The Allen Sisters: "Foremost Women Photographers in America"

Article excerpt

Editor's Introduction: In our effort to expand HJM's focus to include artistic and material culture, we have initiated a new "Photo Essay" feature. Here we offer selections from a photography exhibit on display at Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield. Because HJM is now available in several online academic databases, reproducing this exhibit in our pages makes it available to a much wider authence and preserves it for future generations of readers and researchers. Suzanne L. Flynt is curator of Memorial Hall Museum, Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield, Massachusetts.

Frances Stebbins Allen (1854-1941) and her sister, Mary Electa Allen (1858-1941), were among the foremost women photographers at the turn of the twentieth century. Frances and Mary Allen's home and inspiration were in the Connecticut River Valley town of Deerfield. The Allen sisters were provided opportunities to advance academically, socially, and artistically at Deerfield Academy and, beginning in the fall of 1874, at the State Normal School teacher's college in Westfield, Massachusetts (now Westfield State College). The sisters amiably shared a room, classes, and friends. After the first day of school, Frances wrote to her mother: "I think there is a splendid set of teachers. Anybody can see that they are smart, and good too, by just looking at them."1 Frances and Mary's subsequent letters home brim with enthusiasm about all aspects of school life. In a letter to her brother, Edmund, Frances encouraged him to visit, although the school's strict boarding rules made her uncertain "whether they would dare have a wolf come among the lambs here."2 Tuition was free to the State Normal School pupils who agreed to teach in the state's public schools following commencement and, in June 1 876, Frances and Mary Allen graduated from the State Normal School.

Frances spent the next ten years, from 1876 to 1886, teaching, but due to poor health, Mary's teaching career was sporadic. When they were in their thirties, however hearing loss forced both to give up their chosen careers. Frances became profoundly deaf, and Mary could only partially hear even with the use of amplification. Resolved to find employment, the Aliens were drawn to the field of photography - one of the few socially acceptable pursuits for women outside of the home. They learned their craft through photography journals and by their association with urban artists and photographers summering in Deerfield. The rural landscape of Western Massachusetts provided artistic vistas for the Allen sisters to work with, and Deerfield's impressive eighteenth-century houses and furnishings offered a perfect environment for their colonial re-creations. Book and magazine publishers commissioned the Aliens' photographs of children, country life, or costumed figures enacting Colonial Revival interests. Between 1896 and 1916, the flourishing of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Deerfield played a critical role in the Allen sisters' careers. Summer exhibitions, the Old Deerfield Pageants, large numbers of tourists, international competitions, and national press coverage provided the Aliens with an admiring authence not found in most rural towns.

Recognition of the success of their vision came in 1901 when eminent photographer and critic Frances Benjamin Johnston named the sisters two of "The Foremost Women Photographers in America." She declared:

Frances and Mary Allen, like most of their professional sisters, are women whose success in photography is the result of patient, painstaking effort. Without any special training but that of well-read women of good taste they have put character, dignity and artistic feeling into their pictures, and they stand unrivaled in their individual line of work. In that quaint, old Massachusetts town of Deerfield the Allen sisters have found a veritable mine of picturesque material.3

Frances and Mary Allen's photographs of children were especially admired. …