Vintage Indian Maiden Prints: How Many Were Created in Tonnesen's Studio?

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his original photo by Beatrice Tonnesen is housed in the Tonnesen Archive at Winneconne Historical Society. Illustrator Homer Nelson replaced the studio background with a wooded setting for the calendar print "Wabano." The feathers may have been added by hand after the photo was taken.

Only four of the many, hugely popular vintage calendar prints of Indian maidens have been confirmed to have been created by Beatrice Tonnesen. They are “Whispering Waters” and “Winona”, both signed by Tonnesen; “Wabano” (Dawn of Woman), by Homer Nelson, whose source photo resides in the Tonnesen Archive of the Winneconne (WI) Historical Society; and “YooHoo!” posed by a frequent Tonnesen model and attributed to Tonnesen on a 1925 calendar. All of those images, and their stories, are gathered together in our ebook, The Secret Source: Beatrice Tonnesen and the Calendar Art of the Golden Age of Illustration, available through

However, I've always felt that Tonnesen was responsible for many more of the posed photographs of beautiful women dressed as Native Americans and illustrated by the nation's top calendar artists, in the rush to satisfy the public appetite for the genre in the 1910s, 20s and 30s.

Now, since the publication of our book, I have found additional evidence to support that theory. The evidence lies in the distinctive headband worn by “Wabano” in Tonnesen's archived photo. Recently, the great vintage art source Grapefruit Moon Gallery offered a large portrait of a woman dressed as an Indian maiden and wearing a headband identical to the one seen in Tonnesen's photo. The image was copyrighted by Gartner Bender of Chicago, a frequent publisher of Tonnesen's work. Shortly thereafter, I located a full-length photo print of the same woman, titled “Minnehaha”, copyright 1917 by Merchants Publishing Co. Kalamazoo, MI. Tonnesen often placed her photographic subjects in front of an illustrated background, as if the subject were sitting in front of a large mural. “Minnehaha” employs that same device with a very “Tonnesonesque” result.

It's possible that another photographer who was engaged in the production of such prints owned a headband identical to Tonnesen's. Nevertheless, the sum total of the evidence led me to wonder anew how many others originated as photos by Beatrice Tonnesen. I'll never have an answer to that, I'm sure, but to begin to get an idea, I went searching for that headband in prints in my (admittedly small) collection of Indian maidens, as well as in my copy of the indispensible guide to calendar art, Discovering America's Calendar Artists: Vintage Illustration 1900-1960, by Rick and Charlotte Martin.

The results of that search, and the images appearing to contain the headband that spurred it, are presented in the accompanying slideshow. Scroll over each image to read about its significance. Two notes to consider: 1. Wabano's headband is not the only one used by Tonnesen. “Whispering Waters” and “Winona” (shown elsewhere on this blog) appear to feature a different one, suggesting even more unidentified Tonnesens are out there! 2. Illustrators, Tonnesen included, were free to alter or paint over the details of all of the items of apparel worn by their photographic subjects. So, in many cases, the viewer may never know what the original item looked like. Still, it appears, the details of the original photo often survived the illustrative process intact or, at least, emerged with only minor alterations, allowing us to surmise its original appearance.

Copyright 2014 Lois Emerson

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