaving Dayton and traveling to California in 1911 (the same year that she photographed Augusta’s daughters). While there, she…
…made a small series of photographs that both define her artistic style and her life at the time. The series, called The Soul in Bondage, interpreted the mythological story of Andromeda who was bound to rocks by the ocean and rescued by Perseus.
from Wikipedia’s entry on Jane Reece (photographer)
Augusta, while active in the Women’s Suffrage movement, seemed motivated by more middle-class aspirations. She was a confident public speaker and presided over and belonged to a number of women’s clubs.
Pro-German Utterances at Steel High School
Dayton (and nearby “Germantown”) had a large German population. WWI brought a chilling xenophobia to public schools. Suddenly all things German were verboten. German textbooks were burned in some places. And teachers were put on trial.
Some of the accused teachers taught German, were of German descent or were simply “not acting sufficiently patriotic,” as one newspaper put it.
To be clear, Augusta was not one of the teachers charged with disloyalty. She signed the “loyalty pledge” after the accusations surfaced. As did most of the accused teachers. Three of the accused teachers taught at Steele High School with Augusta. (Marie Durst appears on the same page as Augusta in the 1918 school yearbook.)
Earlier that same year they had put on a production of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest. Helen Bauchmiller directed and Augusta played the role of Lady Bracknell.
I have never expressed any disloyalty to the cause our country is fighting, and I believe the whole trouble started when I conversed with other teachers in German. I have never known any other country than the United states and most certainly have no German sympathies. When this hearing is held I have no fear of clearing myself.
Helen Bauchmiller, as quoted by the Dayton Daily News
Formal Pro-German Charges Are Made, July 12, 1918
The school board held public trials. Ultimately, Bauchmiller resigned and thereby avoided her hearing. Most of the other accused teachers were reinstated. (Justina L. Stevens was the only teacher actually fired for pro-Germanism.)
Some of their fellow teachers testified against the accused teachers. Augusta does not appear to have done this. A good friend of Jane Reece, however, did testify.
Paul Shivell, local poet, testified that in the fall of 1916 he had heard the kaiser spoken of very highly by a Steele teacher, to whose house he had gone with his son to get a book. Shivell claimed the teacher had declared that democracy was a failure. He refused however to give the teacher’s name.
Pro-German Prime Goes Everywhere, Dayton Daily News, April 13, 1918
The Dayton Herald, on the other hand, reported that the teacher’s name “was promptly given to the committee.”
I think that the teacher whose house Shivell had visited must have been William B. Werthner. Since Werthner is the only male teacher at Steele who was charged, and, in The Dayton Herald’s coverage about the supposedly unnamed teacher, Shivell mentions “his home.”
Shivell may have had multiple reasons for testifying. His son Arthur had attended Steele High School, but was now a member of the 148th Infantry. (Germans would be soon be shooting at his son Private Arthur Shivell, wounded in 1919.)
Jane Reece, on the other hand, was lucky or apolitical enough not to have run afoul of these shifting rules of wartime patriotism.
Post Civil War Racism in Dayton Ohio
Another big difference between the Jane Reece and my great-grandmother Augusta would appear to be their differing attitudes toward black people.
I have a revealing letter that Augusta wrote to her son Arthur in 1905. In which she criticizes him for not sending her a thank-you note by writing this: “…such rank ingratitude from an untutored darkey would be surprising.”
Where did she get such racial animus? Perhaps partly from her husband, I guess.
Looking though old Dayton newspapers for additional signs of racial prejudice, I was shocked to read the bigoted metaphor that Augusta’s late husband Samuel A. Dickson used in a long editorial against annexation of the Philippines in 1898.
If it be urged that we assume these responsibilities in the name of humanity, I answer that we are not called upon to do all the missionary work of the world. … Because a man rescues a poor dirty diseased little negro from being beaten to death in the streets places no obligation upon him to adopt the child into his family and allow him to communicate measles itch and moral leprosy to his own children.
What Shall We Do with the Philippines?
Masterly Presentment of Clear Evidence Against Acquisition,
by Attorney S. A. Dickson, Dayton Daily News, December 10, 1898
The “clear evidence” in his so-called ‘masterly presentment’ consisted of many such hateful statements.
He declares at one point that the tropics have never yet produced “a respectable race of people.” He then goes on to say that anglo-saxons developed “not in the fever-cursed and sun-scorched climate of the tropics; not from a race of gibbering mannikins four feet high, but from the stalwart stock of the best races of northern and central Europe.”
Of course, he was not alone in his racist rhetoric about the Philippines.
But, yeah… we don’t get to choose our ancestors.
Viola W. Yewell (not “Viola M. Yowell)
Jane Reece, on the other hand, hired Viola, a black woman, as her assistant. The photo(s) of Viola comes from the same collection of Jane Reece’s glass plate negatives as the two Dickson sister plates.
Viola died “after an operation” in 1915 and the Dayton Daily News published the notice on the right. Reece’s photographs of Viola are undated, but her death notice states that she “had assisted Miss Jane Reece at the Rembrandt Studio for five years.”
It also tells us that Viola was herself …
…a splendid photographer. Miss Reece…was trying to advance Mrs. Yowell so that she would be the leading colored photographer in the country. Mrs. Yowell possessed excellent taste and was a real artist in her line. Her cheerful disposition made her well liked by the patrons of the Rembrandt Studio.
If Viola began working for Reece in 1910, it seems likely that she would have been present when the Dickson girls were photographed in 1911. If so, I wonder whether Viola’s “cheerful disposition” was enough to mollify Augusta’s racist leanings.
The clipping above uses two different versions of Viola’s name—”Viola M. Yowell” and “Viola Weir Yowell.” I am guessing that the “M” in the headline was a typo and should actually have been a “W” for “Weir.”
A “Miss Viola Weir—often spelled “Ware”— was an active member of Dayton’s “Colored W.C.A.” (the Colored Women’s Christian Association).
George Gilbert Yewell
Apparently they had separated and in 1914 her husband was living in St. Louis. The Dayton Herald published the article on right in October 1914. It tells us that he was soon to be arrested for neglecting to provide Viola with child support. (i.e.: “non-support” of their child)
The 1915 death notice for Viola mentions her 18 month old daughter, Suzanne.
I found a 1918 WWI draft registration for George Gilbert Yewell. He listed several children as his next of kin, including a daughter named Suzanna.
I search a little bit and found that a “Suzanna Yewell” had graduated from East Xenia High School in 1932. We know from the 1915 clipping that Viola was buried in Xenia so it makes sense that Viola’s friends or relatives there must have raised her daughter. At the time, “East High School” was Xenia’s segregated colored school. (Now for sale)
Augusta Dickson had also spent time in Xenia as a girl at the Ohio Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans’ Home. And then later (around 1884) as a teacher there. Her husband, Samuel was also a “Home boy” (meaning: a former inmate of the “Home”) and was superintendent of the orphanage’s various schools for a time, as well.
But enough about Augusta and Samuel. Let’s get back to back to their daughters.
Sarah A. Dickson
As with Augusta, we find instances where Sarah appeared in the same published social columns, as Jane Reece.
Sarah graduated Wellesley College in 1916.
Like her mother (and Jane Reece), Sarah attended Columbia University in NY. Unlike them, however, she obtained a master’s degree and then went on to earn her doctorate from New York University.
She taught for a while in Ohio high schools, but ultimately followed her older brother to New York City. There she became a librarian and the curator of the NY Public Library’s Arents Tobacco Collection.
In 1930 Sarah married a man named Robert Bernard. I don’t know much about him. They had no children and ultimately divorced. Apparently he was also from Dayton and went to Steele High School with Sarah.
I was startled to see his name in 1918 press coverage of the aforementioned inquiry into pro-German sentiment among teachers at Steele High School. Like Paul Shivell, Robert Bernard had testified against William B. Werthner (and others):
Robert Bernard, the most virulent of all the students who testified, declared that he had heard Mr. Werthner and Miss Duerst talking in German… Mr. Werthner had said that the kaiser was a great man before the war, and Miss Beck had had her classes sing songs in German before the war.
Steele Pupils Give Testimony to School Board, Dayton Daily News, August 3, 1918
While pondering the acceptability of wooden cigar store Indians, I found a hand-written (mimeographed) letter that Sarah wrote to “the Friends of Arents Library.” I’m guessing that it was sent out to a select group of donors.
Indian Summer, 1946
This year my favorite season is lasting for two months. Winter has shaken a stick at us one or twice — but pretty feebly. In this nostalgic weather one can feel romance in the air. Speaking for myself, in Indian Summer I can easily believe in Santa Claus.
… Recently I boarded a Madison Avenue bus and beheld the former head of the print division group library and the librarian of the well-known Metropolitan Club. They greeted me gaily; it was clear that they had for the nonce thrown scholarly research to the winds.
“Sarah,” they said in unison, “We are hunting Indians.”
“Take care,” I said enviously, “This is their time of year. The medicine men will put a spell on you, and you will wind up with a tomahawk in your head.”
They explained kindly that these were wooden Indians — furthermore, Indian shamans had been inactivated long ago, and were in limbo along with the oracle of Delphi. But I felt troubled for I believe in magic. You do too, but you call it by peculiar names such as penicillin and radar.
Our own wooden Indian, Tisquantum, has been much in my thoughts lately. It seems to me that he leads a too solitary existence. Both the little wooden Highlander, who stands opposite him, and I are of an alien race, and represent the conquering oppressor. Speak I never so gently to him, Squanto does not answer.
She goes on to describe a number of recent Arents Library acquisitions, eventually closing her letter with this:
I will sign this, appropriately, with the Indian name given me by a Friend proficient in the Yakima language. I am assured it has a pleasant meaning.
–Tyse Klootchman Mammook Seahost
Of the two gentlemen on the bus, I think the “former head of the print division” must have been Frank Weitenkampf who had retired from the library in 1943. He would soon publish an article entitled, How Indians Were Pictured in Earlier Days in a 1949 issue of the NY Historical Society Quarterly.
Tobacco Road Trip, 1952
In 1952 Sarah and her younger niece (my Mom) went on road trip west. Above: Sarah stands beside a field of tobacco. Below Sarah has her picture taken next to a man wearing Native American regalia.
For all her scholarship on the subject of tobacco, was she, herself, a smoker? I found a 1950 newspaper article that broaches this very subject.
Even though she refused an offer of a cigaret Miss Sarah Dickson admitted that she occasionally had one.
“I have to,” she said. “What sort of person would I be if I didn’t? Here I am in charge of the world’s finest collection of tobacco books. I would be sacrilegious if I didn’t smoke once in a while.”
Former Schoolteacher Here Expert on “Tobacco-ana”
Phyl Duerr, Dayton Daily News, Jane, 07, 1950
Panacea or Precious Bane
While curator, Sarah wrote, Panacea or Precious Bane: Tobacco in Sixteenth Century Literature. It first appeared in installments in the NYPL’s Bulletin from August 1953 to July 1954. And then was published as a hard cover book.
The New York Daily News also ran a story with a photo of Sarah in 1957 entitled, Tobacco Story Reads Rough from 1st Puff.
George Arents died in his home in 1960 “after a brief illness.” Sarah wrote “an Appreciation” of Mr. Arents that was published in the Bulletin of the New York Public Library in 1961.
The highlighted section below, points up another curious connection. Earlier we mentioned Sarah’s mother Augusta performing in an amateur product of The Importance of being Earnest, directed by Helen Bauchmiller — one of the teachers caught up in the Steele High School pro-German probe. That would have been the traditional 3-act version of the play.
While curator at the Arents Collection, Sarah was instrumental in publishing the original 4-act version of Oscar Wilde’s famous play.
“An Appreciation” by Sarah Augusta Dickson, published in the NYPL Bulletin, December 1961 (3rd page: here)
It’s weird that my grandmother’s parents didn’t give her a middle name. Considering how — as a family — the Dickson’s seemed so into using their middle initials.
Mary (or Mimi as we called her) went to Smith College. Oddly, her accomplishments there were sometimes front page news.
In 1921 the Dayton Herald saw fit to publish a photo of Miss Mary Dickson (on its front page of national news) with the headline, “Dayton Girl Wins Double Honors at Smith College.”
I found the same photo last week in an box at my Mom’s house.
Leezer Wallace Studio
Another Dayton portrait studio (called “Leezer Wallace”) made the vignetted portrait of Mimi.
NW Leezer founded the studio with his son-in-law Don Wallace. Leezer died of a stroke in 1915, so I’m assuming that the 1921 portrait of young Mary must have been taken by Wallace. (Leezer, however, probably took the 1914 portrait photo of Mimi’s mother, Augusta which was published in an issue of the Dayton Daily News.)
Don Wallace and Jane Reece were both well-regarded Dayton photographers. They sometimes exhibited their work in the same shows. And Wallace once organized a 1930 show of Pictorial Photography which included work by Jane Reece.
In 1921 (besides being elected dormitory president and being chosen for the debate team) Mimi won the top prize for her “modest” dress design.
“Costume and Its Effects on Others”
Dr. Joel E. Goldthwait had recently presented his lecture entitled, Costume and Its Effects on Others to the sophomore class at Smith. The contest appears to have been an attempt to put his advice into practice.
The movement had its beginning after a lecture for sophomores by Dr. Joel E. Goldthwait of Boston, in which he pointed out the unfortunate physical and moral effects which follies of dress may have, not only upon the wearer but upon those with who she comes in contact. He also showed the influence which a body of educated women could exert in favor of more beautiful and appropriate styles of dress, if they cared to use it.
I wish I could find the text of Dr. Goldthwait’s lecture. He may have been hoping to talk the girls out of any vampy or flapper fashion choices. But the implication that girls be held accountable for the “moral effects” of their clothing choices on others certainly sounds like old school victim-blaming.
Interesting that the girls went along with it. The contest garnered some attention in the press with headlines like, “Girls Compete in Modest Gowns,” “Smith College Girls Hold Modesty Fashion Show All their Own” and “Best Dressed Girls at Smith College.”
More Dayton Press Coverage
In 1921 Penelope Perrill (the Dayton newspaper writer who wrote the empathetic pieces about both Augusta Dickson and Jane Reece) wrote this about my grandmother:
Walking around the corner of Fourth St. is Mary Dickson, a remarkably pretty young woman with a remarkably pretty voice.
She is an artist I think and if she isn’t she should be, because she looks it.
We see Mimi wearing another hat in the Dayton Herald notice (above) about her brief college acting career.
And when she graduated in 1922, the Cincinnati Enquirer ran her photo with the headline, “GRADUATED WITH HONORS.”
The Dayton Herald also informs us that she had “accepted a position” in Manhattan in 1923.
Then in 1924 she seems to have become another (like her mother, her sister, her brother and Jane Reece) who took classes at Columbia University.
In 1925 the Dayton Herald mentions that she had a “studio of art” in New York. I didn’t know anything about this “studio,” but I suspect that it was a commercial art venture, following in her older brother’s footsteps.
Mimi’s Many Hats
I’m told that Mimi once worked for a millinery magazine. We haven’t been able to establish which publication that might have been. I found the page above with a fashion illustration signed by Mary Dickson. I can’t tell what company’s catalog this page was part of, but so-called “Spanish shawls” were a popular item in 1920s.
My Mom also found the illustration on the right in her familial archives. It shows that Mimi had done some commercial illustration for Fairfame “Kiddie Caps”
“MAKE EVERY CHILD A PICTURE” — the company published a number of newspaper ads in 1925 using this tagline, so I’m thinking this artwork was made at that time. (You could easily apply the same slogan to the pictures that Jane Reece made of the Dickson sisters and many other children.)
Would it be too corny if I suggested that, over the course of her life, my grandmother wore many hats? Literally and metaphorically?
For example, I love the killer attitude of her boyish cowboy-hat photo, on the right. The original photo had been cut apart from a more ladylike version, but it’s not clear which photo she considered the keeper. Based on the props and on the fact that the photos were arranged in a horizontal strip, I’m pretty sure that these are what were once called “ping pong photos.” I’m guessing she was around 13 year olds in these photos. So we’ll date them circa 1915.
I found a patent online that she obtained in 1925 for an “ornament suitable for ladies hats.”
Sperry Gyroscope / Sperry Rand
Mimi also worked for Sperry Gyroscope as a draftsman. Or should I be saying, draftswoman?
I had been thinking that she must have started working there after her divorce in the early 1950s, but it turns out I had that completely wrong. She started working for Sperry Gyroscope when my mother was a little girl while still living in Brooklyn.
This would have been around 1941 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Defense Training Institute was offering tuition-free classes for men and women Brooklyn. Plenty of women attended such classes. Did Mimi? I’m not certain, but she must have needed some type of special training for the top-secret, technical drawings she was employed by Sperry to make.
Mary Dickson’s self portrait with flowered hat that hangs in our hallway (circa-1960s–1970s?)
She worked in an impressionistic, painterly style and, in later years, signed her work with an “MD” monogram, similar to one that her older brother used for his work.