Beatrice Tonnesen (1871-1958) by Emma Dambek

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Betty Crowe (left) and Virginia Waller. Titled Waiting for Their Munsingwear. It was published by the Munsingwear Company on advertising calendars and fans.” Oshkosh Public Museum. 2007.76.13.

Beatrice Tonnesen most often used amateurs, but she featured several professional models including Eva Grady (aka Brady) seen here. A Chicago native, Grady was a showgirl in Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. Oshkosh Public Museum, 2007.76.169.

The interior of the Tonnesen studio in Chicago, about 1920. Many of these pieces of furniture appear as props in Beatrice’s photographs. Oshkosh Public Museum, 2007.76.74.



Beatrice Tonnesen (1871-1958) Emma Dambek

Self-portrait by Beatrice Tonnesen in the silhouette technique that she innovatively improved. From Munsey’s Magazine, November 1898, page 293.

Beatrice Tonnesen was born in Winneconne, Wisconsin, the daughter of Tonnes Tonnesen, a Norwegian immigrant storekeeper, and Mary Sumner Tonnesen. Beatrice, who had a hearing impairment from a young age, became fascinated by the visual arts. She began taking art classes as a child, and by the age of 24 she owned a studio in Chicago, Illinois, with her sister Clara Tonnesen Kirkpatrick. The work of Beatrice Tonnesen “inaugurates a new era in advertisement illustration,” declared The Photogram magazine in 1898.1 Through her use of photographs of live models, Tonnesen pioneered the creation of modern commercial advertising. Advertising before live models focused primarily on drawn illustrations of people or the product in order to sell to the reader. The use of live models in advertising helped buyers see themselves enjoying a product like no drawing ever could. Tonnesen’s images could also be used as stock photos for agencies, like calendar companies, who could then take the image and alter it to their needs. Her models included men, women, and children, many of whom she would run into on the street and ask to take their photos.2 The women who would become recurring models were known as “Tonnesen Girls.”3 One photography job Tonnesen took required the photos of 100 babies, half smiling and half crying. Tonnesen convinced mothers to bring their babies into the studio by offering a photo or two of their baby for free.4 By photographing live models in this new and innovative way, Tonnesen grew quite successful, one year earning more than $20,000.5 At the time, her success was well known among Chicago’s wealthy families, many hiring Tonnesen to take their portraits.6 In addition to changing the focus of advertising to live models, Beatrice also experimented with other types of photography, and is credited with refining silhouette photography. Before using photography to create silhouettes, the use of a physiognotrace created the dark portraits.7 The physiognotrace used levers and light to trace

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the person’s portrait, and reduce the size at the same time. If a silhouette artist was unable to use a physiognotrace, the tradition of hand-cutting silhouettes was very common and it allowed a wider audience to make this artform. Tonnesen’s process of taking these images was to have the subject sit against a piece of frosted glass, then use lighting and black sheets to create a silhouette image that was more accurate than one done by hand.8 While this was not a completely new idea, Tonnesen reinvented the way this art form was accomplished to be faster and more accurate. Tonnesen’s advancement into advertising was not a simple feat. Many people at the time did not agree with women working outside the home, particularly in this male-dominated profession. Women in advertising were celebrated as individuals rather than as a large group, though as a whole, women were recognized for being able to target certain groups.9 In 1891, Profitable Advertising printed this call to boycott The Boston Globe for encouraging women to write in a professional setting: The Boston Globe is encouraging women to become “writers on business,” female “Powers,” as it were; scientific experts, etc. O, General Taylor, this is too much. And offering prizes for advertisements, too, written by women! Great guns! There are about 6,946 male scientific advertising experts in the United States who will soon with Othello raise the very devil about their flown occupation. The result will be more disastrous than the female typewriter craze. Of course the women will cut rates. Boys, get together, formulate a union and boycott The Globe. Or start the women off on writing advertisements for pants. Would they succeed? Well, would they? They would find virtues in pants us poor males never dreamt of.10 This warning about women in the workspace was not an uncommon concern in many areas of the professional world. Another issue women in advertising encountered was having their successes as advertisers attributed to the fact


that they were women. Editors from Advertising Experience commented on Beatrice and Clara Tonnesen by saying, “The fact that the Tonnesens are women photographers has no doubt made it possible for them to secure a better class and a larger selection of models than could be secured by a male photographer.”11 By dismissing the Tonnesens’ successes as having been achieved merely as a result of their being women, the editors of this magazine discounted their abilities as innovative and talented advertisers who managed to change the way advertisements were presented. Tonnesen’s ingenuity and innovations may not be as well known today, but she was able to create a lucrative and successful business that changed the idea of advertising. In 1930, Beatrice closed the doors of her Chicago studio and moved in with her sister in Winneconne, Wisconsin. She died on May 12, 1958.

About the Author Emma Dambek is a graduate student with the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies who interned at Vesterheim this summer. Emma is interested in pursuing a career in public history, especially working with museum collections.

Endnotes 1 “Applied Photography,” The Photogram, Vol. 5, No. 58 (October 1898): 308-312, p. 310. Google Books.

Geoffrey Johnson. “On the Life and Work of Photographer Beatrice Tonnesen,” Chicago Magazine, March 2010. https://www. 2

3 Scott Cross. “Beatrice Tonnesen: Photography Pioneer,” Voyager, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Summer/Fall 2004): 38-43, p. 41. 4


Cross, p. 41.




Claire Voon. “An Outline of Over 200 Years of Silhouettes,” Hyperallergic, August 14, 2018. 7

Ethel Maude Colson. “Silhouettes and Shadow Pictures,” Munsey’s Magazine, Vol. 20, No. 2 (November 1898): 288-294, p. 293. Google Books. 8

Ellen Mazur Thomson. “Alms for Oblivion: The History of Women in Early American Graphic Design,” Design Issues, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Summer, 1994): 27-48, p. 39.






Beatrice Tonnesen’s photo of a boy and his collie was interpreted by illustrator R. Atkinson Fox as “Warm Friends.” Fox added the parklike background and changed the child into a newspaper boy. Photo, Oshkosh Public Museum, 2007.76.176. Print, Collection of Lois and Terry Emerson.


Additional Reading Emerson, Lois. The Secret Source: Beatrice Tonnesen and the Calendar Art of the Golden Age of Illustration. 2013. (Kindle only)


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