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Tonnesen Sisters: Pioneers in Photo Advertising

Before the Tonnesen Sisters became known for their art prints, they were known for their pioneering work in advertising. In the 1890's, they came up with the idea of using live models in advertising photos. With Beatrice handling the creative work and Clara tending to business affairs, they marketed their historic new technique nationwide, with phenomenal success.

While a number of large national firms are known to have used Tonnesen photos in their ads, I have found it difficult to positively identify specific examples. This is because the ads tend to feature mostly the product being marketed, rather than the photographer's own sets and props. And the ads are very seldom signed by either an artist or a photographer. The models, of course, are often identifiable, but most of them also modeled for other studios. So, while I can browse an old magazine and identify a great many suspected Tonnesens, it's often difficult to make a positive identification.

Slideshow Album 14 shows six ads believed to have been produced by the Tonnesen Studio. Two of them are attributed within the ad and four of them contain images of items that strongly suggest Tonnesen's involvement. The photo shown above advertises Pickwick Rye and was provided by Laurelei Farley.

All Content Copyright 2008 Lois Emerson

Update: 1/26/2009– I found the following praise for Tonnesen’s contributions to print advertising on a website titled “Graphic Exchange”, www.gxo.com.

“But perhaps it’s fitting that the final word on design should go to the woman who first demonstrated the concept of combining type, illustration and photography in advertising. Chicago-based photographer Beatrice Tonnesen pioneered this style of promotion back in the early 1890’s with tremendous success – and over one hundred years later, print advertising hasn’t found a better way to sell a product.”

-Page 41, The Graphics Industry: Evolution and Revolution – The 100 Most Influential Graphics People of the Last Millenium by Dan Brill and Ron Giddings.

11 thoughts on “Tonnesen Sisters: Pioneers in Photo Advertising

  1. I have spent some time on this website – learned a lot. Found it very interesting.

    I am a resident of Winneconne, WI (Beatrice’s birth place). Our Hist. Soc. has some of Beatrice’s photos and most of her history. Two questions: any knowledge on camera equipment used in her studio or when traveling? and information on her ‘Mars Ware’ and where we could obtain a good photo? All we have is a newspaper article with a poor photo. We plan to run a small exhibit in our Museum this summer. I am in contact with Scott Cross (Oshkosh) but he does not have these answers. M. Eid

  2. Hello Marjorie,\nI’m happy you enjoyed our site. I don’t know much about the photographic equipment used by the Tonnesen Studio. There are two brief references to it on the site. The post “Introducing the Tonnesen Models Part 2” quotes model William Redmond describing his memories of being photographed as a child, including some description of the cameras used. Redmond doesn’t specify a particular studio, but he did model for Tonnesen. The post “Do Old Ads Pinpoint Studio Tonnesen Shared with Fox?” shows a 1927 newspaper ad run by Tonnesen to sell “Cooper Hewitt Lights.” The photo accompanying that post can be zoomed to show some of the equipment in Tonnesen’s studio. Regarding the Marsware: There is one photo of it in the Oshkosh Public Museum’s Tonnesen archive. It may be the same one that you already have. It is a candlestick holder featuring a nude figure. Please let me know if there is anything I can do or provide to help with your upcoming exhibit. Good luck,\nLois

  3. Thank You for your response. Is it true that Beatrice really did paint some of her photos and if so, was it water color? We had a preliminary showing of just a few photos at our monthly meeting and the audience was aghast at the quality of her work at a time when photography was in its infancy. Our collection does not compare to the Oshkosh Public Museum’s but I have been in contact with Scott Cross and he feels we have a substantial collection for our small museum and he helped with its authenticity. Most of them have numbers she gave her pictures starting with a T. Our holdings number just over 100. And I am finding some of them on this web site in various sections. Marge

  4. Hi Marge,\n\nYes, Beatrice did paint in watercolors and oils. A newspaper announcement for the opening of her first studio in 1895 stated that she was taking orders for watercolor and oil paintings. I am very excited to learn of the Winneconne Historical Society’s collection and plan on visiting this summer.\nLois

  5. I have a picture of a male pilgrim with a gun and a female that looks like she’s wearing a Santa hat! Tonneson and dated 1900. What whimsical use did this photo have and does it have a title?

  6. Hi Linda,\nYour picture sounds fascinating! We’d love to see it. A picture of the picture will be fine. It usually works best to try to take it in a well-lit area, straight-on, without a flash. Thanks for writing and we look forward to seeing it.\n-Lois

  7. Lois,
    I am researching my family history and my mother brought a box of old photos to me. In this box was framed picture that was exactly as Linda described on 15 Oct 2010, “man in pilgrim outfit with gun and woman in santa hat”. It has “Copyright 1900 by Tonnesen Sisters Chicago” in lower right corner. Someone in my family had put a little note on the frame saying it was “Grandpa and Grandma Dobyns”. After reading on this site I am curious as to what I have and if it is really some of my family. Thank you, Susan

  8. Hi Susan,\nThanks for writing. I have emailed you some information that may be pertinent. Hope to hear from you again.\nLois

  9. I have a black and white photograph, somewhat yellowed, of a little girl in a barn feeding a rabbit a lettuce leaf. At the bottom it says copyright, 1901/ Tonneson Sisters. Are you familiar with this print? Regards, Mary

  10. Hi Mary,\nThanks for writing. I am not familiar with that print. I’d love to see it, though. Is it possible for you to scan and send it to us?\nLois