05 The Adventures of the Misses O’Donnell

In today’s episode we meet not one woman named Miss O’Donnell, but two: sisters who together ran the Misses O’Donnell studio in Beloit, Kansas at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries.


Here’s an example of the type of cabinet card portraits produced by the Misses O’Donnell Studio in Beloit, Kansas.  Margaret O’Donnell won awards for this type of work in early 1900s.

Cabinet Card by MIsses O'Donnell Studio, Beloit Kansas (circa 1900-1907)
Cabinet Card by MIsses O’Donnell Studio, Beloit Kansas (circa 1900-1907) [courtesy McIntyre-Culy private collection]
A closer look at the embossed logo for the Misses O'Donnell Studio, Beloit, Kansas
A closer look at the embossed logo for the Misses O’Donnell Studio, Beloit, Kansas

Margaret’s fun “giant corn” photo (that I mention in today’s episode), along with a description of how she made it, was published in The Los Angeles Times newspaper on Sun, October 22, 1899.  Unfortunately, I haven’t located a copyright-free scan of that, but if you have a subscription you can see copy of the article at this link. I’ve included some similar types of trick photos of produce on the  board for this episode on Pinterest.

I plan to get Margaret’s account of their experiences in the Great Kanto earthquake transcribed soon, but in the meantime I’ve included a link below to a book about the quake. Plus, you can see some photos of it in the materials I put in the board for this episode on Pinterest.

LifelineO'Donnell Sisters Lifeline


You’re listening to Photographs, Pistols, and Parasols.Welcome to Photographs, Pistols, and Parasols, the podcast where we celebrate early women artisan photographers.

I’m your host, Lee McIntyre.

For more information about any of the women discussed in today’s episode, visit my website at p3photographers.net. That’s letter “p”, number “3”, photographers.net.

In today’s episode we’ll get to know the two women who ran the Misses O’Donnell photography studio in Beloit, Kansas. That’s Misses O’Donnell as an M I S S E S not “M R S”.

In today’s episode I want to introduce you to two sisters in Beloit, Kansas who ran the Misses O’Donnell photography studio at the turn of the 19th-20th century.

When you look in the 1900 U. S. census, we discover Margaret and Anna O’Donnell. Anna, the oldest of four children in the family, is age 33 in 1900, and her youngest sister Margaret is only age 26.

But together they are running the Misses O’Donnell photography studio.

In 1900 they’re living at home with their mother, Ellen, and their other sister Mary , who is a stenographer, and who won’t actually factor into the story much because she’s never a photographer.

But Margaret and Anna are, and Margaret is the one I want to start with.

Now Margaret was born in 1873.

She graduated from high school in 1891.

And I don’t know exactly when she took up photography, but in 1900 she was already running the Misses O’Donnell photography studio in Beloit.

There’s a notice in the paper that she’s off in 1900 taking some instruction in junction City from a gentleman named Pennell who had a photography studio, and he worked with a lot of women photographers in that area, either working with them or having them work for him until they would often open their own studio.

But by the time Margaret is profiled in 1900 working with him in Junction City, she’s already been running her studio in Beloit with her sister Anna.

We do know that Margaret started doing photography as early as 1899.

I don’t know if she started her studio then, but there’s a fabulous photo of giant ears of corn that appeared in the 1899 LA times.

She may have sent this out as an example of a fabulous trick-photography photo,
because, you see, as it’s described in a newspaper article, the picture shows you ears of corn as big as saw logs. Meaning that the corn ears look like they’re as long as the big giant trees that are being taken to the sawmill.

In the article in the LA paper Margaret O’Donnell is identified as the photographer, and she described how she actually did this kind of trick photography, taking a picture of the actual cart with the big saw logs. So there’s a picture of that.

And then she takes a close-up picture of ears of corn in the darkroom. Again this is in 1899 – she superimposes the corn on top of the logs, and then hand paints the chains that seem to be binding that years of corn to the cart in order to create this illusion that the farmer was pulling the giant ears of corn.

This was a very popular type of trick photography that photographers were doing in the 1890s and early 20th century.

In fact I think you can probably still see examples of this kind of photography if you go and visit the Midwest nowadays.

There will be postcards – because photographers would be selling postcards like this – trying to capitalize on the idea that the heartland of America really grew corn as, you know, as high as an elephant’s eye, or even bigger.

Now Margaret’s main work, though, with photography in this period is really running her studio and at her studio she would have been doing things like cabinet cards.

In fact when she goes off to the annual conventions for Kansas photographers, she starts to win awards for her cabinet cards.

Now the cabinet cards are these small cards that would have had portraits of people or portraits of babies, or portraits of small children with their toys.

People would take their kids or themselves into the photographer, get their pictures taken, and then get a whole bunch of copies to be able to send to friends and relatives all over the world.

That’s the kind of bread and butter work that these artisan photographers from this early period of photography, that’s what they would have been doing to make money.

And Margaret is firmly involved in this kind of photography production.

Now the studio is called Misses O’Donnell studio which indicates that Anna was actively involved in this business early on as well.

We don’t have too much information, though, about Anna and her involvement with photography.

In fact, because she graduated before 1890 it’s likely that she actually started a career before 1890, but this is one of those moments when the lack of the 1890 U. S. census, and not having that information available to know exactly what kind of career Anna started with. Well that would be really nice to know.

All we can say is that in 1900 she’s actually a photographer and working with her sister Margaret in the studio.

Now the studio photography extended to wedding photography as well. It’s not exactly in the idea that we would have in the 21st century, but there’s a great wedding notice at one point in the newspaper that talks about how after the couple got married at the church, there were carriages that waited at the bottom of the church steps for the wedding party to be easily conveyed over to get their photos taken by Miss Margaret O’Donnell.

And so we know that Margaret at least was very actively pursuing a career as a photographer.

And Anna, well, she could have also been a photographer. She could have been more on the business side of things.

One sister might have been more of the photographer and one sister might have been more on the business side.

The one thing we do absolutely know about Anna is from 1907.

In 1907 she becomes what one of the newspaper articles terms, “the queen of Beloit”; that’s the year she marries the very well-to-do widower A. T. Rogers.

A.T. Rogers wasn’t just a big business man in town — he was the businessman in town.

I mean, he owned everything in town: he owned the bank, he owned the Electric Company, he owned the water company …

He really owned just about everything, and he’d been happily married until his wife, sadly, had died in 1905.

But by that point he was almost sixty years old, and he had grown children who actually came and attended the wedding, which was held at Anna and Margaret’s mother’s house.

So it’s very small, intimate affair.

Which seems surprising, given that A.T. Rogers was such a big businessman and such a wealthy man-about-town.

But this quiet wedding has a very big write-up in all of the local papers.

And it describes Anna O’Donnell has also being one of the most popular women in Beloit.

It says that she was accomplished in all the arts that go to make up a “thorough woman”.

Anna is described as “pleasant, hospitable, and sensible to an advanced degree.”

She is also described as a “very nice young lady”, which is interesting because she was almost forty. So it’s nice to think that maybe a forty-year old could be considered a young lady?

In any case, Anna had not been married up to this point.

And so you know, in my romantic imagination, I can want to think that somehow they met, you know, in a very sort of Pride and Prejudice kind of genteel way at the photography studio.

Maybe he brought in his little grandchild to get their picture taken … or maybe he had contracted them to take pictures of his daughter’s wedding celebration … or something like that.

But in any case — I don’t know exactly how they met, but I do know that from the wedding write-up that they were off on a massive honeymoon, and said to be very happy together.

Now the wedding was said to have been intended by just a small set of relatives, including his grown children, and also of course by Anna’s sister Margaret and another sister Mary, who had gotten married and moved away — she lived elsewhere in Kansas at that point.

Anna and A. T. in 1907 set out on this huge months long trip — a honeymoon trip that’s going to take them all over Europe.

They don’t come back until October.

Interestingly, Margaret actually goes to New York to greet them when they come back from Europe, and then they all come back to Kansas together.

And that’s going to set up something we’ll get to a moment — the idea of the travel that really is one of the things that dominates the rest of their lives.

Now in 1910 we see start to see a little bit of change in the O’Donnell family.

Anna, of course, is now married, and the census in 1910 does not list her as being a photographer anymore.

As I said, in the newspapers that we have there was not a lot of information about her as a photographer, so we’re not quite sure whether not Anna actually continued to work with the studio with Margaret at the studio after her marriage in 1907.

But in 1910 Anna and A.T. are living together very happily.

In 1910 Margaret is still listing herself as a photographer in the census.

But in the middle of the year she up and sells the studio, and then she sets off on an extended trip of her own with a friend, going to California where they spent many months.

I have to admit for the rest of their careers —  and the rest of their lives — I don’t find any evidence of Anna or Margaret ever being full-time photographers again.

But there are really interesting traces of the rest of their lives which I want to share here on the podcast.

Now as I said, prior to 1910 Margaret was very involved with the studio, and there are multiple notices in the paper of her doing photographic work, running the studio.

And in or around 1908-1909 she even starts to hirer women photographers — other women in Beloit — to come in and either help her out or take over while she’s traveling.

But in 1911 she switches careers, and she gets appointed to the post office.

She’s actually one of the first women to be appointed to the post office in Beloit. The newspaper says she’s actually the seventh, so there weren’t that many.

But she gets appointed and becomes a very popular, successful postal clerk throughout the 1910s.

Now, in 1911, Margaret, who has been living with her mother, well, her living situation changes when her mother dies.

One of the things that comes into play in 1911 is actually we find out what happened to James, their brother.

Now he had been listed in the 1880 census with Ellen O’Donnell, the mother, and Margaret and Anna and their other sister, Mary.

But James had disappeared from Beloit. He’s not in any the paper mentions in Beloit untill 1911, when he comes to town just before his mother dies.

And so we learn that he is now a railroad conductor living in Crane, Missouri.

I bring him up because He, as you’re going to see, he will become important to the story in a moment.

Additional changes happening for the family in the nineteen teens: the middle sister, Mary, unfortunately she unexpectedly passes away in 1915.

So that’s sad news from 1915, but the happy news from 1915 is that James marries a woman named Hetty Lockhart. Hetty is sometimes referred to as Hattie, sometimes referred to as Harriet, in both census notices and also in the social notes in the newspapers.

Again, it’s really important that we know her name, too, because as we’ll see, James and Hetty are going to factor into an important part of Margaret and Anna’s lives.

Getting back to Margaret, though, Margaret and Anna as well – even while she’s married — they’re still actually actively pursuing the social clubs that they belonged to even when they were running the studio earlier in the early 1900s.

Now the social clubs seemed to been designed to allow women in particular to join in activities that were designed to improve their minds.

I mean, they’re studying Greek art, they’re studying Greek literature. They are doing studies — careful language studies —  of plays and the use of language in these plays.

They’re looking at — when World War I starts to break out — they start to look at European history and reading books about Bismarck and stuff like that.

In addition to that, Margaret seems to take up writing, and at one point even has a little children’s story published in the newspaper.

Margaret also becomes a real expert in Beloit history.

Now, her mother and her father were some of the Beloit pioneers.

They moved to Beloit in 1875. All their kids were born in Michigan.

But when Margaret was two, the family moved to Beloit.

Margaret’s father died the next year, and so Margaret’s mother, Ellen, became very popular and very famous in town for being one of the original families who shepherded and oversaw the growth of the city of Beloit, from what was described as a small hamlet up into the thriving city that it was circa 1918.

Margaret becomes one of the local experts on Beloit history, and is actually acclaimed in the newspaper as the historian about Beloit.

So Margaret and Anna are keeping busy doing the social clubs … doing research on the local history … other history.

Margaret also starts to travel a lot. On her own at one point she goes to the University of Wisconsin for the summer and takes classes there.

She also, at another time, goes to New York City where she spends the winter actually going to going to the library doing research and reading.

Anna, for her part, she and her husband are going off on trips … one extraordinary place after another, and sometimes Margaret actually goes with them.

So at one point they all go back to Europe.

Now Margaret has clearly maintained close connection with her sister Anna, and also was very friendly with A.T. as well.

Unfortunately, A.T. Rogers, in 1919, becomes ill.

Again, he was twenty years older than Anna when they got married, so he’s in his 70s by this time, and has a stroke, and then dies.

Margaret has moved in with Anna and A.T. to help take care of him, and is there is living with Anna when A.T. Rogers passes away in 1920.

Now at this point that Margaret and Anna start to move their focus away from the Beloit.

I mean their center has really been being involved with the social activities and polite

But remember James and his wife Hetty? They’re living in Missouri, and they are constantly after Margaret and Anna to come move to Missouri to be with them.

In 1922 there’s a really interesting notice in the paper, in November, that says that Margaret and Anna had been having such a nice time visiting James and Hetty in Joplin, Missouri, in November of 1922 that Margaret and Anna have decided to postpone their big trip to the orient until 1923.

So when we next catch up with Margaret and Anna, it’s 1923.

I’s actually September of 1923, and Margaret and Anna have actually embarked on their big trip.

They have taken their journey over land in the United States to get to San Francisco.

They have then taken ships to get from San Francisco to Honolulu, and then they’ve gone from Honolulu to Japan.

By the middle of September 1923 they are there in Japan.

They’re in Tokyo, specifically.

And on the morning of September 23rd —  well, let me allow Margaret to tell you what happened in her own words. Margaret wrote,

“My sister and I, with other foreigners, were fleeing from the oppressive heat to Karuizawa, a mountain resort of delightful scenery, cool days, and attractive foreign hotels. We were on the train and had just crossed the long railroad bridge about ten miles out of Tokyo. The quake came at twelve noon —  the trains were most violently shaken, almost thrown over. We happened to be passing through a village, and the houses were thrown down like a pack of cards.”

This was what came to be known as the Great Konto Earthquake of 1923. It was up to that point the biggest single natural disaster to hit Tokyo.

James and Hetty — back in Missouri — well, they were frantic because they know that Margaret and Anna are in the middle of this earthquake, and the reports are really dire with what’s coming out of Japan — ultimately this was a catastrophe of monumental proportions.

Most of Tokyo was destroyed. All of Yokohama was destroyed.

Both of those cities were destroyed not so much by the earthquake, but by the fires that happened afterwards, very similar to the destruction in San Francisco [in 1906].

James and Hetty are wondering what’s going on, and not having any clue from Margaret and Anna.

So they decide to go to San Francisco. They take the train — remember James worked for the railroad.

And then when they get to San Francisco, they get word that OK, they think — the authorities think that Anna was okay, but there’s been no word of Margaret.

James is really upset, and so he decides, he is sailing for Japan.

He jumps on the ship; Hetty holds down the fort in San Francisco, issuing information back to the newspapers in Beloit and Missouri so people back home know what’s going on.

And then, when you look at the ship records later, you realize that as James is on the ship sailing out of San Francisco, Margaret and Anna are actually on a ship headed into San Francisco.

They had actually made their way down that mountain from where the the train stopped during the earthquake, across a makeshift pontoon bridge because the railroad bridge had been wiped out by the earthquake.

[They] made their way back to Tokyo; [they] kept fleeing from the fires, finally were taken in by a family, given food, given shelter, and given a way to finally connect with the American embassy, who managed to get them on a ship to get out of Japan.

They lost all their luggage. And I know what you’re thinking — no, she didn’t take any pictures. Because she never talks about that, although she does write up all of their experiences later for the newspapers back in Beloit.

It’s really unfortunate, because since she was a photographer, you would have hoped that Margaret would have had the opportunity to take some pictures of this event.

But then again. 1923. She had been a studio photographer when she did photography professionally.

Maybe those little Kodak things with the film that one would send in and not develop yourself — maybe that just wasn’t her kind of camera.

I wonder if she ever regretted not having the camera then.

Although — in the first few days after the quake they had trouble finding shelter and food, so I’m also thinking that maybe photography was the last thing on her mind.

Anyway, it’s a fabulous story, that they were able to survive and get out of Japan, and James and Hetty are then really eager for Margaret and Anna to settle down and move to Missouri. Which they do.

They do as a whole group later go on more adventures. They go off to Europe altogether at least, and go to Canada, so they are traveling. It’s not like they never travel again.

But at this point we’re in the mid 1920s, and this is when the newspapers that are available that are out of copyright or able to be shared are not necessarily available. There’s not that much [available] after 1925.

But if you look at the census records, which are available through 1940, we do see a little bit more about what happened to Anna, Margaret, James and Hetty.

So in 1930, Anna and Margaret have moved to Missouri. They moved to Kansas city, not to Joplin where Hetty and James are. {But] by 1933 they are living in Joplin.

1933 – Anna actually dies in Joplin.

1935 – James, I believe, dies in Joplin as well, although I don’t have as much evidence for his death in ’35 as I do for Anna in 1933

In 1940, U. S. census, Hetty Lockhart O’Donnell is back in Crane, Missouri.

She is listed as a widow living with her two sisters, who are also widows. All of the sisters have reverted back to using their maiden name, Lockhart.

Although there are buried in the same grave and so that tombstone actually has Lockhart at the top, but then specifies each of their married names underneath.

So Hetty is buried with Lockhart on the grave but as Hetty O’Donnell.

What’s interesting is that Hetty, who was born in 1888, doesn’t die until 1990.

Meaning that she lives to be a 102!

But … what about Margaret? I mean Margaret really is the one of all of these people who is really the focus of this early photographers podcast.

After all, it’s Margaret who, I think, was really the committed photographer, the one who was the driving force behind the Misses O’Donnell studio … the one who won the awards … the one who really perfected her craft and experimented with photography throughout her, at least early part of her life.

But it’s a puzzle what happens to Margaret.

In 1938 we get one more glimpse of Margaret: she’s on a ship, accompanied by her sister-in-law, Hetty O’Donnell, and they’re headed towards Honolulu.

Now Honolulu would have in the first stop if they were going to go back to Japan or any other parts in that part of the world.

Somehow it does seem fitting that our last glimpse of Margaret O’Donnell — who was a successful photographer, a writer, a world traveler, adventurer — well, the last we see of her, she’s on a ship, literally sailing into the sunset, leaving just the traces of her life in the newspapers and also in her cabinet cards and other photography.

Now, if you go to my website, you’ll be able to see an example of the kind of cabinet cards that were produced by the Misses O’Donnell studio in the early 1900s, as well as some information about that giant years of corn photo, and [also about] the Great Konto Earthquake of 1923 that the Misses O’Donnell lived through.

My website again is p3photographers.net. That’s letter “p”, number “3”, photographers.net.

Thanks for stopping by to hear about early women photographers.

Until next time, I’m Lee, and this is Photographs, Pistols, and Parasols.

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