56 – The Marvelous Mrs. Mater-Smith

In today’s episode we celebrate the life of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Mater-Smith, a successful – and resourceful! — photographer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Here’s the beautiful photo by Mrs. M.E. Mater-Smith of the Mater Art Studio that Chris and I found:

Photo by Mrs. M. E. Mater-Smith (Courtesty McIntyre-Culy collection)
Photo by Mrs. M. E. Mater-Smith (Courtesty McIntyre-Culy collection)

And here are a few of the Mater Art Studio ads:

The Chanute Daily Tribune, Jan 6, 1893
The Chanute Daily Tribune, Jan 6, 1893
The Chanute Daily Tribune, Sept 9, 1897
The Chanute Daily Tribune, Sept 9, 1897
The Sun, Dec 9, 1900
The Sun, Dec 9, 1900


Regarding the hats, here’s an ad for Mrs. Mater-Smith’s millinary shop from 1908:

The Sun, Mar 13, 1908
The Sun, Mar 13, 1908

I can only assume the hat in in this illustraiton of a “College Widow” is what is meant by a College Widow Hat:

<em>College widow</em>, Library of Congress # LC-DIG-ppmsca-46089
College widow, Library of Congress # LC-DIG-ppmsca-46089

Compare that to the Merry Widow Hat:

The Fashion Folks website has a nice writeup about the Merry Widow Hat to get a quick history of the hat.

This is the hat which causes such a stir that it’s banned in some places in 1908. There are numerous articles throughout 1908 like this one from the St. Louis Dispatch on May 5th of that year, outline all the potential plusses  and pitfalls of wearing a merry widow hat. The article is quite long, but here are the highlights:

St Louis DIspatch, May 5, 1908
St Louis DIspatch, May 5, 1908
St Louis DIspatch, May 5, 1908 (sidebar)
St Louis DIspatch, May 5, 1908 (sidebar)

By the way, in the episode I mention the coincidence of another women photographer, Julia Bottomley, who’s career also was from photography > millinery. Mrs. Bottomley and Mrs. Mater-Smith could have crossed passed in Pueblo, Colorado in the later 1880s and early 1890s. You can learn more about Julia Bottomley here in this episode on some Colorado photographers.



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Welcome to Photographs, Pistols & Parasols, the podcast where we celebrate early women artisan photographers.

I’m your host, Lee McIntyre.

In today’s episode, we’re going to meet the marvelous Mrs Mater-Smith, a photographer from Chanute, Kansas.

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.


Hi everybody. Welcome back to Photographs, Pistols & Parasols. I hope this finds you all doing well and staying healthy in this crazy times we’re living with right now.

In today’s episode, I want to take you back over a hundred years to introduce you to a woman named Mary Elizabeth Mater-Smith. She’s an astute business woman who was able to overcome several setbacks in order to support her family of five children in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Mary Elizabeth Starkey was born on December 31, 1857 in a place called Looking Glass, Illinois.

In 1874, just a week before her 17th birthday, she marries a man named A.G. Mater. Now, A.G. Mater is a “grocery drummer” – and if you’re like me, you may never have heard that term before. But a grocery drummer is just a grocery traveling salesman. Drummer, as it turns out in the 19th century, was a common way to refer to a traveling salesman.

The Maters are living in Chanute, Kansas, raising their family, which by 1895 includes three childre, with a fourth on the way. Sadly though, in January of 1885. A.G. Mater is stricken with what is described in the newspapers as either a congestive lung problem or a congestive brain problem.

Whatever it is, it’s serious. A.G. Mater dies at the end of January, 1895. Less than two weeks later, his youngest child, son A.G. junior, is born.

So Mary Mater is left in early 1885 as a young widow with four children, including the baby who was born after her husband died. She’s got a feed this family, and she is less than 30 years old herself.

Fortunately, A.G. Mater actually had some insurance.

Now it’s not clear if the insurance was just for life insurance, or whether it was some sort of accident policy, like an accidental injury policy. The newspapers – in his obituary – talk about the fact that in late 1884, he had actually suffered an accident and fractured his arm and had been unable to work.

So really, in January of 1885, he was just getting back to work when he was stricken down with an illness.

The newspaper accounts don’t say why, but before they would pay out any money the insurance companies insisted on exhuming his body!

They actually exume the body in March of 1885, but by April it’s all settled. and they agreed to pay out on the policies, at least a total of $7,000.

Now I looked it up, and $7,000 in 1885 would have the buying power of about $185,000 in 2020. So that’s a lot of money.

But remember, Mrs Mater is a very young widow with four children to support, and that’s not going to be really enough money to keep her going for the rest of her life. So she invests into buying some land and building a house big enough to take in some borders.

That becomes very successful. And in the late 1880s eighties and early 1890s, there notices in the paper that she and her children are going back and forth between Chanute, Kansas, where they live, and Pueblo or other parts of Colorado where her relatives live, including Mrs Mater’s mother.

One thing I find intriguin, though, is that it’s not that she goes there in the summer when Kansas is beastly hot. BUt Mrs Mater and the children often winter in Colorado. Maybe they just really liked the mountains?

In any case, by 1892 Mrs Mater has brought her entire family back to Chanute, Kansas, where she buys a photography studio and then renames it the Mater Art Studio.

Up to this point, there’s been no mention of anyone in Mrs Mater’s family ever having been a photographer, neither her brother (who also lives in Chanute) nor anyone who lives in Colorado.

But it’s intriguing that in Pueblo, Colorado, in the early 1890s, there is a woman named Julia Bottomley.  And as I’ll mention in a moment, it’s intriguing to speculate that there might be some sort of connection or inspiration coming from Julia Bottomley in her career that helps inspire some of what happens with Mrs Mater.

Alright, so in 1892 Mrs Mater has bought that studio and renamed it the Mater Art Studio. But then in June of 1893, after taking out some splashy ads in 1892 and early 18993 for her studio, she actually announces that a man named Gregg is going to come in and start taking over that space with his studio. He takes out a lot of ads saying that he’s going to do just that.

But then there’s a big editorial against him in July of 1893 that really lambastes him for lying about doing the photography himself, and saying that he’s actually sending it out to be printed in another town, and this is horrible way to do business.

And so you can only speculate that this was going to be very negative publicity for his business, but he does keep limping along there in Chanute with his studio in Mrs Mater’s building until November of 1893 when there’s a huge fire in town. That building, along with several others there in town, all burn to the ground.

Now, Mrs Mater is willing to help Gregg and actually gives him some support for setting up again, but not in Chanute. Because, you see, she reopens the Mater Art Studio in herself, and Gregg doesn’t really come back to town until a little bit later.

But I’m getting ahead of myself because as I said at the beginning, this woman’s name is Mrs Mater-Smith. And so, you’re probably wondering, well, where did the “Smith” come from?

You see as it turns out, in December of 1893 Mrs Mater marries a man named W.H. Smith, but she doesn’t just change her name to just Smith, she actually uses the hyphenated Mater-Smith.

And, when she reopens the Art Studio, she reopens it as Mater Art Studio, but now she’s Mrs M E Mater-Smith running the studio.

So it’s intriguing to me that. Like Mrs. Vreeland —  if you think back to her in an earlier podcast episode —  the idea of the brand, the importance of the brand name, is really key here.

So, since the Mater Art Studio had apparently gained enough of a reputation before her marriage to W. H. Smith, she maintains that brand even as she changes her name to the hMater-Smith.

Now, I have to say that Mrs Mater-Smith does have this intriguing relationship with this photographer named Gregg because she helps him, as I said, set up after he’s burnt out in 1893. But then runs the [rebuilt] studio herself in 1884.

But then after a short time apparently she is feeling comfortable enough to rent out the studio again and help Gregg get established his feet again after the big fire.

And life goes along for a couple of years, where she is getting income from her rental properties with the boarders, and she’s getting income from renting her studio out. But then she’s not actually actively working at any job herself … until W. H. Smith’s business starts to falter.

And when I saw falter, I mean fail — because he has problems with creditors.

There are notices in the newspaper that creditors are going to have to apply to get their money if they want it, but they have to come after him [W.H. Smith] if they want it.

Clearly he’s having a lot of money problems.

So maybe it’s not so surprising that in parallel with those notices about W.H. Smith’s creditors there are notices about Mrs Mater-Smith going back into the photography business. She’s taking the studio back; she’s it running herself, and she’s making a big success of it!

Remember, she had four children from her first marriage, and by this time she and W.H. have actually had another daughter, meaning five children to support at home.

And W.H. Smith’s business is really not doing well at all. It goes completely under.

So Mrs Major-Smith comes back to photography; she subsequently runs that gallery until 1904, when she announces that the Mater Art Studio will be closing.

But up until then … she’s taken out splashy ads, making a good business out of it.

And when that other photographer, Gregg, finally does close for good later, like in the late 1890s she actually takes his negatives. Right up until she closes in 1904, she has ads in the newspaper saying that if anyone wants reprints from the Greggg studio, they should just come see her.

OK. So in 1904, Mrs Mater-Smith announces she’s closing the mayor Art Studio, getting out of the photography business and seemingly retiring for good.

Except … W.H. Smith has gone into another business. And again, it doesn’t do so well. So by around 1906, Mrs Mater-Smith announces that she is back in business … except it’s a different business, because now instead of photography, she’s actually gone into millinery. You know, making hats.

From the end of the first decade of the 19th century, up until the early 1910s, Mrs Mater-Smith’s millinery business is now the hot business in town.

She’s taken out big splashy ads about how she’s got the best trimmers hired and all kinds of the latest things. Periodially, she’s going to Chicago, she’s going to Kansas City to see all the latest fashions.

In 1908 for example, she takes out a big ad that her military shop now has the =shapes available forthe both Merry Widow and the College Widow hats.

Right. I just want to pause here because I was like, wait, okay, Merry Widow hats. So that I figured was related to the Merry Widow operetta. I mean, I know the Marriott had a wall sky, and I kind of know about the operetta, but I know that there’s usually a big hat involved with lots of feathers and things like that.

But the College Widow hats were something new for me. And it was also just a surprise to see these such ads for the Merry Widow hats. So I did a little digging and it turns out that the Merry wWdow hats were actually really kind of controversial.

I mean, they caused riots almost in the way that they got banned in certain churches and places.

There were all these things in the newspapers about all the benefits of the Merry Widow hat and/or the problems that you’d have if you were wearing one. There was one great story that a woman got stuck on a train. Essentially she didn’t have the hat on when she boarded the train, but when she went to leave the train, she’d put the hat on, and the hat was so wide they couldn’t figure out how to get her off the train because her hat was wider than the hallway.

Someone finally suggested that she take the hat off and she does that and is able to exit the train.

But then there’s another church that ban the hats from being worn in church because they block the view of the minister if the people in the front pews are wearing the Merry WIdow Hats, since they’re so big.

Now, some churches ban them outright. For example, there was a church that said that men could smoke during the service, but women could not wear the Merry Widow hats cause it was too disruptive.

But then there was another church story that said that because there were these women wearing Merry Widow hats in the front pews lives were saved by preventing a panicked stampede when a fire broke out on the alter, and the alter boys and the priest actually had to figure out how to quickly put out that fire. The account of it in the newspaper said later that see nobody behind the women in the front pews even knew there was a fire, since no one could see behind those the women wearing those Merry Widow hats.

So see it Merry Widow hat could be a really good thing or not a good thing. So that’s Merry Widow hat.

Now that College Widow hat is another matter; that’s sort of an odd thing I had never heard of.

And so I looked it up. And so in Merriam Webster dictionary, a College Widow is defined “as a young woman in a College town who dates students of successive college classes.””

But I got to think that’s kind of a sort of negativeconnotation to that. So it was odd to see that there’s a hat associated with that.

But then I found in the Library of Congress archive a drawing of a woman in a, well, it looks like a small-scale Merry Widow hat. It’s not not quite as huge as the Merry Widow hat, but it has the same kind of feathers on it. And the woman in the drawing is described as a “College Widow””. So she’s in this hat, and then she’s surrounded by all of the College pennants representing all of the men that she’s dated?

Again, there’s no context for that in the Library of Congress archive, but I have a feeling that’s not a very positive connotation. But it is interesting to see how things were being advertised for women’s hats circa 1908.

All right. Now, well, getting back to Mrs Mater-Smith though, the point is she is a very successful milliner.

She runs that millinery studio in Chanute, Kansas, right up until 1911 when she takes an ad in the paper saying that she’s closing because of illness.

What’s happening is that her husband, W. H. Smith has become ill, and so she’s devoting a little more time to nursing him.

It’s interesting to note as well that her older children from her first marriage are by this point all grown, and most of them have gotten married, uh, at this point, or are about to get married.

In fact, I think one of them gets married in 1911 or 1912.

But some of her older children actually for a time at least, did actually work in her businesses. So when she had that Mater Art Studio, her son George and her daughter, Gertrude, also known as Amy, actually worked in the photography studios as photographers.

One of her other daughters, Ada, in 1910 is in the directory as working with her mother at the military shop.

So it’s kind of fun to see her children actually growing to adulthoo and then joining her in some of her businesses.

Now her youngest daughter is Susan Jesse Smith, who’s normally just called Jessie. She’s the daughter of W.H. and Mary Mater-Smith, the daughter of that second marriage.

So Jessie is still in high school in the early 1910s, but she has a very promising elocution and theatrical musical career.

And after maybe W. H.Smith recovers a bit, he and Mary are able to send Jessie to some special training in Kansas City. In fact, 1914 Mrs Mater-Smith and her daughter Jessie are off living in Kansas for a few months while Jesse is getting the specialized training. W. H. is living in a boarding house [in Chanute] while his wife and daughter are away.

Sadly, W. H. Smith collapses on the porch of the boarding house where he’s staying and is brought back inside. However, he’s either had a heart attack or some sort of stroke or some sort of seizure or something, and he doesn’t recover consciousness before he dies that afternoon.

His wife and his daughter are unable to get back to Chanute before he dies, unfortunately, arriving only in time for the funeral.

So Mrs Mater-Smith is left a widow yet again.

But at this point, she’s actually freer to start following Jesse Smith’s career, and Jesse Smith moves around quite a bit. She is in Manhattan, New York at one point, working as an editor, but also pursuing her theatrical and vocal careers. Because shortly thereafter she’s also back in Kansas City taking a job, teaching music in Kansas city.

And Mrs Mater-Smith follows her daughter there, too. And what’s interesting is that Mrs Mater-Smith at one point actually opens another a millinery shop, but this time in Kansas city. Jesse gets married several times and is sometimes known by her first married name, Schwenk. Jesse Smith Schwenk is the song described as “the songbird” ome of the newspaper articles that advertise her recitals, but by 1940 she and her mother are back living in Manhattan, New York City, where Jesse is working for a newspaper as an editor.

At that point in 1940 Mrs Mater-Smith is no longer listening to an occupation, just living with her daughter. In 1945. Mrs Mater-Smith passes away and is brought back to Chanute where she’s buried.

Chris and I were struck with the life story about the marvelous Mrs Mater-Smith, as I call her. Shee was just so resilient, so willing to roll up her sleeves and figure out a way to support her family. So when her second husband’s business falls apart — twice! — she’s able to figure out how to go back into business and make some money to support the family.

Obviously when she’s first left a widow, she also rolls up her sleeves and figures out what to do with the payout that she gets [from the insurance] so she could continue to get income to support her family. That’s before she decides to open that studio, of course.

And as I mentioned, I’m really intrigued by the similarities in her story going from photography to millinery and and the story of Julia Bottomley, a woman who was a photographer in Pueblo, Colorado.

I think it’s to think that Mrs Mater-Smith would have run across Julia Bottomley, the photographer in Pueblo, because Julia Bottomley, who I previously talked about on the podcast, actually did go from photography to millinery as well.

It’s always intriguing to see some of the connections and parallels between a lot of these women photographers. But Mrs. Mater-Smith is particularly compelling, since her career is one of the ups and downs but always demonstrating an astute ability to run a business and make money and be successful. She’s able to constantly reinvent herself in a way that we might expect in the 21st century someone to be an astute entrepreneur, but we might not have expected discover in the late 19th and early 20th century. Well, I certainly didn’t until I started diving into the women of this project, of course.

So that’s why I hope you join me in celebrating the career and life of Mrs Mary Elizabeth Mater-Smith.


As always, I’ll be putting information on the website about some of Mrs Mater-Smith ads and career, as well as that beautiful picture that was produced by Mrs Mater-Smith in the Mater Art Studio. Chris and I were particularly excited to find this for sale at one point because it’s very rare to find any kind of photo produced by the Mater Art Studio.

So I’ll share that all on the website. Which is, as always, at p3photographers.net. That’s letter “p”, number “3” photographers “do” net.

Remember, you can always drop me an email: podcast “at” p3photgraphers.net.

And don’t forget to check out Photographs, Pistols & Parasols on facebook at facebook.com/p3photographers.

I also try to post any updates about the project and also any updates about other interesting women photographers that I see profiled elsewhere on the Internet. I post them on the Facebook page, so I hope you’ll check it out.

So that’s it for today.

Thanks as always for checking out the episode here on Photographs, Pistols & Parasols.

Again, I hope you’re all staying well and staying safe in these crazy times.

So, until next time, I’m Lee McIntyre, and this is Photographs, Pistols & Parasols.