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Transcript of Episode 18: As Much Worker As Woman

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Nineteenth and early twentieth century photography is characterized in pop culture primarily as portrait photography, where hardly anyone smiles and it’s difficult to picture people in color instead of sepia tones. Sometimes it also appears in the form of Victorian ghost photos, or Eadweard Muybridge’s early experiments with capturing movement in photographic form. When you picture the person who took those old-timey photos, the person under the drape, holding up the flash, do you ever picture a woman? Most likely, no. And that’s not surprising, given our perceptions of nineteenth-century culture and social conventions. But a little digging reveals several late nineteenth and early twentieth century women whose photographs were celebrated by and displayed alongside the works of heavy hitters of the photographic canon like Alfred Stieglitz.

In this episode of Art History for All we’ll dive into a work by Oregonian photographer Myra Albert Wiggins, an 1899 gelatin silver print called The Lacemaker. Wiggins’s charming vignette of a Dutch woman doing needlework isn’t one of those serious portrait photos that pan across the screen in a Ken Burns documentary—it’s what’s called pictorial photography, which moves away from the common perception of photography as a tool for documenting and capturing the world, and instead embraces a similar sensibility to that of painters. Wiggins’s involvement in pictorialism, and her career in general, are fascinating, and if you’d like to know more, I highly recommend one of the main sources I used on this episode, Carole Glauber’s book on Wiggins, entitled Witch of Kodakery (which is probably the best title of all time). But The Lacemaker doesn’t necessarily clearly reflect the trajectory and diversity of Wiggins’s career, which also included landscape and cityscape photography and, later, painting. What The Lacemaker does bring up, especially when considered in relation to Wiggins’s life and the work of other late nineteenth century artists, is the shape of the expectations surrounding women in America in the late nineteenth century. Myra Albert Wiggins’s personal accomplishments put the lie to any notion that women were complacent with traditional gender roles prior to the 1970s, and looking at her life alongside her Lacemaker asks us to further reconsider how those roles affect how we view women’s work. We’re about to prove that whole “a picture’s worth a thousand words” thing absolutely right[1]. Say cheese!

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A description of Myra Albert Wiggins’s The Lacemaker. 1899, gelatin silver print, approximately 4.5 x 6.5 inches, currently in the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. The photograph is sepia-toned. In the right half of the image, a woman sits in a wooden chair. She is dressed in seventeenth- or eighteenth-century-style clothes, including a white cap, a white apron, and wooden clogs. We see her in profile: her head is bent forward, focused on the lace she is crocheting or tatting. The lace falls across her lap and hangs down so we, the viewer, can see the pattern she is working on. A spool of thread rests on her lap too, close to the bend of her knees. In the center of the image, on the back wall of the fairly shallow space in which the woman sits, is a small window with plain white curtains and a book sitting on the sill. The window appears to show foliage beyond it, but it is difficult to make out. To the left of the window is a wooden table, half cut off by the leftmost edge of the photograph. On the table are a dark-colored jug and bowl, as well as the edge of a plate, the rest of which is out of frame. A pair of wooden clogs are beneath the table, against the back wall. The table, the wooden floor, the frame of the window, and the back wall of the space all appear somewhat rough and rustic, with the legs of the table and the floorboards noticeably uneven.

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Born in Oregon in 1869, Myra Albert was an avid artist from an early age, winning first place for portraiture at the Oregon State Fair at the age of 18. Two years later, in 1889, Myra bought her first camera and began taking pictures, rigging up a makeshift darkroom in a nearby house using an old bedstead and bedding.[2] In 1891, she began studying at the Art Students League in New York, where she became one of three female members of the New York Camera Club; in 1893, her work hung in the first exhibition of the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York, another group she had joined.[3] Her photographs were published in publications like the New York Herald, Camera Mosaics, and even Camera Notes, which was edited by Alfred Stieglitz himself for a time. In addition to that early State Fair prize, her photography won multiple awards and cash prizes, including a $25 prize in an 1897 Eastman Kodak contest for her photograph The Forge, which so impressed photographic entrepreneur George Eastman that he hung it in his office.[4] Amid this flurry of work in the 1890s, Myra also got married and had a child—her husband, Fred Wiggins, was a shopkeeper in her hometown of Salem, and in true Pacific Northwest fashion, they had bonded in part over the shared pastime of bicycling.[5] Mildred, Myra’s only child, born in 1896, would go on to model for Myra’s photographs, including one of her best-known images, which was part of the same series of Dutch-inspired photographs as The Lacemaker.

Wiggins began her Dutch photograph series in 1898, and much like the DIY darkroom of her early career, she rigged up a DIY Dutch cottage to serve as the set for the photos. She transformed the interior of her dining room by, quote, “stretching burlap over the walls and parts of the tall windows. She pasted strips of black paper on a window to make the opening look like old-fashioned small window panes, and laid rough boards on the floor.”[6] End quote. We can see the evidence of this in The Lacemaker itself: the floor looks uneven because none of the floorboards are actually nailed down. The wall behind the woman looks at first like it could be plastered, but upon further inspection has a clearly fabric-like finish. And now that we know that Wiggins used black paper to create the window panes, we can see that the uneven, dark strips dividing the panes on the small window are clearly paper. But if we did not know these things, would we really be able to tell? The construction of the character of the Lacemaker herself is likewise a DIY endeavor, using an antique Dutch dress handed down through Wiggins’s family to clothe the woman. This same dress was used in a number of Wiggins’s other Dutch photographs, as was the model herself, who when she wasn’t being an idyllic Dutch peasant, was Wiggins’s housekeeper, Alma Schmidt.[7]

But why create a scene centered on a 17th– or 18th-century Dutch peasant? Historian and photographer Carole Glauber connects the interest in the period and place to the late 19th century Arts and Crafts movement, which had originated in Britain and pushed back against the increase in factory-made commodities by emphasizing handmade objects and traditional crafts. The British proponents of the movement drew much of their aesthetic from arts and crafts that were popular prior to the Renaissance, and specifically prior to the painter Raphael, resulting in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of which Arts and Crafts powerhouse William Morris was also a member. Glauber asserts that Arts and Crafts’ emphasis on things that were hand-crafted, rustic, and totally separate from modern industrial processes gelled well with the popular conception of the early modern Dutch peasantry depicted by Dutch Old Masters like Vermeer and Rembrandt.[8] “The Dutch,” Glauber writes, “worked outdoors, dependent on the sea and land, dressed plainly, and even wore hand-carved wooden shoes. Their homes were unpretentious, utilitarian, and earthy.”[9] Wiggins’s location in the Pacific Northwest was particularly well-suited to depicting these types of scenes, as Glauber notes, quote, “The mountains and rural lifestyle of the West provided an accessible context for Wiggins’ work that expressed her personal ideas—ideas that meshed with the popular Arts and Craft trend.”[10] End quote. Living out West, far away from the United States’s cultural centers at the time, gave Wiggins a different context, and therefore different opportunities, with which to engage in creating her photographs. Indeed, the pioneer spirit often associated with the Western United States, and the idea of homesteading and working the land, aligns pretty well with the ideas that made Dutch peasantry so appealing to those interested in Arts and Crafts.

I’ve talked about Dutch stuff before on Art History for All, in episode 7,[11] about Vermeer’s painting The Concert, which once hung in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston before being stolen in 1990. The Concert, and Vermeer’s body of work in general, has more parallels and connections to Wiggins’s Lacemaker than just a Dutch setting: for one thing, Vermeer was relatively unknown to the wider world until the mid-nineteenth century, and Gardner acquired The Concert for her collection in 1892, around the same time a young Myra Albert began studying art and might have encountered, if not The Concert, other Vermeer works like it. In fact, Vermeer made a painting called The Lacemaker around 1669 or 1670, which was acquired by the Louvre in 1870, and which, the Louvre notes, Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir considered one of the most beautiful paintings in the world.[12] Even Vermeer and Wiggins’s working methods have some parallels: both worked primarily out of their homes, rather than separate studio spaces, with Wiggins remarking that, quote, “many a time the bathroom has remained darkened for nearly a week at a time, and any member of the family took a bath at the risk of being developed with pyro or fixed with hypo.”[13] End quote. Both Vermeer and Wiggins re-used costumes and props in different images, and often depicted the same space, or a different angle on the same space. Perhaps most interesting of all is their camera connection: Wiggins used photographic cameras for her work, obviously, but it is widely believed that Vermeer used a camera obscura or some other optical instrument in order to depict scenes with extreme detail and a degree of realism that some have called photographic.[14] Wiggins’s Lacemaker itself looks nothing like Vermeer’s painting of the same name, but the parallels between the two artists’ processes, despite their difference in medium, are a fascinating testament to the consistency of creative environments and processes across time.

It feels like there could be many more insights one could tease out of those parallels, but for now let’s leave them there for someone else to pick up later. Let’s focus on the subject of Wiggins’s The Lacemaker. She’s engaged in making lace, one of a number of particularly feminine types of work in the Western world, alongside sewing and other fiber arts. As the Vermeer parallel demonstrates, lacemakers and other fiber artists and artisans have been the subjects of artwork in Europe and America since at least the seventeenth century. In those seventeenth century images, lacemakers were often a representation of “feminine domestic virtues”—tending to the home, caring for children, modesty, etc.[15] Art historian and co-founder of the website Smarthistory Beth Harris notes in the introduction to a collection of papers on needlewomen in the mid-nineteenth century that needleworkers were still being used as moral exemplars at that time, or, more frequently, the centers of moralistic parables about women becoming urban seamstresses and falling prey to vice.[16] In her introduction, Harris breaks down precisely why needleworkers were considered appropriate subjects for such narratives:


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“…[The] seamstress was a perfect working-class symbol because she ‘seemed as much woman as worker.’ Unlike maids, laundresses, female factory, or mine workers who were seen as having or developing masculine characteristics, the seamstress remained very much a ‘woman’ despite her presence in the world of waged labor. The seamstress did not suffer (as so many other laborers did) far away and underground. The mines and factories may have been distant and difficult to envision (literally offensive to the eye of the middle-class observer), but nearly everyone knew a dressmaker or milliner, or purchased their shirts or trousers from someone who employed women, and everyone had seen a woman sew, if only embroidery or for the family. Perhaps most importantly, the seamstress often had middle- or upper-class origins that made her seem more refined, vulnerable, genteel, and therefore more feminine and sympathetic than her working-class counterparts. There was thus no danger of the seamstress losing her femininity, and therefore her visual and ideological appeal. The seamstress allowed for a reassuring image of the separateness and difference of masculinity and femininity at a time when those categories seemed to be collapsing.”[17]

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Harris mainly focuses on mid-nineteenth century Britain, though some of the essays in the same book do deal with cities in the United States. But the commonness of fiber arts of some sort as a skill, the belief that they were “women’s work,” and the anxieties surrounding the possible loss of femininity of women who work persisted long past the mid-nineteenth century. I think I’d be pretty right in saying that they persist today. The lacemaker in Wiggins’s photo is crocheting, not sewing, but the point largely stands. She is performing skilled labor to manufacture a luxury object, labor that doesn’t take her outside the home or cause her to exert herself physically. The scene is utterly domestic, and also rustic, but in a clean, pretty way, rather than a gritty one. It’s a very appealing and potentially very marketable image—another one of Wiggins’s Dutch series photos was deemed so marketable by a cereal company that they appropriated it without her consent to use for their advertisements.[18] The idealized vision of Dutch femininity and domesticity is somewhat at odds with Wiggins’s own rather modern life in the 1890s. She traveled cross-country and lived with other women in a flat in New York while she went to art school and also took voice lessons. She hiked up mountains with a camera on her back and turned her bathroom into a darkroom. She and her husband took a quick jaunt up to Alaska in 1899, the same year she made The Lacemaker, to take photos of its spectacular landscape.[19] Most of the housekeeping in the Wiggins home was done not by Myra, but by Alma, the woman who modeled for The Lacemaker.[20] While artists are by no means obligated to live the lifestyle which they depict in their art, it is interesting that despite this apparent artistic investment in the rustic and rural, Wiggins did not pull a William Morris and decide to live in a medievalesque red brick house in line with his aesthetic. In her life, Wiggins seemed thoroughly entrenched in the turn of the twentieth century, and had a hustle that many freelancers today could relate to. Wiggins’s photography was not just a hobby or a calling, but work, as Glauber explains in the following excerpts:


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“While [the Eastman] competition made good business sense for the Kodak company, it served as a starting point for Wiggins’ enterprising plans. By now, she had learned how to connect with the people who mattered, and how to use the system to overcome her geographic and financial obstacles. She realized that magazines, newspapers, and the burgeoning corporate world could promote her work and that their cash prizes could help pay her expenses.”[21]

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“Wiggins rarely went to bed before four or five o’clock in the morning. At night, when she had her world to herself, she caught up on work, painted, or wrote poetry. During this time, she sometimes read the newspaper while standing to stay awake, but twice she fell and broke her nose when overcome by sleep. On one occasion, she was scheduled to speak to a women’s organization the next day. She went to a doctor, who fixed and bandaged her nose, and she arrived at the meeting to give the talk the next day…Myra remembered how Fred, during the first years of their marriage, deplored her habit of staying up late. As an ‘obedient bride,’ she demurred, but when all was quiet, she wrote poetry by the glow of a flashlight, leading her to reflect, ‘I sincerely wish that the muse would work at a more convenient and conventional hour!’”[22]

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Wiggins’s habits were not something that everyone could, or should emulate, but her work ethic, creative force, and ambition were impressive. Her work was vastly different from the work performed by the character in The Lacemaker, but both types of work took skill and dedication, not to mention time, as any needleworker or fiber artist can attest. And yet, both types of work, which are essentially creative work, have been historically devalued in a variety of ways. Until Alfred Stieglitz and other pictorial photographers like Wiggins began actively lobbying for the perception of photography as art, it was considered more of a curiosity or a hobby.[23] And as Beth Harris attests, many seamstresses in the nineteenth century were grossly underpaid for their work, especially seamstresses working on mass-produced clothing, or so-called “slop work,” that was viewed as too cheap to justify the wages a bespoke seamstress or tailor might receive.[24]

Wiggins’s Lacemaker presents an idealized vision of the woman at work that served to enhance her own reputation and marketability as a working photographer at the turn of the century. Yes, she plays into the moral ideals associated with the image of the female needleworker—demure, quiet, hardworking, modest—but because Wiggins was herself a woman who worked, the connotations of the image feel a bit more complex than those associated with the allegorical murals  and decorative paintings of women that were also popular in the late nineteenth century. Admittedly, The Lacemaker is visually very similar to a number of quite decorative works of art popular in the late nineteenth century in the United States, in particular James McNeill Whistler’s 1871 painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, better known as “Whistler’s Mother.”[25] Whistler’s mother is also depicted seated and in profile facing left, with a white cap on her head in simple surroundings. Like The Lacemaker, “Whistler’s Mother” is in a fairly shallow space, and Whistler was known to have been inspired by the spatial and formal qualities of Japanese prints, which also influenced the Arts and Crafts movement, among others.[26] Whistler’s works would go on to influence painters in the 1890s, who depicted women in contemporary costume and usually referred to them in titles, not by their names, but by their occupations, and blurred the line between portraits, formal studies, and genre paintings.[27] In an article on decorative images of women in the late nineteenth century, art historian Bailey Van Hook discusses how women, in particular upper middle class white women, were increasingly seen as largely decorative in real life, consumed with “pastimes” rather than “occupations” and inhabiting a world of leisure rather than work.[28]  Van Hook actually specifically cites lacework, as opposed to sewing a shirt, as one of the “nonessential tasks” that women were frequently depicted engaging in in artwork of the period.[29] Wiggins’s Lacemaker, however, is clearly not upper middle class, and given that, it seems unlikely that her lacemaking is purely for leisure—here needlework is much more likely to be work. And Wiggins herself may have been middle- or upper-middle class, but was certainly not leisurely, as her almost superhuman schedule attests. With both Wiggins and her photograph, we see two figures who disrupt that dominant nineteenth century narrative of women as purely decorative—these women are entrepreneurial and unafraid of toil, even though in Wiggins’s case her ability to employ a housekeeper might have given her plenty of excuses to become a lady of leisure.

But even if she had become a lady of leisure, who’s to say that what might be perceived by some as leisure pursuits weren’t work of a kind? You may have recently heard the term “emotional labor,” which is often used to refer to the unseen, unpaid work that people in the service industry must perform in order to appear cheerful and accommodating to customers regardless of whatever else is going on in their lives and regardless of how rudely customers, coworkers, or managers may behave. Emotional labor is also used to refer to emotional duties that women are traditionally expected to perform—in a 2017 Harper’s Bazaar article, journalist Gemma Hartley variously categorized the emotional labor she performs as “problem solving,” “delegating,” and “walking that fine line to keep the peace and not upset your partner.”[30] The crushing part of emotional labor is that it often goes unnoticed by the people for whose benefit the emotional labor is being performed—often spouses, children, and family members. The women perceived as engaging primarily in leisure pursuits in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were most likely also silently performing emotional labor, keeping the emotional tone of home soft and gentle for their children to grow up in and their working husbands to come home to, networking with neighbors and friends in order to keep up the family’s social standing, and managing service workers, menus, and social calendars, all while carefully maintaining a beautiful appearance. In 1895 a French novelist named Paul Bourget characterized (upper middle class, white) American women as “the delegates to luxury in this utilitarian civilization.”[31] The word “delegate” here is crucial—even women who weren’t actively involved in visible labor were essentially engaged in diplomacy and keeping up appearances, performing emotional labor to create the illusion of a wealthy, thriving, and beautiful society.

Wiggins and her Lacemaker offer us an opportunity to explore the types of labor that women engage in and how they are valued—indeed, whether they are valued at all. I’d like to end with a poem I found in the course of my research, written by Susan Rich and published in The Southern Review in Winter 2010. Entitled “Mr. Myra Albert Wiggins Recalls Their Arrangement,” it takes Fred Wiggins’s point of view and imagines his perspective on his wife’s independence and ambition:

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“Maybe it was the bicycle. The way her hips

rose up and up—as if directed straight to heaven—


Like a Venus. And a banker’s daughter—true.

Real original, this girl—a bicycle, a camera,


other newfangled tools. So I sent her bolts

of ribbon, overalls, and boots—anything to make her squint


her eyes and glance one day toward me—me: Fred

Wiggins of Wiggins Bazaar – 123 Commercial Street.


More of a backup boyfriend, for someone like Myra

her family would say. Everyone knew she was in love


with her own life: bareback rides, opera singing,

and the New York artiste nights. But I expected


to live a little, too. And so if there were men

of Salem, Toppenish, Seattle, lovely and rich—


who snickered at our last-season suits

and sequined gowns, who hinted not infrequently—


that a husband should not be so happy

packing picture frames and mounting


photographs. Christ. They knew nothing.”[32]

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Rich’s poem builds upon the idea of Wiggins as enterprising and ambitious, more invested in her artistic pursuits than traditional ideals of womanhood. The title itself is sort of a spoof on how press of the period referred to Wiggins and other women in relation to their fathers and husbands rather than as full entities in their own right: an 1897 Salem newspaper report on Wiggins and fellow photographer Helen Gatch referred to them as “Mrs. Myra Albert Wiggins, daughter of Banker Albert” and “Mrs. Claude Gatch, wife of the popular Odd Fellow grand lodge officer and Salem bank cashier.”[33] Myra Albert Wiggins more than distinguished herself as a success independent of male relatives. Her career, and even the apparently demure figure of The Lacemaker that she constructed, disrupt our notions of what women of the past were like, what role women play in our current moment, and what “women’s work” actually is. The freelancer hustling their main gig and side gig at all hours in order to pay their bills and make something of themselves is not so different from the enterprising Wiggins. Nor is the office worker who strains their eyes looking at computers or the service worker who pastes on a smile for rude customers all that different from the accommodating Dutch peasant quietly and patiently focusing on detailed and time-intensive needlework that may not be fully appreciated by its future wearer. Work takes many forms, and Wiggins and her Lacemaker prompt us to reexamine where we see, or more importantly do not see, evidence of the labor of others in our daily lives.

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Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this podcast, as well as a link to the image and citations, at Go ahead and subscribe to us wherever you like to listen to podcasts, follow us on Twitter and Instagram at arthistory4all, with the number 4, and if you really enjoyed the podcast (and the work that went into it), please consider leaving us a tip at This podcast was produced and narrated by Allyson Healey, and the theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other music can be found in the episode description or at the end of the transcript. New episodes go up on the last Monday of every month. Thanks so much for listening, and remember to look closely—you never know what you might see.

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Additional Music Credits:


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Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License


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“Breaktime” by Kevin MacLeod (

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“Trio for Piano, Cello, and Clarinet” by Kevin MacLeod (

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[1] Fun fact: These episode scripts are approximately 4,000 words long. So we’ll prove it 4x over.

[2] Carole Glauber, Witch of Kodakery: The Photography of Myra Albert Wiggins, 1869-1956 (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1997), 9.

[3] Glauber, 15-16, 19.

[4] Glauber, 25.

[5] Glauber, 8.

[6] Glauber, 30.

[7] Glauber, 30-31.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Glauber, 31.


[12] “The Lacemaker,” The Louvre Museum, accessed August 23, 2019,

[13] Glauber, 37.

[14] As I mentioned in a footnote to episode 7: There’s quite a lot of discussion about how Vermeer composed and rendered his paintings so realistically. For an interesting take on this, I recommend the 2013 documentary Tim’s Vermeer, which argues against the long-held theory that Vermeer used a camera obscura and instead posits he used a system of mirrors.

[15] “The Lacemaker,” The Louvre Museum.

[16] Beth Harris, Famine and Fashion: Needlewomen in the Nineteenth Century (Routledge, 2017), eBook, 5.

[17] Harris, 8-9.

[18] Glauber, 31.

[19] Glauber, 36.

[20] Glauber, 36-37.

[21] Glauber, 26.

[22] Glauber, 37.

[23] Terry Toedtmeier, Foreword to Glauber, x-xi.

[24] Harris, 7-8.


[26] Bailey Van Hook, “Decorative Images of American Women: The Aristocratic Aesthetic of the Late Nineteenth Century,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 4, no. 1 (1990): 49.

[27] Van Hook, “Decorative Images,” 52.

[28] Van Hook, “Decorative Images,” 59

[29] Ibid.

[30] Gemma Hartley, “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up,” Harper’s BAZAAR, September 27, 2017,

[31] Bourget, quoted in Van Hook, “Decorative Images,” 59.

[32] Susan Rich, “Mr. Myra Albert Wiggins Recalls Their Arrangement – ProQuest,” The Southern Review, Winter 2010, ProQuest.

[33] Quoted in Glauber, 27.