Lady photographers and woman balloonists


To start off this new blog, I thought I’d bring together a few of my interests, including language, data visualization, and the social history of photography.

As part of our Early Women Artisan Photographers (EWAP) project (the podcast is Photographs, Pistols & Parasols), I periodically browse through eBay looking for photographs taken by women who ran their own photography businesses between 1840 (pretty much the beginning of commercial photography) to 1930 (the first big peak of women as photographers in the U.S.). The other day I came across a cabinet card (out of our price range, unfortunately) by a studio run by two women in Spokane, Washington. The card was unusual (for that studio) in that it was an advertising card for a balloonist who was going to be performing locally.

Out of curiosity, I looked up information about that balloonist, who was a man, and in the process discovered that in the mid to late 1800s, and even early into the 1900s, balloonists would travel around putting on events. (Not unlike the Wizard in the movie version of the Wizard of Oz.) The early events were just ascents, then trips, sometimes taking passengers. Later, the balloonists would do acrobatic feats from the balloons and then descend by parachute. Amazing! It didn’t take long to find out that women did these events too, not just men.

Miss Hazel Keyes balloonist ad
The Graham Guardian, Safford, Arizona, 1900-11-30, p.4


BTW, as a side note, Wikipedia (accessed 3 July 2020) claims that Mary Myers  “was the first of American women aviation pioneers to solo fly a lighter-than-air passenger balloon” in 1880. While Mary Myers is interesting in her own right, with several patents to her name, there were in fact other women flying solo well before that. For example, Nellie Thurston had quite a career as a solo aeronaut, starting in about 1871. Here is one account of an early (mis)adventure of hers. Side stories such as these are an added benefit to the EWAP project.

Female, lady, and woman

One of the first references I saw to Nellie Thurston was as a “lady balloonist” (the article linked above calls her a “lady aeronaut”). I wasn’t too surprised, since I’ve seen many references to “lady photographers.” I think the assumption is that there was something unusual about a woman being a photographer or a balloonist/aeronaut. Now there are many ways that indicate that a photographer is a woman; for example, a title, e.g. “Miss Smith” or “Mrs Jones” — who are actually the same woman photographer in Great Bend, Kansas. Another way is by a stereotypically female name, as in “Lida Loomiller,” who was Mrs. Ocie Smith Jones’ photographic partner in Great Bend. However, “lady”, along with “female” and “woman” are descriptors deliberately chosen by the writer (sometimes the photographer herself in an ad) to indicate the gender of the photographer.

Since I knew this blog was in the works, I decided to take a quick look at the frequency of the use of those three descriptors, female, lady, and woman as they are used with photographer and balloonist in newspapers in the timeframe of the EWAP project (1840-1930). I used the commercial service for this little exploration, but the freely available Library of Congress’ Chronicling America site (which is where the Nellie Thurston article is linked to above) is another great resource.

What I did was look for the phrases female photographer, lady photographer, and woman photographer and the counterparts with balloonist and noted the number of pages that contained those phrases. I also looked for female, lady, and woman on their own (the [alone] category below). Here’s what I found:

Distribution of female, lady, and woman, alone and with balloonist and photographer
1840-1930, from as of 2020-06-29
Descriptor photographer balloonist [alone]
female 709 256 13726638
lady 2338 868 51381698
woman 2124 947 49128650

Or, more visually:

Distribution of female, lady, woman: with balloonist, photographer, and alone

What we see is that woman balloonist is used more often than lady balloonist but lady photographer is more common than woman photographer, which is more like the uses of lady and woman generally. Maybe female balloonists were less “lady-like” (gentile) than photographers? They were certainly more flamboyant than (most) female photographers.

We can do the typical statistical tests on these distributions, but we shouldn’t take them too seriously, for the reasons I’ll discuss below. When we check whether these patterns are statistically significant, using χ2, we get these significant results, but with very small effect sizes (0.1 is considered a small effect):

χ2 tests for significance
and Cramér’s V for effect size
Comparison χ2 probability Cramér’s V
Photographer vs. balloonist p < 0.002 0.042706
Photographer vs. [alone] p < 0.0003 0.021134
Balloonist vs. [alone] p < 0.02 0.023110

While all three differences are statistically significant, the difference between balloonist and the general use of the descriptors is the least significant, due to the smaller numbers of examples with balloonist.


There are, of course, some caveats. Lots of them.

Language issues

At the language level, these simple searches aren’t ideal, since they only find adjacent words, not actual phrases. For example, the search would return a page with the (made up) sentence below, even though it doesn’t use woman as a descriptor of photographer (we can’t tell whether photographer Ames is male or female from this description).

The judges brought over the winning woman. Photographer Ames then took her photo for the newspaper.

However, that kind of juxtaposition is not common (I hope).

A second issue on the language side is that there are a lot of duplicate articles, due to interesting and exciting stories being distributed across the U.S. and even internationally. For example, the death of a male balloonist in 1890 made newspapers all across the country in England, Ireland, and even Australia. The fact that we have essentially the same story repeated many times with various omissions and elaborations distorts the language aspect, since the occurrences of the phrases are not independent from each other.

Side story

The male balloonist was Arthur Cosgrove, and his death [warning, that story is a bit gruesome] was probably a suicide. In some of the reports, Cosgrove was filling in for Professor Romig (there were a fair number of self-proclaimed professors, all men of the ones I’ve come across, and not just aeronauts) who had gotten sick. It turns out that Professor Romig is later the husband of Miss Hazel Keyes (not her real name) in the ad above. Furthermore, Arthur Cosgrove’s wife, Miss Onzalo (also not her real name, and with various spellings) was also an aeronaut, and a few days prior she had done an “ascension” (and parachute jump) with Professor Romig. However, it was another aeronaut, Professor (!) Redmond who had caused Cosgrove to become jealous. Redmond, though, had died in a balloon accident less than two months previously. I think you can appreciate how easy it is to get distracted by side stories.

More caveats

Another issue at the language level is the these results are for entire pages, and we don’t know how often the words and phrases are used on those pages. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find multiple instances of woman on a single page, while it is uncommon (in my experience) to find multiple uses of lady photographer on a page. This is a limitation of using, since we do not have access to the full text of the pages. With the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America project, it is possible (with some effort) to get access to the full text of the pages, so it would be possible to have more linguistically-oriented results. Still, these numbers of pages do give us a rough idea of the popularity of the 3 descriptors. Personally, I’m satisfied with that.

Sticking with language issues, another issue is that search engines like and the one used by Chronicling America collapse regular singular and plural nouns, so a search for “female photographer” will also return pages with the phrase “female photographers.” When we’re doing research for the EWAP project, that’s usually very helpful (except when searches for “Mrs Jones” gives us pages with “Mr Jones” – argh!). However, when we want to look at the precise language, this collapsing can get in our way. Fortunately, it wasn’t in the results I’ve just presented, but if I had included “women photographers”, it would be a problem, since comparing only that plural phrase (there’s no corresponding singular phrase “women photographer”) to the combination of singular and plural for the other descriptors is an unfair comparison.

Another technical issue that could affect the search results is the digitization of the newspapers. Dirty or damaged originals or imperfect scans make the optical character recognization (OCR) more prone to errors. We have no way of knowing to what extent that has impacted these results.

Collection issues: arbitrary but not random

However the most serious caveats have to do with the newspaper collection itself, and indeed these are issues with any general newspaper collection (and more generally, any historical collection).

At the lowest level is simply the question of which pages have survived. When we browse a collection, we see that which pages are missing is not random: we (typically) don’t find miscellaneous pages from individual issues missing. Rather, whole issues, weeks, months, years are missing. These gaps may be accidental or they may be intentional, but they are not random, at least not at the level of the page.

At a higher level, there is the issue of which papers are represented in a collection. For example, some states (like Colorado) are underrepresented in, probably for contractural reasons. Even in states that are well represented, not all towns are represented, and not even all large towns are fully represented. For example, as of today (3 July 2020), does not have English language newspapers for Youngstown, Ohio, which by 1930 had a population of almost 150,000 (source), larger than many other towns which are represented in Even in the Chronicling America collection, the representation depends on which localities participated in the digitization, which in turn depended on arbitrary decisions at various levels.

Another serious representation gap in is newspapers owned by or whose primary audience was Black Americans. Given that Chronicling America has over 100 African American newspapers, it would be possible to have a better representation. (There are other public and commercial archives of African American newspapers as well.)

In the end, all we can really say about these results is that they are rough results for this collection of newspapers. No more. We can hope that the are more broadly indicative, but we can’t know for sure.
I should note in all fairness that other corpora are much less useful (or even useless) for this particular inquiry. For example, the Google Books corpus doesn’t have the phrase “female photographer” in the period from 1900 to 1910, but has 150 pages in that time period. Even worse, the linguistically oriented Corpus of Historical American English has NO instances of “female photographer” in the entire period we are looking at (1840-1930). Even though it is a “balanced” corpus, it is simply too limited for our purposes (which is ironic, given that they pride themselves on being larger than other corpora).

What other investigations could we do?

Enough complaining, and back to the fun! What other investigations could we do?

Well, we could look at nouns other than photographer and balloonist. To start with, we could compare balloonist with aeronaut. Other nouns might be other occupations, like doctor (I was surprised to discover female doctors in the 1800s) and nurse or barber. When I got to visit my grandparents alone one summer, my grandfather took me to a “lady barber” – his words. That obviously made an impression on me, and even after patronizing barbershops extensively as an adult, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of female barbers I have seen. The nouns might be avocations, like (bi)cyclist – in the 1890s women cycling was a pop-culture thing, and Minnie Walden Starke of St. Louis was a noted cyclist in addition to being a professional photographer (that photo was taken by her husband, also briefly a photographer).

We could also look at the male counterpart descriptors gentleman, male, man. Impressionistically a “gentleman photographer” is very likely to be an amateur while a “lady photographer” definitely need not be. It could be interesting, if more involved, to see whether that impression is accurate or not.

On a more linguistic note, we could use the Chronicling America collection to compare “woman photographers” with “women photographers”, since it is possible to get the full text results programmatically.


Will Leben sent a couple links about contemporary views of femalelady, and woman as descriptors of professions that are worth reading: