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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: The dog days of photography years ago

MARION HISTORICAL MUSEUM PHOTO

Young Bess Williams poses as if she were giving a dog a haircut in this fanciful mid-1890s portrait, entitled "Be Still," by enterprising Marion photographer Laura E. McMullin.

Family keepsakes from the mid-1890s often include fanciful photos of children, posed in unusual settings, like this photo, entitled “Be Still,” by Marion photographer Laura E. McMullin (1859-1923).

In 1895, about when this photo was created, life-size photos, colored with crayons, cost $5 alone or $8 with frame. In today’s purchasing power, that would be between $150 and $240.

McMullin, wife of schoolteacher Josiah F. McMullin, was one of a small number of pioneering women pursuing the relatively new profession of photography.

In 1889, she got her start advertising cabinet photos for $2 per dozen ($55 in today’s purchasing power).

Two years later, she bought out rival photographer W.M. Hall, who had moved to Marion from Chicago, and relocated to his gallery across from the Courthouse in a now-demolished building occupying the space now used by Central National Bank’s parking lot.

She promised “new and elegant scenery” and “first-class work,” prominently emblazoning her photos “Mrs. McMullin, Marion, Kansas.”

But for the next four years, she was forced to compete against itinerate photographers who operated out of a private rail car that pulled into town for a few weeks and produced cheaper prints on celluloid instead of paper.

Both types of print were advances over glass and, before, daguerreotype (“tin type”) pictures. The celluloid photos — essentially, giant “slides” instead of “prints” — were thought to be less vulnerable to cracking and peeling but required a light source.

A price war and series of challenge between the two ensued, with Mrs. McMullin offering to cut her prices to the rail car’s level “as long as the rail car remains in town and not an hour after.”

By 1895, the rail cars stopped coming, and she was able have the market to herself.

Her monopoly was brief-lived, however. She left town in 1900 after her husband secured a position with the Census Bureau in the nation’s capital. The couple eventually relocated to Ohio.

Her prominent young subject, however, continued on in Marion, becoming a fixture at the Courthouse, where she worked in a variety of positions for nearly four decades.

Bess Williams Jones (1892-1958) was born to prominence, daughter of pharmacist-turned-lawyer Dick Williams (1857-1915), often regarded as the county’s most popular Democrat.

Williams came to Marion in 1879 and built for his drug store one of the town’s first stone buildings, which eventually made way for buildings where Western Associates now is situated.

He went on to become a key organizer of fundraising campaigns to build both the Elgin Hotel and the city’s equally historic YMCA building, destroyed by fire in the 1950s and now site of the Karstetter and Bina law office.

Williams served as a city councilman, mayor, and eventually county attorney, narrowly losing a race to become register of deeds before he sought city office.

After her father’s death in 1915, Bess began working as a clerk in the probate judge’s office.

Married in 1919, she moved first to Newton and then to Dodge City with her husband, Francis, but frequently returned to Marion without him, briefly filling in as assistant probate judge in 1920 before permanently returning in 1921.

Until her retirement in 1956, she served as deputy probate judge and as an assistant in the county clerk’s and county treasurer’s offices, residing for the last 16 years of her life in the Wheelock Apartments, in what is now a parking lot west of the Elgin.

Exactly what she intended to do in her mid-1890s photo, posed as if she were a barber about to give a haircut — or, perhaps, an ear trim — to a dog, remains a mystery.

Both father and daughter are buried alongside other family members in Marion Cemetery.

Last modified June 26, 2019

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