The “New Woman” in Central Utah

By February 16, 2008

As a historian I, of course, have some issues with historians. My main bugaboo this past year has been what I term “source prejudice.” We favor textual documents over visual, no doubt about it. What really gets me is that one of the main defenses for this has been that textual documents are more open and reliable, visual more obscure and relative. Well now, there are definitely interpretation issues within textual documents too; we still need to consider intention, audience, possible deception, etc. etc. etc. in a journal entry as well as in a propaganda poster.

In a crusaderly mood then, I undertook writing a cultural history paper about a time, place, and people that left behind little textual evidence, but a great deal of visual sources–the late 19th/early 20th century women of central Utah. Recently, the George Edward Andersen collection has been uploaded online, giving public access to tens of thousands of images, most of which feature portraiture and landscape scenes from places like Scofield and Manti, and as I zeroed in on the women in these pictures, I discovered an exceptionally progressive collective culture of economic independence, cultural refinement, gender equalities, and even forward-thinking fashion.

Of course, like I noted above, every source has its flaws, textual and visual. I tried to be open-minded yet carefully critical of my interpretations. What ultimately solidified my argument was being able to show that the few textual sources that were available (in a smattering of journals, Women’s Exponent archives, and immigration statistics) were in agreement


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with what I could see in the photographs.

With this rather rambling introduction, I think I would like to treat my posts as spotlights on these remarkable portraits I had the privilege of studying. Since I cannot possibly spotlight every striking example of the “New Woman” in Utah, I’ll try to pick a few that are particularly fascinating.



Anna Thompson

This is the photograph that started it all. The moment I saw Anna Thompson from Scofield, Utah striking that pose I needed more. I mean, isn’t this remarkable?! Dating 1898, she is at the height of fashion with her large sleeves, belted traveling skirt, and “clerk” collar. Even better, she is outside, presumably tromping through fields and boulders armed with an umbrella and hiking buddy. But what really attracted me to the portrait was the uncanny similarity it has to an iconic portrait painted by John Singer Sargent in 1896 of Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes.

Mrs. Phelps Stokes

You should know that when this painting was unveiled, it was considered a bit brassy. Mrs. Stokes’ pose–looking straight forward, hand on hip, confident smile– was considered “too strong” and “too powerful to be properly feminine.” What an unexpected surprise to find the same “brassy” attitude, not posed by a painter but self-posed for a frontier photograph, in the smile and stance of Miss Anna Thompson of Scofield, Utah.

Looking through the archives, I also found a companion photograph that reveals an even higher degree of feminine freedom than even I supposed Utah women had at the time (let alone what the general American populace thinks these women were subjected to in “Mormondom”).


AT and Friends

Yessiree, they’re on a group date! Andersen’s meticulous notes confirm that this is simply Anna Thompson “and friends.” Wait, maybe they’re not even on a date! They might just be “hanging out”!! Okay, okay, I’ll be serious now. At any rate, the fact that a group of two women and two men, unrelated, identifying themselves as “friends,” would have their picture taken together in a setting that implies a good deal of healthy strolling and spatial freedom…well, it’s perfectly, marvelously, unexpectedly liberal!

Say hello to the “New Woman” exactly in the place you would never suspect her to be: stereotypically patriarchal, orthodox, hick-town mining camp, frontier Utah.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating stuff. Thanks Heidi. Have you found any pictures similar to these (with strong, assertive-looking women) any earlier than the 1890s? Or does that decade seem to mark the beginning of the “New Mormon Woman”?

    Comment by Christopher — February 16, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

  2. Heidi, thank you for this. It really is an intriguing use of sources. I do wonder if you were able to confirm if Miss Thompson was LDS? Her coming from a mining town raises the question for me if she could have been a transplant from NY or something.

    Comment by David G. — February 16, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

  3. How much of this is a hunger to be seen as fashionable? What poses did the models for clothing retailers assume?
    I suspect their homes and farms were too humble to function well as backdrops for (fashionable) photographs, so you may need to be cautious about your inferences on bucolic courtship settings.
    I agree, though, that we need to consider visual sources as well. Keep the pictures coming.

    Comment by smb — February 16, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

  4. Christopher– There are other photos that could fit that description in the Savage collection, for example. However, they are portraits of Northern Utah women who were more caught up in national/progressive trends. More access to newspapers, railroad, fashion, suffrage, etc. My main point in this paper was that though the “New Woman” isn’t much of a surprise in the North, finding it in the mining/farming camps of central Utah is rather surprising, especially because of their isolation. And, the central Utah Andersen photographs weren’t taken until the early 1890s.

    David–You’re right, it is tricky trying to label certain women as LDS or not. Though I’m sure that many were LDS, I leave considerable room in my bigger analysis I think to include non-LDS settlers because, as you note, there were a lot of settlers that came for the mining and not for the religion. However, I think it is still remarkable to find these kinds of poses, fashions, freedoms in any frontier mining town. I read a few studies of portraits from other mining towns in Wisconsin and Minnesota and the general consensus was that they were characterized by a certain lifelessness and melancholy squallor (I know that sounds harsh, but it was). That’s what makes these photos even more remarkable! What was it about Utah that was different?

    smb–all good points. In some of the other photos I analyzed I noted that all portraits are a type of performance, that what you see isn’t necessarily what was real. I noted how many of these photographs were done up to project a type of prosperity that these people actually did not have (a few journals and Andersen’s diary were especially useful there). So, yes, there definitely was a hunger to be seen as fashionable, but I think that it’s still a valid point to note that their IDEA of what was fashionable, what they “performed”, actually was extremely forward thinking for the time (surprising seeing as central Utah wasn’t exactly “cosmopolitan” by any means).

    I’m definitely interested in your point about the retailers though. I hadn’t thought about trying to track down Sears catalogues. That would be REALLY interesting to look into. Thanks!

    As for the backdrops, the huuuuge majority of these, like you said, “fashionable” portraits were actually done in Andersen’s traveling tent studio where he provided painted sets of well-furnished living rooms or manicured garden/greek column options and the like. That is why this Thompson photograph is still rather remarkable. Also, there are many, many photographs of people in front of their own homes and property (hopefully I’ll put them up), so I’m not sure if that point, though I see what you’re getting at, is still valid within this particular photograph collection.

    Comment by Heidi — February 16, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

  5. Oh! And I wanted to mention that I spell it “AndersEn” but SpecColl at BYU spelled it “AndersOn.” It’s weird, I know. But, half of my sources on the man spell it one way, the other half the other way. I ended up going with the spelling given in a brief biography done by Rell Francis.

    Comment by Heidi — February 16, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

  6. Heidi, fair enough. I think that framed in terms of mining towns across the West, then yes this raises some important questions. I’d still love to get more information on Miss Thompson, who her family was, etc. I’m also intrigued that her “friends” appear to be soldiers, meaning they likely were not native Utahns. Paul Reeve’s analysis of Mormon-non-Mormon interactions in Southern Utah suggests that although the Saints maintained strong boundaries during the 1860s-1880s (or so), that by the turn of the century Mormon leaders were actually inviting non-Mormons to youth dances, suggesting that the boundaries had become much more porous.

    Comment by David G. — February 16, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

  7. Heidi,

    This is fascinating. More, more!

    In the third picture, the men are soldiers and therefore almost certainly gentiles.

    The Sargent painting identifies the woman as Mrs., but Anna and her friend are unmarried, at least I hope they are if they are double-dating infantrymen. I think the points you are making are interesting, but I would also like to know if you have discovered a difference in the way these women present themselves that can be traced to their marital status.

    Comment by Mark IV — February 16, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

  8. Mark–quick question. Were LDS men not allowed to join the military around this time? Andersen ID’s one of the men as a local boy from Scofield who later dies in the Scofield mine disaster. Apparently he was enlisted in the war during the time this picture was taken.

    Comment by Heidi — February 16, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

  9. Fun post, Heidi. I especially liked the other woman’s hat.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — February 16, 2008 @ 5:54 pm

  10. Might be useful to see whether these women were daughters of Mormon royalty. I have a vague memory of Utah controversies about these provincial princesses taking special pride in the latest “Gentile” fashions.

    Did Anderson bring outfits with him? Were they borrowing stage props or showing off their latest acquisitions?

    Comment by smb — February 16, 2008 @ 8:01 pm

  11. Anna Thompson was from New York, and was a Gentile.

    (No, I don’t know everybody who ever visited Utah — but Anna was a niece of the Methodist minister Emil Edward Mork, who was a preacher for a few years at the community church in Marysvale, and I *do* know everybody who ever lived, died, visited, or sneezed in Marysvale.)

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — February 16, 2008 @ 8:15 pm

  12. Haha, thanks Ardis. I guess the guessing game is up in terms of Thompson’s religious identity. Any ideas who her friend was and the two servicemen?

    Comment by David G. — February 16, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

  13. Nope. They must not have crossed the Piute County line. /grin/

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — February 16, 2008 @ 8:26 pm

  14. This is awesome. I love old photos. (I almost picked up some old wedding photos at a swap meet today, but I really don’t have room for more junk.) Can’t wait to see the next installment.

    Comment by Susan M — February 16, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

  15. I remember reading through Emmeline Wells’s diary (~1900, if I remember right), and being delighted with her account of getting some fried chicken and going up the canyon for a pick nick/hike.

    I’m traveling right now so I am shooting from the hip, but the various accounts of Eliza and Co., touring the various settlements for their RS marathon, appear to highlight a fair amount of female liberalism.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 16, 2008 @ 11:26 pm

  16. Heidi has given me a whole new way to avoid doing what I should be doing — these pictures are addictive!

    There are several of women with bicycles. Does that suggest something about feminine freedom, either in activity or in the dress required to permit such activity?

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — February 17, 2008 @ 12:17 am

  17. smb-No, Andersen couldn’t bring much with him because most of the time he was in C. Utah he had to cart everything out to rather remote towns. He usually only brought one backdrop, his glass plates, camera, tent, and maybe a nice chair or small desk (but that was very rare). Usually, people brought their own props.

    Ardis– Whoaaaaaaaaa! Can I have some of your info on Anna Thompson? What else do you know and how do you know it and how can I cite it?

    Comment by Heidi — February 17, 2008 @ 9:17 am

  18. Images of well-dressed Gentile women and the broader “liberalism” of women’s fashion gives a whole new aspect to BY’s incessant preaching about not mimicking Gentile fashions. Was this a complex attempt to keep women away from “liberation” in addition to being a boundary maintenance technique?

    Comment by smb — February 17, 2008 @ 9:26 am

  19. Here’s an excursion that I enjoyed reading about recently. It consisted of a group of unmarried friends including the journal keeper, Mary Pettit, age 23, and her future husband, English immigrant Harry Green, age 22. I would love to see the photos.

    19 May ? Monday [1890]
    This morning I arose at five and prepared for a trip to the canyon. In company with a large crowd we boarded the 7:30 train. In about one hour landed at a beautiful shady place in Parley canyon feeling very much pleased and refreshed with the ride. After finding a nice shady nook we partook of a hearty breakfast. There were about thirty at our camp. While still at the table we had a photo taken of the whole group. Harry went fishing but was not over burdened with fish. So roamed around gathering flowers viewing the scenery etc. Came back to camp. We then took another walk and seen some of the most delightful scenery I ever seen. We visited the falls and there had our photograph taken. Walked for some time. Had dinner, went fishing again and about 6:30 boarded the train for home. After arriving at home had supper. Harry and myself both agree upon it being one of the pleasantest days we have spent.

    Comment by East Coast — February 17, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

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