Around 1922, Beatrice Tonnesen photographed a dark-haired beauty in Native American dress against a neutral background. Photographs such as this one were in high demand for use by prominent illustrators who added backgrounds and details, producing the romanticized depictions of exotic and adventurous women that had caught the imagination of the calendar-buying public. Best sellers featured Indian maidens paddling canoes near waterfalls, or standing dreamily amid forest or mountain landscapes. Also popular were scenes of women in far-off places, costumed in pirate, gypsy or Egyptian garb. Neither the costumes nor the women who wore them seem to have been authentically Native American or Egyptian. Nor is it likely any real pirates or gypsies were involved!
Presumably, the subjects were simply local women, supporting or helping to support themselves by posing for artists and photographers. And Tonnesen’s backgroundless Indian maiden photo, which ultimately became a woodsy calendar print by artist Homer Nelson, may have featured a Chicago beauty queen named Mary Simmonds. In 1921, Mary Simmonds (1895-1976) entered a beauty contest for residents of the midwest. Sponsored by The Chicago Tribune, it offered a total of $20,200 in prize money. Simmonds didn’t win the big prize, but she was named “Chicago’s Most Beautiful Girl,” winning $1,000 and considerable publicity.