Whimsy Does It

Linda Burton posting from Bismarck, North Dakota –A picture of a cat photographing a cat brought Nancy Hendrickson to my attention; the cats were wearing cute little hand-stitched clothes; the camera was vintage. Though published under the name P C Bill, the award-winning commercial photographer with the whimsical eye was Nancy Christenson Hendrickson (1886-1978, born and lived near Mandan, North Dakota). Not formally educated but interested in just about everything, during her lifetime she was a rancher, farmer, gardener, seamstress and amateur meteorologist. The seventh child of pioneering Swedish homesteaders, she claimed a homestead of her own at an early age and built her own house. Widowed twice with no children of her own, she was a caretaker of family and counselor to neighbors; she collected coins and even had samples of sand from all 50 states! The photography career? Well, that began in 1902, when she bought a Kodak box camera for 35 cents.

The Kodak package included an instruction booklet, a rig for flash bulbs, and equipment for processing pictures. It was a while before she sold any photographs, however. After her father’s death, while she was caring for her mother and her mother’s farm, Nancy earned extra income as a seamstress. And, she got the idea of selling photographs. She bought a new professional-level camera – an Ansco medium-format unit with bellows – and made photographs of pet cats, rabbits, and dogs in tiny human handmade clothes. Imagine the array of small bonnets and suits and dresses she created; the miniature scenes around the house and farm she made! But those photographs sold; she got about $3 apiece for them in the 1920’s and they were published in the Minneapolis Tribune, the Denver Post, the New York Times. She sold to Swedish and British publications such as the Midweek Victorian; she sold to home, farm, and women’s magazines. She added pigs, ducks, chickens, and coyotes; eventually her work was displayed in the State Historical Society museum.

During the 1930’s, Nancy started to develop and print film for her neighbors. She made prints with a contact printing frame, which tightly aligned photographic paper against a negative. Sunlight entered her darkroom through a small hole in the wall, passed through the negative, and struck the paper. The exposed paper was processed in a bath of chemicals; a print could take several days to produce, depending on the weather. She continued with her photography until the outbreak of World War II, when the necessary chemicals were almost impossible to acquire. In all, she produced nearly 5,000 photographs; an interesting historical one I found from 1931 was the dynamiting of the old burned capitol as they prepared for construction of the new one.

Before her death she made a donation to the State Historical Society of North Dakota of items dating from 1892 to 1977; the collection includes diaries from 1902-1972 concerning gardening, housework, farming, family, photography, and account books; an official guidebook to the New York World’s Fair of 1939, war rationing coupons from 1945; Weather Bureau statistics from 1952-1972; and almost 300 glass slides and negatives.

You may access these items at the State Historical Society website to see more of her work. The dog and rabbit photographs are cute, I think, but my favorite is still the cat photographing the cat. I’m in awe of her whimsical, creative way of thinking (of course), and her technical and marketing skills (most certainly). But how on earth did she get cats to stand still for that?

State Historical Society of North Dakota http://history.nd.gov/archives/manuscripts/inventory/10200.html

North Dakota Council on the Arts http://www.nd.gov/arts/online_artist_archive/images-pdfs/H/Hendrickson_NancyChristenson.htm