A Different Wrinkle: Representation of Older Women in P&P Collections

The following is a guest post by Barbara Orbach Natanson, former Reference Section Head, Prints & Photographs Division.

The life & age of woman. Stages of woman's life from the cradle to the grave / Kelloggs & Comstock, N.Y. & Hartford, Conn. Lithograph by Kelloggs & Comstock, between 1848 and 1850. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g03651

The life & age of woman. Stages of woman’s life from the cradle to the grave. Lithograph by Kelloggs & Comstock, between 1848 and 1850. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g03651

Being a woman of a certain age myself, I recently began to wonder how and where older women are depicted in Prints & Photographs Division collections. Naturally, even in embarking on such an exploration, one has to acknowledge certain caveats: “Older” is a relative term in any culture and, unless original captions indicate how a person’s age was regarded, it’s hard to know whether an individual was considered older in their own time. Moreover, minus captions that give ages in years, one can only estimate on the basis of certain physical traits (wrinkles, white hair, stooped posture, to the degree these are visible, particularly in black-and-white pictures) that a person had lived many years, while recognizing that some of those characteristics might be determined by genetics and the rigors of work and living conditions.

Nevertheless, my odyssey through three collections (Popular Graphic Arts, Panoramic Photographs, and the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection) produced some interesting finds and stimulated plenty of questions about the visibility of older women in pictorial representations of various types and in their communities, in general.

Popular Graphic Arts

After looking at more than 500 online images with “woman” in the description, I wasn’t entirely surprised to conclude that young women predominate among these prints, primarily consisting of lithographs from the 19th century. Many of the prints were used at the time in advertising and then, as now, a fresh face and alluring form were expected to add to the appeal of the product. This seems to be the case even when the image content may have been designed to sell only the print itself, likely as a wall decoration. Prints that allude to romantic themes likewise idealized youth.

Woman wearing a red corset with her arms raised to her head, showing off the corset and her shape. Lithograph, 1899. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.43844

Woman wearing a red corset… Lithograph, 1899. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.43844

The miniature likeness. Lithograph, between 1835 and 1855. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.13571

The miniature likeness. Lithograph, between 1835 and 1855. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.13571

Exceptions where an older woman appear in the images generally fall into the category of reproductions of pre-existing works of art. This one, which was one of the few I found among the popular graphic art prints that featured an older woman, may fall into that category.

Asking a blessing. Lithograph by Herman Bencke, copyrighted 1871. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b36944

Asking a blessing. Lithograph by Herman Bencke, copyrighted 1871. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b36944

Panoramic Photographs

Women are not entirely absent from panoramas showing commercial streets in cities and towns in the U.S., but men far outnumber women in most of the streetscape photos, and the figures in dresses are often children or seemingly younger women with children. This makes me wonder whether women in general and older women in particular were really less apt to frequent the areas photographed or whether there was something about the photographic occasion itself, such as the time of day when the photos were taken, that made men more present. It certainly appears that men are more often facing the camera in the street views and may have been more involved in or aware of the photographic endeavor, which would not have been inconspicuous.

Manchester, IA. Photo by F. J. Bandholtz, copyrighted 1908. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pan.6a04449. This is an example where few women appear to be on the street.

Manchester, IA. Photo by F. J. Bandholtz, copyrighted 1908. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pan.6a04449. This is an example where few women appear to be on the street.

Where older women do appear in the panoramic photographs are in the large group portraits of organizations, perhaps suggesting the important role experienced women played in sustaining such endeavors.

<em>6th Biennial Convention, Nat'l Women's Trade League, 6/4 to 9, 1917.</em> Photo, 1917 June. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pan.6a34983

6th Biennial Convention, Nat’l Women’s Trade League, 6/4 to 9, 1917. Photo, 1917 June. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pan.6a34983

Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI)

The FSA/OWI photographs were the product of a government project to document the impact of the Depression and agricultural dislocation in the 1930s and, progressing into the 1940s, record defense production and home front activities at the start of World War II.  Given its focus on everyday life in a wide range of communities, I was hopeful that I would encounter many a mature woman in this collection, and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, from the subject index to the collection, it is clear that making it possible to browse the photographs by the gender and age group of the people depicted was of interest when the classification scheme was first developed in the 1940s. Under “Women” you find “Women, Elderly,” seemingly in contrast to “Women in the Prime of Life.”  The latter characterization has always amused me; it’s interesting to note that, while a parallel category, “Men in their Prime,” exists for men, the gradation of age groupings is finer for men, including “Middle Aged,” as well as “Old.”

Screenshot of FSA classification listing showing categories starting with “Women,” on the page listing subjects starting with “W.”

Screenshot of FSA classification listing showing categories starting with “Men,” on the page listing subjects starting with “M.”

Photographs assigned to the “Women, Elderly” category focus on individual women.

Washington, D.C. Elderly lady who lives on Lamont Street, N.W. Photo by Gordon Parks, 1942 June. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b14841

Old woman living in slum house in Bridgewater, Pennsylvania. Photo by Jack Delano, 1940. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c04463

In photos found in other subject categories, older women are often seen in the context of their involvement in the community, for instance, participating in church suppers and in educational activities. These two images were taken by Marion Post Wolcott, one of the photo unit’s relatively few women photographers.

Parishoners [sic] of St. Thomas Church resting after spending many hours preparing food for a benefit picnic supper. Near Bardstown, Kentucky. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1940. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a43010

Parishoners [sic] of St. Thomas Church resting after spending many hours preparing food… Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1940. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a43010

Star pupil, eighty-two years old, reading her lesson in adult class. Gee's Bend, Alabama. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1939. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c10017

Star pupil, eighty-two years old, reading her lesson in adult class. Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1939. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c10017

Older women also appear as members of extended families in photographs taken by other FSA photographers.

Steel worker with mother and daughter. Midland, Pennsylvania. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1938. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b17082

Steel worker with mother and daughter. Midland, Pennsylvania. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1938. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b17082

A theme running throughout the FSA/OWI collection is the intertwining threads of continuity and change, whether for good or ill. The caption for this photograph of an older woman in Mississippi implies the connection to the South’s plantation past, as well as its present.

King and Anderson Plantation. Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1940. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c30796

King and Anderson Plantation. Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1940. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c30796

Sometimes, continuity and change are implied in the same photo.

Women in industry. Flare gun production. "What's new about women working in war industries?" asks Mrs. Annette Caines of Detroit, who manned a milling machine in a gun factory during the last war and hasn't stopped work since. Now employed by a Midwest vacuum cleaner plant which has been converted to war work, Mrs. Caines processes flare gun parts on a drill press with the vigor of an eager, youthful worker. With a thirty-two-year-old son in the Army, Mrs. Caines has a deep personel interest in her job. "We women want to fight with our men folks," she says. "Maybe we can't shoot guns, but we sure can make the stuff for them to shoot with." Eureka Vacuum, Detroit, Michigan

Women in industry. Flare gun production. “What’s new about women working in war industries?” asks Mrs. Annette Caines of Detroit, who manned a milling machine in a gun factory during the last war and hasn’t stopped work since… Photo by Ann Rosener, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b07366

The amount and kind of representation of older women in pictures from different time periods raise interesting questions. They spur reflection about the reality of mature women’s experience in different eras, how visible they were in their communities, and how they were valued in terms of the experience and continuity they offered. The exploration also prompts consideration of perennial visual literacy questions: the factors shaping pictorial representation, including the purpose for which the pictures were made and the sensibilities of those who participated in making the images.

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4 Comments

  1. lentigogirl
    March 10, 2022 at 2:02 pm

    Barbara, it is so wonderful to “hear” your voice in this post – and to once again enjoy the benefits of your meticulous research and research tips. Thank you! I immediately copied “the life and age of woman” for a friend’s birthday. We may be elders now, but we are not at far to the right on the continuum as we would have been not long ago. I hope you are enjoying the next step of life. [Hope, aka lentigogirl]

  2. Janice Law
    March 10, 2022 at 5:09 pm

    BARBARA: What a joy to look through your fascinating research work. Thank you for compiling this.
    Janice Law

  3. Kris Cowling
    March 11, 2022 at 3:59 pm

    How interesting that the elderly woman on Lamont Street has a Library of Congress plate mounted on her wall!

  4. Barbara Orbach Natanson
    March 12, 2022 at 2:16 pm

    Thanks so much, lentigogirl-aka-Hope and Janice Law, for your kind words. Isn’t that image of the “Life & Age of Woman” wonderful? It’s the subject of one of my favorite visual literacy exercises (maybe I’ll write about that someday!). And many thanks, Kris Cowling, for pointing out the Library of Congress plate in the background of the Gordon Parks image. It’s such an interesting detail, and it redoubles my appreciation for the rewards of close looking! — Barbara

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