Education, Homemaking, and Gender-Bending through Props: More Photos from the GEA Collection

By February 20, 2008

The props coal county women chose to include in their valuable portraits reveal deepening layers of their concept of gender and equality. The traveling tent studio could not afford the space to transport fashionable or particularly exceptional props to the mining towns. Subsequently, patrons often brought their own valuables, and thus their own values, to include in their framed lives as particularly cherished objects.

Of the thousands of portraits from central Utah, books and diplomas by far rank as the most common prop used by women. They sit nearby and carry stacks of books, read out of books, gesture toward books, and proudly display books.[1] Dora Lowry, a young woman from Manti and possibly Andersen’s own sister-in-law, stands in a sumptuous parlor scene flanked by a soft reading chair and a stack of thick books. Smiling, she holds a folio volume toward the camera, emphasizing both her actual literacy and the pride it rewards her.[2] Literacy was obviously valued on an individual level, even in the backwoods territories of central Utah where libraries were virtually nonexistent.



Beyond the individual, however, book props in group and couple portraits reveal a more complicated culture of female literacy. In countless portraits of married pairs, the husband stands by, usually without a prop, while his wife prominently displays or indicates toward a book.[3] In addition, more casual family portraits often depict the wife or mother as teacher, usually the only one holding the literary prop. The family portrait of Erastus Barney Family from Lake Shore, Utah is a particularly apt example and depicts the book-wielding matron surrounded by a group of attentive sons and daughters, lounging on their front lawn.[4] Though a few portraits invert this motif, bringing the books to the father figure, the overwhelming majority indicate a cultural concept that while a husband worked for his family, a woman learned and taught.

william-johnson-woman-with-book.jpg mrs-barney-with-book.jpg

Hundreds of graduation portraits produced by Andersen only strengthen the reality of gendered education. From Cedar Fort to Price, Wellington to Scofield, from eighth grade graduations to Normal school certification, women always outnumber the men. Often, the ratio is

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two or even three female graduates to one man, all proudly posing while their beribboned diplomas cover the foreground.[5] The sheer repetition of the phenomenon almost makes it seem mundane. However, the statistics

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are surprising enough compared to the United States as a whole, let alone in the supposedly backwater territory of Utah, the mining counties being even the “backwater” of the backwater. It may be impossible to determine whether the difficulties of mining or irrigational farming caused this disparity or if it directly arose from the progressive reforms of the Exponent. However, the evidence of Andersen’s portraits clearly signifies the result that women in the coal counties consistently outnumbered men in academic achievement.



However, even though a Utah woman’s role often necessarily included education and literacy, the coal county wives still put in their fair share of homemaking and homesteading. As a popular song, reprinted in the Woman’s Exponent, proclaimed, “We’ll learn to wash and bake and brew/the best and quickest way/and try to sweep and dust and stew/and not consume the day/But garner time to study too.”[8] The women of the coal counties still saw their primary responsibility within the home rather than in the public sphere. However, they did not consider their hard work degrading, but rather part of an equal load necessitated by the opening of new territory. This attitudeĀ of equal yet separate frontier responsibility is perfectly captured in the couple portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Overlade from Emery.[9] They proudly stand next to each other in front of a new, paneled home, Mrs. Overlade wielding her broom while Mr. Overlade carries his shovel. Neither takes precedence over the other in the photograph, but both assume different responsibilities and take pride in their props and thus in their “separate spheres”.



Yet, even when these gendered boundaries seemed well defined, women often blurred the lines between domestically “feminine” work and more “masculine” duties. Women often worked along with men during the harvest, captured by Andersen’s lens with their props of horses and wagons. In one hay-cutting shot from the small farming community of Lake Shore, the men oversee the hay crane while Mrs. Barney, standing out in her blurred, wind-blown white dress and sunhat, leads a large team horse through the newly mown field.[10] Women also proudly owned and showed livestock, a typically “masculine” activity. This has already been seen in Mrs. K.P. Jensen’s homestead portrait to her missionary husband, with the three healthy cows lined up in the background. In another portrait, K.M. Jorgensen stands in front of her white picket fence, showing her prize black stud horse while her husband, unobtrusive, looks on in the background.[11] His visual marginalization, standing inside a traditionally “female” space behind the white picket fence, places him in the “feminine” role, while his wife uses her property as a “masculine” prop. The coal counties of Utah thus simultaneously emphasized women’s role as an educated homemaker, yet also blurred the lines between domesticity and the more typically masculine roles of farmer and livestock owner.


[1] Particular prevalent examples include GEA Collection, #1298, #1300, #2613, #4880, #5177, #20506, #18830.[2] GEA Collection, #2841.

[3] GEA Collection, #10864, #14648, #13973

[4] GEA Collection, #11337, “Mrs. Barney, Lake Shore Utah.” It is interesting to note how women often are sitting in these photographs. Mrs. Barney sits while the other figures take a subservient position at her feet. In other photographs, women sit while the man stands behind. Although there are many portraits in which this is reversed, the fact that women can be seen sitting is particularly interesting when portrait etiquette common at that time is considered. In Victorian portraiture, the seated figure is always the individual with more authority. See Kenneth L. Ames, Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 188.

[5] GEA Collection, #6341 “Cedar Fort, 1900” is three to one. #9190 “Graduates” two to one. #18731 “Mapleton Graduates” seven to one. #15769 “Salem Graduates” two to one. #14452 “Gazetta Paxman” single portrait with bouquet and diploma. #12312 “Ella Tucket” portrait with diploma. #15263 Goshen Graduates

[8] Edwards, Belle D. “Song for Equal Rights: to the Tune of ‘Marching through Georgia.” Utah Women’s Suffrage Songbook, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 1885.

[9] GEA Collection, #12420 “A. Overlade, Emery, Utah.”

[10] GEA Collection, #11338 “Barney, Lake Shore, Utah”

[11] GEA Collection, #13939 “K. M. Jorgensen.”

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Mrs. Barney’s book is priceless. Those men flanking her are right off a Chippendale’s calendar.

    I wonder how much Anderson was pursuing an agenda with some of these photos.

    Comment by smb — February 20, 2008 @ 8:49 am

  2. Excellent. This makes me disappointed that the photos I have of my ancestors don’t include any props or settings. They’re almost all done in a chair with a backdrop.

    Those dresses are so neat.

    Comment by Susan M — February 20, 2008 @ 11:13 am

  3. Thanks Heidi. More great stuff. Keep it coming.

    Comment by David G. — February 20, 2008 @ 11:15 am

  4. Heidi,

    Is it possible to identify any of these books? I’m wondering if Mormon women would include scriptures in their portraits, or other more secular works.

    Also, completely tangentially but somewhat related to footnote 8 — it seemsly highly ironic that Mormon women would be singing a suffrage song to the tune of a song about Union (American) government domination. Did content matter or was it just a jaunty melody?

    Comment by kris — February 20, 2008 @ 11:54 am

  5. Very cool stuff Heidi. Keep ’em coming. I’m loving the photo essay posts.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 20, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

  6. Dora Lowry seems to be holding a copy of Church Chronology. The top book on the table may be History of the War in India (Malcolm). The second book in the stack seems to be a history of the United States.

    Mrs. Barney appears to be holding a copy of Young People’s Natural History.

    Comment by Justin — February 21, 2008 @ 9:43 am

  7. whoaaaa Justin. How amazing are you? Seriously, how do you know that?

    Comment by Heidi — February 21, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

  8. Superhuman vision.

    Actually, using the images on the BYU website, I zoomed in on the books, saved the resulting images, and then enlarged the saved images in another program.

    FWIW, the library website states that Mrs. Barney is holding a photo album.

    Comment by Justin — February 21, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

  9. Heidi, Justin is Justin. That’s all that needs to be said.

    Comment by Ray — February 21, 2008 @ 4:03 pm


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