07 A Tale of Two Townes

In today’s episode we meet two 19th century Massachusetts photographers named Mrs. Towne: Clara Ober-Towne and Anna Wing Towne. Plus, we’ll also discover a Miss Alma Whitney, another woman photographer who plays a prominent role in today’s tale of two Townes.


Clara Ober-Towne
Clara Ober was a photographer before she married Willis Towne in 1893. Here’s one her ads in the newspaper from 1892:

Ober, Lady Photographer, Boston Post Ad, July 14, 1892

The Northeastern University Libraries digital collection has a photo by Mrs. Ober that is dated to 1891, based on the information provided by Charles H. Bruce, the little boy in the photo who himself later grew up to become a photographer.

Of course, the first ad that caught my attention was her memorable ad campaign for “A Good Fat Baby”:

A Good Fat Baby ad, Mrs. Ober-Towne, Boston Evening Post, April 18, 1894
A Good Fat Baby ad, Mrs. Ober-Towne, Boston Evening Post, April 18, 1894

Mrs. Ober-Towne was creative – her ads were often tied to the holidays, and employed an effect use of bold typeface to get the reader’s attention:

Mrs. Ober-Towne Labor Day ad, Boston Post, September 3, 1894
Mrs. Ober-Towne Labor Day ad, Boston Post, September 3, 1894

I’ve yet to run across a cabinet card with “Mrs. Ober-Towne” on it, though. Based on the newspaper account of Annie Londonderry’s day at Mrs. Ober-Towne’s studio, I think it’s likely that Mrs. Ober-Towne took this photo of Annie Londerry that day (that image is from this website); however,  the cabinet card just says “Towne Portrait Studio”, not “Ober-Towne.”  Since Willis Towne also produced cabinet cards with the “Towne Portrait Studio” label, it’s not easy to tell which one of them took the photo after their marriage in 1893.

Anna Wing Towne and Alma Whitney

The Towne and Whitney newspaper notices were a little more restrained. I have yet to find an advertisement for them like the boxed ones Mrs.  Ober-Towne used so well. However, there are periodic notices for their studio and photographic activities in the newspaper, like this 1902 notice for an exhibition of their work:

Notice int he Gardner-Fitchberg Sentinel for Towne & Whitney photo exhibition, October 22, 1902
Notice in the Gardner-Fitchberg Sentinel for Towne & Whitney photo exhibition, October 22, 1902

While they did do special exhibitions like that from time to time, their standard “bread and butter” work would have been doing portraits of families and children.  Here’s an example of a beautiful portrait of 2 children, printed with a simple postcard back and embossed with the Towne and Whitney studio name on the front:

Towne & Whitney studio portrait of 2 children [McIntyre-Culy private collection]
Towne & Whitney studio portrait of 2 children [McIntyre-Culy private collection]

Check out some related materials on the board for this episode on Pinterest., including some photos by Clara Ober-Towne, Towne and Whitney, and also information and photos of Annie Londonderry.


Clara Ober Town, 1854-1935; Anna Wing Towne, 1857-1952; Alma Whitney, 1862-1948


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.

In today’s episode, I’m going to bring you the Tale of Two Townes, which is actually the tale of three women photographers who were artisan photographers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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 dot net.

Today’s Tale of Two Townes starts with an advertisement in the 1894 Boston Post.

It’s very eye-catching, and I can’t help but wonder what readers of the Boston Post would have thought when they open their newspapers to page six that day in April in 1894, and were confronted with this huge boxed ad.

There were three lines in bold type that just leapt out of that ad.

Those three lines said:



APRIL 19th

Wait a minute. What?! What was that?

Well, see, there is a lot of fine print in that ad. And when you read the fine print — well, let me read it to you:

is a great blessing and should have its picture made at least every three months. Pictures are nearly
at my studio, the price is so low. $8 dollar cabinets only $2 a dozen to all who bring this advertisement. No extra charge for children. Bring this advertisement or you cannot get them for this price. Studio open all day
APRIL 19th
and I shall take special pains to please all who call. You will find pictures in every style of art, from postage stamps to life-size, at lowest prices in Boston. Call and inspect work even if you do not give orders.

And it’s signed, Mrs Ober-Towne, 425 Washington Street, Boston, between Winter and Broomfield streets.

So yes, this crazy thing that leaps off the page at you, turns out to be an advertisement by a lady photographer named Mrs Ober-Towne.

Ober-Towne is hyphenated: that’s Ober hyphen Towne, with an “e” on the end.

Mrs Ober-Towne turns out to be a woman named Clara Ober, who started advertising as a photographer in the Boston newspapers back in 1891- 1892, when you can see ads for “Ober, lady photographer”, located at that same address, 425 Washington St, Boston.

She’s advertising lots of studio work and all kinds of cabinet card deals, “if you act now!”

But in 1893, there’s a wedding notice that’s actually kind of striking because it’s written in a very sort of rambling, yet folksy, style.

It talks about the pretty and picturesque wedding that happened “yesterday”.

The wedding was between one Mr. Willis Lyman Towne and one Mrs Clara Frances Ober.

The wedding notice interestingly describes Mr Towne — well, let me read it to you.

It says,

“Mr Towne who has won such a lovely woman is a large, jolly, and well-informed businessman of Boston. He has probably seen more heads upside down than any other man in the city. When I tell you that it is because he is a photographer, and he has seen them on the ground glass of a camera, you will understand that it is alright. ”

So, yes, Mrs Clara Ober actually wound up marrying another photographer, Mr. Willis Towne.

They run their studio for many, many years, first in Boston, and then later they move to Springfield, Massachusetts.

But in the 1890s there are a lot of ads like the one I read you at the beginning for Mrs Ober-Towne.

She was running the studio with Willis Towne, but the advertisements always talked about her deals and interesting approaches to getting people to come into the studio.

I mean, an example was the one with the good fat babies, but then there’s a Labor Day ad one year that says that the advertisement is “for the benefit of the working people” — they are giving you a special deal if you coming to get your picture taken on Labor Day.

That one in April, what was tied to the Patriots Day holiday; that’s why it was a special idea that it was going to be open all day on April 19th, that was actually a Massachusetts holiday.

So another year the Patriots Day ad is little bit less – I don’t know, controversial? — by just advertising “put on your new Spring suit and come in the have your picture taken.”

She’s open on holidays like Thanksgiving, when particular notice is given to “Come in now to get your pictures ready for giving as Christmas gifts.”

So she’s very active as a photographer.

But she’s got a lot of [other] write-ups in the paper.

The wedding notice actually talks about her as being very popular with newspaper reporters; I have a feeling maybe [with] at least one newspaper reporter, who always got private access to a lot of the things that she was doing. was probably invited by Mrs Ober to get some publicity.

The newspaper reporter was given special access to the wedding, in fact, because not many people are invited to that particular wedding.

But one of the articles in 1893, before she gets married, describes Mrs. Ober as “more than a mere photographer”. I like that, “more than a mere photographer.”

The wedding notice actually makes a big deal about how she is a very popular elocutionist or reader, invited to parties to read other people’s writings, books, but also her own poetry, it says.

It’s also in 1893, in that article that describes her as “more than a mere photographer”, she’s described as an honorary member of the Boston pilots association.

That’s the Boston Harbor Pilots Association.

It turns out that Mrs Ober is pretty good at piloting a boat.

One thing that was interesting at the end of that article is that Mrs Ober is quoted as saying she is “not an advocate for women’s rights”, despite the fact that she has all these accomplishments beyond what the typical woman of her day would do.

But then we get to 1894.

And in June of 1894, she’s in the newspapers because she is what’s described as “the chief encourager” for a woman named Annie Londonderry.

Now, Annie Londonderry is the pseudonym of a woman who decided to take up the challenge that said a woman could not possibly do a bike trip around the world.

A couple of years before this, there had been a man who had decided to bike around the world.

He had taken a challenge that said he couldn’t bike around the world on limited funds, and of course he did do this.

He was able to successfully complete his journey on [a] bike, around the world, raising money as he went by doing odd jobs.

So the idea was that a woman couldn’t possibly do this kind of journey.

But Annie Londonderry has announced she is going to be the one to take up this challenge and prove women can do it.

Part of the deal is that she can’t just get money as sponsorship, she has to actually to earn the money as she goes.

Mrs. Ober-Towne is one of the organizers of this bike trip.

She actually orchestrates a huge sendoff for Annie Londonderry on the steps of town hall, I think it is, in Boston, where they get the press out, and they get coverage about the fact that Annie Londonderry is going to set off on this journey.

The article says that at the end of all the speeches, Miss Londonderry wheeled her bike down to Mrs Ober-Towne’s studio, where Mrs Ober-Towne employed her for a few hours, to get her to earn some money, because, of course, Annie Londonderry had to earn money order to do this trip.

So she earns some money from Mrs Ober-Towne’s employment, and then she also gets Mrs Ober-Towne to take her picture with her bike.

And she buys a bunch of cabinet cards so that she can sell those in order to raise money along the way during her journey.

I mean, Annie Londonderry is a fascinating character — her experience on this trip and her overall life are fascinating, and they are profiled in a book by one of her descendants.

I’ll put some links and pictures in the episode notes for this episode so you can read more about Annie Londonderry.

But what I find really interesting is that in 1893 Mrs Ober-Towne — well she was Mrs. Ober then — was quoted as saying she wasn’t particularly fond of or in favor of women’s rights.

But here she is in 1894, really supporting one of the symbols of the “New Woman” in that time.

Mrs. Ober-Towne, in addition to supporting and championing causes like that, also gets appointed in 1898 to be the war exhibition photographer — the 1898 War Exhibition.

Well, that’s quite interesting, because it’s not quite clear exactly what her connection has been to the groups that would be sponsoring the War Exhibition.

But she’s been very active in the social notices with the local DAR chapter.

In fact, a little bit later, she winds of dressing up as Martha Washington at a celebration the DAR has for George and Martha Washington’s wedding anniversary —well, the date that would have been their wedding anniversary.

Now, Clara Ober-Towne’s father had been a sergeant in the Civil War; he actually fought at Gettysburg.

But talking about her father reminds me that I haven’t actually told you anything about Clara Ober-Towne’s background, who she was, and where she came from.

But you may have caught back when I read that wedding notice that when she got married, she was Mrs Ober already; she had been married once before and so has Willis as it turns out.

When you look at the marriage registry, both of them are listed as photographers, {and] both she and Willis are listed as being married before.

Now for Clara, it turns out she was born Clara Frances Abbott in 1854.

Just as an aside, her parents turn out to have been married to each other twice. They show up as getting married in 1852 to each other, and then again in 1870 — to each other.

But as for Clara, well, she marries George Ober in 1880.

There is really sparse census information for both Claire and George.

Claire only shows up in the U. S. census in 1910 and 1930, after she’s already married to Willis Towne.

The 1910 census actually points out that she had had a child at some point before 1910, but that the child is not still alive in 1910.

But it’s hard to say which marriage that child had come from.

Now for George, I’m not sure what happened him. I did find a George Ober who is probably the same George Ober who married Clara Abbott.

He’s still alive after 1893, which would indicate that Clara and George must have divorced prior to 1893, before Clara and Willis Towne married.

But when Claire turns up in the record in newspapers it is in those ads initially, it’s as Mrs. Ober, lady photographer.

So it’s not clear when she started doing photography, if she started before or after her relationship with George ended.

Neither one of them were photographers back in 1880 when they got married.

Of course, after Clara marries Willis Towne she becomes Mrs Ober-Towne, with that hyphenated last name.

I have several theories about why she became the hyphenated Ober-Towne as a last name.

Maybe it was a way to connect her previous career as Mrs Ober to her new career as Mrs Ober-Towne, to indicate that she was the same lady photographer, and to help her clients find her after her marriage.

But another reason that she may have wanted to have that hyphenated last name is to make it clear that she was not just Mrs Willis Towne, because, you see, Willis had been married before, and his first wife was also a photographer.

So s I said at the beginning, today’s podcast is the Tale of Two Townes, and the second Towne I want to talk to you about is the first Mrs Willis Towne: she is a woman named Anna Wing Towne.

Anna Wing was born to Simon Wing, who was the inventor of type of camera called the “gem camera”; it was what’s called a “multiplane camera.”

It is a type of camera that allows a photographer to take multiple pictures on a single plate without having to remove the plate from the camera in between shots.

In the late nineteenth century this was pretty darn innovative, and so Simon Wing holds patents on cameras that he’s invented in the late eighteen hundreds.

And he’s able to build a huge franchise of photography studios all over the country.

He’s constantly going here and there, setting up new studios and taking on business.

But his main area of operation is in Boston, where he is [also] raising his family.

Now on a side note, Simon Wing in 1892 is the first socialist labor candidate for president.

He was either the first socialist candidate for president because he was the first person to run under the Socialist Party, or he’s the first Socialist to run who actually got enough votes to make it into the history books.

I never could quite tracked down which one of those things was true, but he is considered the first socialist Canada.

Now his daughter, Anna, gets married to Willis Towne on October 5, 1875 in Massachusetts.

And Willis is at that point working as a bookkeeper, according to the marriage registry.

Anna, though, doesn’t have any occupation listed.

So that’s 1875.

In the 1880 census for Boston, we find Anna and Willis living together with their two kids, along with Willis’ mother, brother and sister, all at 425 Washington Street.

Now, 425 Washington Street was where Simon Wing had a studio.

He actually raised his children at that location as well, so there most have been the living quarters and the studio.

Simon Wing had studios all over Boston, and all up and down Washington Street.

But that 425 Washington street address is where Simon Wing’s studio was until 1880.

In the 1880 census, Willis is listed as being a photographer.

And so I’m kind of thinking that Willis went into his father-in-law’s business, took over the studio, and started running a studio at that location around 1880.

But let me say that address again: 425 Washington Street in Boston

Does that ring any bells?

Remember that ad for Mrs Ober-Towne’s studio? The ads for Mrs Ober even before she became Ober-Towne?

Well, that 425 Washington Street — that is the address where Simon Wing had his studio.

.. where Willis Towne — who married Simon Wing’s daughter — sets up his studio,

… and where he continues to live …. except after 1893 he’s running a studio and living there with Clara Ober-Towne.

Which is interesting, then, because trying to figure out what happened here, it seems like Anna Wing would have been the logical person to take over the studio.

Because she actually was a photographer herself.

But clearly, she leaves, Willis stays behind, gets the studio, gets the apartment.

But Anna takes off and she move to Gardner, Massachusetts, where she sets up a new studio.

Her studio is called Towne and Whitney, because she is running it with a woman named Alma Whitney.

Now, in 1893, around the time when Willis and Clara marry, ads start to appear in the newspapers for this Towne and Whitney studio in Gardner, Massachusetts.

But there’s also a notice for a sheriff’s sale in the location where the Towne and Whitney studio had started.

And the notice actually says, well, that building is going to be auctioned off, and it’s where, you know, the Towne and Whitney studio had been.

Which is interesting — so the Towne and Whitney studio would have been well-known enough to be of location information on a building that’s about the auctioned.

Now the auction had nothing to do with Towne and Whitney; they did not actually own the building, they just rented rooms there.

They move their studio, and they continue to run their studio in Gardner, Massachusetts for several decades.

They are very popular in Gardner; the notices always described them as “the popular lady photographers” in Gardner, Massachusetts.

They hold exhibitions, they are doing their studio cabinet cards, etc., etc., and really making a living making a good living off of photography there in Gardner, Massachusetts.

So we do see Anna and Alma in the 1900 census in Gardner, Massachusetts.

They are both identified as being photographers, Anna is the head of household and Alma is identified as “partner”.

What’s also interesting is that in the 1900 census we see that Anna has a very good relationship with her children.

These are the children she had with her husband Willis.

Now there was no imagination in naming the children, because the daughter is named Anna after Anna the mother, and the son is named Willis, after the father Willis.

But what’s interesting is that they are living with their mother.

Apparently Anna didn’t get the studio, but she salvaged her relationship with the children enough that they came and lived with her.

In fact, in 1900 they’ve actually start working as photographers as well.

As I mentioned the Towne and Whitney studio in Gardner, Massachusetts was a very active concern.

They are in the news — they are advertising for helpers at various places.

But the ads start to taper off toward 1920.

THere’s just not a lot of information that I’ve been able to find online about their business.

But I can tell you that by 1940 they are both retired.

They are still in Gardner, but they are now retired.

I should stop for a just a moment and say just a little bit about Alma Whitney.

She was born in Massachusetts in 1862, and it appears from the online information that I could find out about her [that] prior to 1893 she worked as a teacher.

But somewhere around 1893 — and, again I don’t know the exact date — but that’s when she’s clearly Anna Wing Towne’s partner, running that photography studio in Gardner.

The first mention of her as a photographer is actually in conjunction with her work at the Towne and Whitney studio.

And as I mentioned before in the 1900 census, she’s living in the same house with Anna, and also listed as being a photographer.

There’s’s not a lot that I can piece together after the 1920s about the Towne and Whitney partnership, however it’s clear from the 1940 census that both Alma and Anna have retired.

And that’s one of the challenges with doing this kind of research with mostly online materials, is that sometimes you run into an impasse where the trail just starts to run cold.

Now there’s a little bit about Clara and Willis that pops up after they leave Boston.

In a ships registry in 1908 Willis still list himself as a photographer as they are travelling, but Clara does not list herself as a photographer by that point.

They’ve already moved to Springfield in 1908, and in the 1910 census Willis is running the Towne studio.

Claire is not listed as a photographer, but it’s possible that she was still doing some photography.

I’ve seen that with other wives, where I know that they’re doing photography from other things, but they actually don’t list themselves as photographers when the husband is running a studio.

By 1930 Clara and Willis are living in a boarding house in Springfield.

They don’t list any occupations.

By then they are both 76 years old, so it’s quite possible that they were simply retired then.

Willis Towne actually dies in 1932, just a couple of years after that census.

Clara lives be 81, dying in 1935. Both of them are buried in the same cemetery, but not in the same grave.

As for Anna and Alma, well the 1940 census they are listed still living in Gardner but they’re now retired.

At that point Anna is 84 and alma is 79.

Now when we look at their tombstones, we see that Anna and Alma are actually buried together.

Alma died in 1948 at the age of 86; Anna lived to be 95, dying in 1952.

One thing to note about that grave, not only are Anna and Alma buried there, but also Anna’s daughter and son, as well as the spouses of the two children.

So that’s my Tale of Two Townes: three women photographers whose story is loosely connected by the fact that two of the women married the same man.

But the relationship with Willis Towne, or even with Anna’s father, Simon Wing, really seems to have had nothing to do with the fact that they were able to forge successful careers as photographers all on their own.

By the way don’t be surprised when Anna Wing Towne and Alma Whitney pop up in future episodes of this podcast.

They employed several women as assistants in the Towne and Whitney studio, who later went on to have successful photography studios of their own.

As always, stay tuned.

In the meantime, though, you can head over to my website to see some examples of the photos done by Clara Ober-Towne, Anna Wing Towne, and Alma Whitney, as well as to get links to information about all the other people I mentioned in today’s episode.

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

You can also email me at podcast “at” p3photographers “dot” net

That’s it for today. Thanks for stopping by!

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

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