This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Mrs. McMullin Took Their Picture

09 February 2018

He strikes a grand pose.
With left hand on hip
and clarinet resting on right shoulder,
he gazes toward some distant snow capped mountain,
depicted in the wintry scene behind him
on the photographer's studio backdrop.

But he will need powerful binoculars to see any of those peaks,
because Marion, Kansas , where his cabinet card photo was taken,
is better known for lowly flatness than for any majestic heights.

Kansas state road 256
east of Marion, KS


We've met this jaunty, bewhiskered clarionet player
before in my story from June 2017

entitled The Well Dressed Clarinetist No. 3

But this story is not about him
but is instead about his photographer,
Mrs. McMullin

Not surprisingly most American photographers in the 19th century were men. But unlike other artisan trades with a long history of male dominance, photography was still a relatively new technology and some women did pursue a career working behind a camera. Mrs. McMullin was one of those rare professional women of the late 1800s.

Her full name was Laura E. McMullin, and she was married to Mr. J. F. McMullin, also known as Josiah F. McMullin. They had one daughter, Goldie, who was age 16 in June 1900 when they were all recorded in the US Census for Marion, Kansas.  Laura McMullin, occupation Photographer, was 40 years old, while her husband, a school teacher, was 42. Both were originally from Ohio, and daughter Goldie was born in Missouri.

1900 US Census Marion, Kansas

Census takers collected many useful details about American citizens, such as here in 1900, everyone's birth month was recorded. But the census records have limitations, notably that they only occurred every decade. A lot can happen in 10 years time. But in this era there is bigger problem. Tragically there are no US census records for 1890, as in 1921 they were destroyed in a fire at the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C.  This disaster created an enormous challenge for family historians and photo detectives which must now blindly negotiate a 20 year gap between the censuses of 1880 and 1900. For those of us who collect antique photographs, these were also the decades when the cabinet card photograph was the ubiquitous image medium for Americans. Following a trail of clues into the 20th century means trying to jump this chasm which usually results in more questions than answers.  As the official numbers were of course published, we do know that between 1880 and 1890 Marion's population exploded by 139% going from 857 to 2,047 residents. But the names recorded in the 1890 census are lost forever.

Fortunately it was also the era when small town newspapers recorded anything and everything about their community. And the Marion County Record, which still publishes a weekly report after nearly 150 years since its establishment in Marion, is one of the newspapers available at

Mrs. J. F. McMullin got her first mention in Marion's paper in August 1889, advertising that she made as good cabinets as anyone in the State for $2.00 per dozen.

Marion KS Record
23 August 1889

{click any image to enlarge it}

Marion KS Record
23 October 1891

In October 1891 she bought out an existing photograph gallery to relocate her business. The photographer who sold the gallery was a man named W. M. Hall who had moved there from Chicago two years earlier,  having purchased the studio from another photographer named J. A. Huston.

Mrs. McMullin advertised that her gallery would have new and elegant scenery and that she was prepared to do first-class work as well as make duplicates from any of Hall's negatives. Cabinet card photographs were relatively easy to produce, but still used a very large camera on a stand that required a trained photographer.

Her competition in Marion came from photographers in Railroad Photo Cars, studios built on a private train car, who traveled the rail lines parking their Photo Car for a week of so in towns along the route. One such itinerant photographer advertised on the same page that they had the new and beautiful celluloid pictures, better than the worthless Aristo pictures which cracked and peeled off.

_ _ _

Over the next few months Mrs. McMullin became embroiled in a trade war with one of these Railroad Photo Cars. It was operated by the St. Louis Art Co. which offered $100 to any photographer in Kansas who will do as fine work as they are doing in the Railroad Photo Car in Marion.  They charged $1.00 for a dozen fine cabinets while denigrating the local photographer's work, that is Mrs. McMullin, as of poor quality and overpriced at $4.00 per dozen.

Mrs. McMullin responded with an advert for 12 fine cabinets for only $1.00 ... as long as the car remains and not an hour after.

Marion KS Record
13 November 1891

Two years later in 1893 she was still in business  and still waging a price war with either the same traveling Railroad Photo Car or one from a different company. Their classifieds took on harsher tone with a call, "Do not be humbugged by cheap john photographers."   Mrs. McMullin countered with a claim that the homeliest man in town can get one dozen cabinet photos for $1 at her gallery on Main Street.  We can only wonder if she took the picture of S. C. Freeland, veterinary surgeon & dentist, demonstrating the proper way to extract a horse's tooth.

Marion KS Record
07 July 1893


Excerpt from 1879 Map of Marion
Source: Kansas

Her husband, Josiah F. McMullin, was one of nine teachers at Marion's public school. In September 1892 the Marion Record reported that the school enrollment was 493 students. Mr. McMullin managed a class of 55 children. It was not clear if he taught a specific subject or grade level, but the school did include high school as well as elementary grades. Considering that the population of Marion was then about 2,100 children were an important part of small town life. The school was also a center for an active musical culture with glee clubs, a chorus, and an orchestra. For 1892 the big event was preparing for the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America.

Certainly the McMullin's daughter was a student at the school, so between her husband's teaching and Laura McMullin's photography business, they likely knew every family in Marion. Nonetheless in
September 1895 the newspaper ran a testimonial about her work in the community.

Marion KS Record
20 September 1895

Now that Mrs. McMullin has the photographic field all to herself in Marion, we hope she will retain it. There is business enough here in that line for one good photographer, but not enough for two. Mrs. McMullin is a good artist and an excellent lady, and deserves the patronage and encouragement of our people. And let us say in advance of the coming of any traveling photographers, who travel around in the busy season and take the cream of the business, don't patronize them. Mr. and Mrs. McMullin are permanent residents here. They pay taxes here.  They spend money here. They are here in the dull as well as in the busy seasons. They do honest work at reasonable rates, and deserve this trade. Let them have it.

Marion KS Record
05 August 1898

In the summer of 1898 the McMullin family entertained friends and family with a picnic down by the Cottonwood River at local farm. The newspaper reported that everyone "had a jolly good time, picnicing, boat riding and fishing. One could hardly hear himself think for the noise. There never was a jollier, more good-natured crowd than they were. Then after dinner, while they were eating watermelon, Mrs. McMullin took their picture."

_ _ _

Marion KS Record
02 December 1898

Mrs. McMullin's gallery was more than just a studio for taking photographs. The business was also about  home decorating and the display of photos. She sold picture frames, drapery, and other novelties suitable for gifts. Perhaps her advantage over male photographers was that her establishment could offer women a respectable social place to gather.  At various times when she and her family would take an extended holiday back east, Mrs. McMullin employed two women to manage her photography gallery during her absence.

Marion was on the Santa Fe Route, or more formally the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. It was one of the largest railroad networks in the United States though it never actually got to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photographers catered to these travelers too and offered photo buttons, chattelaines, hat pins, cuff buttons, watch charms, stick pins, etc. How many traveling business men stopped at her gallery to pick up something for their wife or children?

But the times were changing for studio photographers. There was a new kind of competition placed next to  Mrs. McMullin's adverts.  The  druggist Mr. Porter offered the Eastman Kodaks if you want good pictures. They will be nice holiday presents.

_ _ _

Like most American small towns, Marion had a town band. It was called the Marion Silver Cornet Band. It furnished music for various civic events like the town fair or election rallies. Such bands generally used just brass instruments with drums but clarinets were often included to cover the high parts, so it's possible that Mrs. McMullin's clarinet player was a member of that band. Equally possible is that he was a musician in another town's band that came to Marion for a massed band concert.

The epaulets on the clarinetist's shoulders were a fashion sometimes used if a band fancied itself as a "military band" which meant that woodwinds like flutes and clarinets were added to balance the brass sound. Typically his short-billed cap would have an insignia on the front with the initials of the band's name, but it is missing here. There is a ribbon medallion pinned to his embroidered jacket that suggests he was dressed for some special occasion.

Perhaps his impish smile under his whiskers is because he is proudly wearing a new uniform. The Marion Band held a fair and festival in April 1899 in order to raise funds for new uniforms for the bandsmen. Their director was Prof. E. F. Sheldon who was a recent arrival to Marion. He ran a combination confectionery and jewelry shop.

Marion KS Record
21 April 1899

In July 1900 the Marion Record reported that Mrs. McMullin had sold her photographic gallery to Mr. A. A. Coons of Canton, KS which was in neighboring McPherson County, about 25 miles west of Marion.  From 1889 to 1900, Laura McMullin had provided a service for Marion's residents and visitors that documented weddings, babies, graduations, family gatherings, and even the odd clarinetist. Having operated her business for nearly 12 years, her photo gallery had probably printed up the likenesses of the entire population. And by the dozen too. But it was time to move on.

Marion KS Record
27 July 1900

The same edition ran a private For Sale notice.

Marion KS Record
27 July 1900
For Sale

   A fine Shaw piano, new, no better made. 2 upright folding beds, with large mirrors. 1 extra fine gasoline stove, self generator. 1 Household sewing machine, good as new. 1 large book case, and other household goods too numerous to mention. Rather than ship the above named articles I will sell at a great sacrifice.
   Also a good family horse and phaeton, and a bay gelding, 2 years old, broke to drive, good size.
                 Mrs. McMullin, Photographer

A month later on August 31, 1900
the Marion newspaper printed its farewell.

Marion KS Record
31 August 1900

Mrs. McMullin and Goldia expect to leave today for Washington, where Mr. McMullin has a job in the census department. We regret to see these good people leave Marion.

The following week, A. A. Coons,
Mrs. McMullin's successor, was offering
fine photos at reasonabler prices.
He thought 1,000 sitters would be enough to start.

Marion KS Record
07 September 1900

Mr. and Mrs. McMullin moved to Washington, D.C. where Josiah McMullin was employed in the census office. His name appears in the 1901 official registry of civil servants, listed alphabetically with each person's state where born and their Congressional district whence appointed. His salary was $900 a year.  By the census of 1910 he and Laura McMullin were still living in D.C. but josiah's occupation was Manager, Loan Office. Mrs. McMullian's occupation was None.  Goldie was now married and living in her own home.

Ten years later in the 1920 census, they were back in Ohio living in East Cleveland. Josiah, age 62, worked as a Saleman, Real Estate. Laura, 59, was not employed. Sadly, in 1923 Laura E. McMullian died. She was 63.  Josiah remarried and moved to Florida where he passed away in 1941 at the age of 84.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where it's tea time on the patio.


smkelly8 said...

I never considered the career of a female photographer in the 19th century. Thanks for all the research on this pioneer.

Barbara Rogers said...

I can just imagine Mrs. McMullin being very critical of the photographs taken in DC. She had a good eye!

Postcardy said...

A lot of things I found interesting in this post, including Mrs. McMullin's typography, the Google view, and learning about railroad photography cars.

Kristin said...

Newspapers are a wealth of information. I think that horse doctor and horse are drawings though.

Jofeath said...

Poor Molly McMullin sure had a struggle to survive that aggressive competition. Perhaps it was a relief to get away when she moved away with her husband. It must have taken a toll on her as she didn't set up in business again, but she probably missed it all the same.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

The photography business wasn't for sissies in those days. Mrs. McMullin seems to
have been inventive and adaptable, offering all those items for sale and
positioning her business as a kind of salon for women. Maybe she saw the writing
on the wall with the advent of the affordable camera for home use. Great informative

La Nightingail said...

I wish you had a copy of the picture Mrs. McMullin took of that "jolly good time" crowd eating watermelon. What struck me about that newspaper article was the wording - so indicative of the writing of the times. My great grandfather in his journal of his trip to Yosemite in 1874 used much the same language - in one place in particular writing "Then off we went as jolly a crowd as could be." That type of writing seems so 'old fashioned' now, but it had charm we don't see anymore in today's writing. A shame, I think. :)

Molly's Canopy said...

Good for Mrs. McMullin for blazing a train for women and apparently successfully matching her skill with the competition. The clarinetist photo is still going strong more than a century after it was taken, so she has had the last laugh on photo quality. My favorite quote is from the picnic article: "One could hardly hear himself think for the noise." I found that incredibly amusing as a city dweller. Must have been pretty quiet out there!

Sandra Williamson said...

A wonderful story, tracing the history of the local photographer can be very instructive particularly if you are trying to narrow down a date for a photograph. However, those that I have researched have stayed put like Mrs. McMullin.

Wendy said...

What? No libel laws to protect Mrs. McMullin? I guess she did not need them. She sounds like a tough cookie who didn’t cry on her husband’s shoulder.

Little Nell said...

How interesting to hear of a woman pioneer photographer. I think there is more to that twinkle in the subject's eyes and his impish smile, but we may never know.

Paul McMullin said...

As a photographer going by the name of McMullin. I found this little bit of history fascinating. Thanks for the work and research.

Unknown said...

My friend found a book with a bunch of really old photographs i was curious if u can help get them to the rite place if u could call me at 3039468985 thank you my name is clinton


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP