Chipmunks and Children: The Photography and Life of Ruth Alexander Nichols

Document 1: 21 August 1917, Ruth Alexander to Herman Nichols   |    Document 2: 23 August 1918, Albert Britt to Ruth Alexander
Document 3: 1919 Thomas Clay O’Donnell to Ruth Alexander   |    Document 4: 23 May 1927 Jean M. Whitman to Ruth Nichols
Document 5: 20 June 1931- W. C. Vogt to Ruth Nichols   |    Document 6 & 7 Introduction
Document 6: 14 June 1950, W.H. Zippler to Ruth Nichols     |    Document 7: 20 June 1950, Ruth Nichols to W.H. Zippler
Document 8: 1953 – Better Homes and Gardens Transcript       |     Bibliography

girl with worm
Nichols frequently captured photographs of children and animals interacting, as in this undated photo of a girl examining worms.
Source: Series XIII. Photographs, Box 12. Nichols Family Papers, RG 30/372. O.C.A.

Document 4: 23 May 1927 Jean M. Whitman to Ruth Nichols

Author: Jean M. Whitman 

Recipient: Ruth Nichols

Date: 23 May 1927

Location: Nichols Family Papers, Record Group 30/372, Series VI: Professional Correspondence of Ruth A. Nichols Nichols, Box 1. O.C.A.

Document Type: Autograph Letter


By 1927, when the following document was written, Ruth Nichols had become a widowed mother of two children, five year old Jane, and three year old Anne.[1] While it is likely that Herman Nichols had left her some money, Ruth Nichols was not wealthy and had to provide for her family. Despite opposition to working women, particularly in fields outside of the so-called “pink-collar” jobs, Ruth became a successful entrepreneur.[2] Her nearly lifelong pursuit of photography gave her the skills and knowledge that enabled her to turn it from a into a full time career after she was widowed.

Cabro print of girl with milkshake
Cabro print of a girl and a milkshake sealed inside plastic wrap (undated).
Source: Series XIII. Photographs, Box 12. Nichols Family Papers, RG 30/372. O.C.A.

This letter, sent by a married mother, Jean M. Whitman, to “Miss Nichols” in order to praise her work as a photographer of children is indicative of Nichols’ early success.[3] Only three years after the beginning of her professional career, she was already garnering praise and acclaim. Additionally, this letter showcases the success of her early work with children. Though Nichols began as an amateur  nature photographer, her photographs of her own daughters that truly launched her career and developed into her signature style.

This letter is also interesting for the insight it provides into the audience for Nichols’ work. Pay attention to Whitman’s inquiry to Nichols about commissioned photographs in the last sentence of the letter, and what that says about Whitman’s social position.

Original                       Both                    Transcription



1927 letter pt1
1927 letter pt2



Letter from Admirer[4]

J. M. W.[5]

My dear Miss Nichols,

girl with cat
Libby Harkrader also modeled multiple times for Nichols. The caption states: “All rts- Ansco. Aug 47 5H-115.”
Source: Series XIII. Photographs, Box 5. Nichols Family Papers, RG 30/372. O.C.A.

        I am running the risk of seeming presumptuous in writing directly to you, to say how much I have enjoyed the photograph taken by you, which was used to illustrate the article “Say it with Stories” in the June number of the magazine “Children.”[6] It was the photograph of a young mother telling a story to a little girl. I consider it masterly. You have captured the spirit of  that moment perfectly. Perhaps I feel this so poignantly because I have a little daughter who looks very much like the child in the picture. I wonder if it would be possible for me to procure a real print of this photograph? May I trouble you to let me know. Do you ever take photographs of children other than for magazine use?

Thank you again for this charming bit of work, I am,


Jean M. Whitman.

Mrs. Roger W. Whitman

667 Corbin Ave

New Britain, Conn.

May 20th

[Transcribed by Laura Feyer.]

[1] Jane Ellis Nichols (b. 28 April 1922) and Anne Townsend Nichols (b. 28 April 1924) were Ruth Nichols’ only children. They both attended Oberlin College: Jane was class of 1943, and Anne, class of 1947. Jane later received a doctorate and married the Reverend Howard Spragg, with whom she had at least five children. On 12 February 1947 (a few months before she graduated) Anne married Albert Wright Plambeck, a graduate of Union College who had served as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy for five years. They had at least three children together (Student File, Ruth Alexander Nichols, Record Group 28/2, Box 57, O.C.A.).

[2] “Pink collar” jobs, such as secretarial work, childcare, and domestic work, were seen as traditional female occupations. It is no coincidence that such jobs generally involved low pay and few opportunities for advancement.

[3] Jean M. Whitman (b. 1900) married her husband, Roger W. Whitman (b. circa 1897), when she was 23 and he was 26. At the time this letter was written, they would have had their first daughter Elizabeth (b. circa 1924), and would have been pregnant with their second child, a daughter named Sarah (b. circa 1927). The 1930 Federal Census reveals that the couple was fairly well off: they owned a home worth 10,000 dollars, and a radio set. Jean listed her occupation as “homemaker,” while Roger worked as the Superintendent of a hosiery factory. The 1940 census shows that he was promoted to President. While neither Jean nor Roger apparently attended college, they both had completed high school, and the census shows their daughters on track to do the same. This data reveals a fairly typical white suburban family from the 1930s, and reflects the target audience for Ruth Nichols’ work (“1930 United States Federal Census –” Accessed 22 June 2016. Web link.; “1930 United States Federal Census –” Accessed June 22, 2016. Web link.; “1940 United States Federal Census –” Accessed 22 June 2016. Web link.; “1940 United States Federal Census –” Accessed June 22, 2016. Web link).

[4] “Letter from Admirer” and the date 5/23/27 were written in a different hand from the rest of the letter. They were likely added by Nichols herself, as 5/23/27 would have been the date she received the letter, which was sent on 20 March, as indicated at the bottom of the epistle.

[5] The author’s initials are a printed or neatly stamped letterhead, the rest of the letter is handwritten.

[6] “Children” refers to Children, The Magazine for Parents, a “mass circulation monthly” about parentingfounded in 1926. The name was later changed to Parents Magazine (Dianna Selig. “Parents Magazine.” InEncyclopedia of Children and Childhood History and Society, 2008. Accessed 13 March 2016. Web link).