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

Document 8: 1953 – Better Homes and Gardens Transcript

happy baby photo
This large scale print of an infant (undated) reveals Nichols’ ability to capture the expressiveness of children.
Source: Series XIII. Photographs, Box 12. Nichols Family Papers, RG 30/372. O.C.A.

Author: Ann Usher

Recipient: Ruth Nichols

Date: 18 February 1953

Location: Nichols Family Papers at the Oberlin College Archives in Box 1, Series VI: The Professional Correspondence of Ruth A. Nichols and in the folder marked Business Letters 1947-54 #2. Oberlin College Archives.

Document Type: Typed Letter


By 1953, when this document was written, Ruth Nichols had firmly made her mark in world. She was an extremely well known photographer, and provided images for some of the iconic advertisers and magazines of the era. Her personal life was also happy, as she was married her second husband, Brewster Sperry Beach.[1]

The following letter reflects both her success and the clientele that she generally served. Ann Usher, an associate editor of Better Homes and Gardens, wrote Nichols a series of letters in 1953 in an effort to coordinate the purchase of a photograph of a crawling infant for use in their advertising.[2] Better Homes and Gardens was one of the most widely read publications in the 1950s, with 3.7 million subscribers in 1953.[3] Billed as a “first class journal for the average family” it featured content geared towards home and families, and firmly avoided the common slants of “fiction, fashion, and sex” that drove many of their competitors.[4] Their image both and reflected and shaped the domestic ideals that began to take hold in the 1930s and 1940s, and which culminated in the 50s. They encouraged the ideal of the suburban nuclear family, and in particular promoted both the ideals of homeownership and women’s close involvement with their children.[5] 

Jimmie Matthews
In this photo of Jimmie Matthews, note how polished his mother looks. The caption reads: “16m-153 July 1949: Birmingham, Castleman and Pierce RJU”
Source: Series XIII. Photographs, Box 5. Nichols Family Papers, RG 30/372. O.C.A.

The latter ideal in particular directly contributed to what Betty Friedan referred to as the “feminine mystique” in her germinal 1963 work of the same name.[6] Friedan spoke of women who felt trapped by the domestic ideal: stuck in the suburbs with their children, without  intellectual stimulus or independence, and with an abundance of meaningless housecleaning and homemaking that stole all their time. The lives of these women differed profoundly from that of Ruth Alexander Nichols, and yet both were affected by the feminine ideals of the era. While the women described by Friedan were trapped by these domestic ideals, Nichols was able to use them to sell her photography and maintain her business. By tapping into a market for photographs of children and mothers that fueled the sexist advertising in the middle of the twentieth century, Nichols herself was able to defy those sexist expectations and pursue the successful, profitable, career that she loved. This is not to suggest that Nichols created the  “feminine mystique” or that she supported it;

catherine collins photos
Catherine Collins, 1949. The name of the company Nichols sold these photos to is illegible.
Source: Series XIII. Photographs, Box 5. Nichols Family Papers, RG 30/372. O.C.A.

 her photographs were not inherently sexist. However, the dichotomy between what her photographs allowed her to do for herself, and the ways in which they were then used by patriarchal system to limit and control other women, speaks to the appeal of more outspoken and radical forms of feminist action that began in the 1960s. There have always been successful women like Nichols, but unless challenges were brought against oppressive and patriarchal systems, these women became the exceptions to the rule.

This letter from Better Homes and Gardens discusses none of these philosophical and social implications: it is a straightforward business correspondence. However, it is important to note while reading it that both Nichols and her photographs were part of a larger society, and should be carefully examined for what they reveal about Second Wave American feminisms.

Original                       Both                    Transcription



1953 BH&G




February 18, 1953

Dear Miss Nichols:[8]

Since writing you that we were holding the four pictures in the 45-G[9] series, and sending you the confirming order which did not specify the exact picture number, my attention has been called to the Playtex Dryper ad which appeared in the December 1, 1952 issue of Life[10] and probably in other publications.[11] Apparently it was the picture illustrating that ad which stuck to the memory of several of us leading to our telegraphed inquery [sic] as to whether or not any of your 45-G series had been published previously.

I have just discussed with Noble Gammell, my Art Editor[12], the question of whether or not the picture we had selected from your 45-G series is too much like the Playtex ad. He has decided that it is and that we should not go ahead with our purchase of it. Playtex may repeat this ad at some time in the future and possibly it would be appearing just about the time we would publish our picture.

David Johnson
David Johnson. The caption reads: “21J-21 : Rts Gardner Adv. head only Lion Oil- Feb 1952.”
Source: Series XIII. Photographs, Box 5. Nichols Family Papers, RG 30/372. O.C.A.

Therefore, Mr. Gammell requests that you mail back the selection of pictures of crawling babies which we returned to you on February 9. We will make another choice from that selection of pictures and we will let you know which picture we have chosen. At that time I will have our Art Department write you specifying the picture and what rights we wish to purchase.

I will appreciate receiving the selection of pictures in the near future. Please advise if you wish us to return the four 45-G pictures we retained in advance of sending back the entire selection. Otherwise, we will return all of the photographs at one time.


[signed in ink: Ann Usher][13]

Associate Editor, Director

Child Care and Training Dept.

Mrs. Ann Usher


Miss Ruth A. Nichols

211 Chestnut Street

Westfield, New Jersey

[Transcribed by Willa Kerkhoff.]


[1] Student File, Ruth Alexander Nichols, Record Group 28/2, Box 57, O.C.A.

[2] Usher previously worked as the Director of the Child Care and Training Department at Better Homes and Gardens. (“Better Homes and Gardens Baby Book – 5th …” Better Homes and Gardens Baby Book. Accessed 16 March 2016. Web link).

[3] Kathleen L. Endres and Therese L. Lueck, eds. Women’s Periodicals in the United States: Consumer Magazines. Historical Guides to the World’s Periodicals and Newspapers. (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1995), 22.

[4] Endres and Lueck, Women Periodicals, 22.; Carol Reuss, “Chesla C. Sherlock as First Editor of Better Homes and Gardens.” Books at Iowa 17, November 1972. Web link.

[5] Endres and Lueck, Women Periodicals, 22.; Reuss, “Chesla C. Sherlock,” Web link.

[6] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1963).

[7] The Meredith Corporation remains the managing publisher of Better Homes and Gardens today.

[8] This is likely a typo as, in earlier letters, Usher referred to Ruth as Mrs. Nichols, which would have been the correct etiquette (“27. Notes and Shorter Letters. Post, Emily. 1922. Etiquette.” Accessed 22 June 2016.Web link).

[9] 45- G series probably refers to Nichols’ method of organizing her work. She assigned each child model a number, and then followed that with the letter of their last name. This was likely a long series of photographs involving one particular model.

[10] Life magazine.

[11] The ad’s tagline read “ Playtex Babies are Happier Babies- neater…sweeter…cleaner…cooler.” Later it also states that Playtex will keep your babies “socially acceptable” alluding to the domestic ideals of the era (“1952 AD Playtex Dryper Pads Panty Babies Diaper Cream Original Advertising LF3 | eBay.” Accessed 27 June 2016. Web link).

[12] Noble Gammell (1920-2013) served in the US Army until he received an honorable discharge. He then began working as the Art Editor for Better Homes and Gardens, a position which he held for many years. In 1942 he married Shirley Larson, with whom he had four children (“Noble F. Gammell,” Brian Mark Funeral Home. Accessed 17 March 2016. Web link).

[13] Ann Usher (b. 1909), who also appears to have gone by Anna, was an editor for Better Homes and Gardens. She was married to T. Raymond Usher (b. 1905) and the pair lived together in Des Moines, Iowa, where BH&G was headquartered. Despite Anne’s editorial position, their census records seem to indicate that her husband was the primary breadwinner: he was a medical doctor with a private practice. They were both white: Raymond had attended college and medical school, while Ann only finished high school. They had at least one child together, Ellen Ann Usher, who was born in 1934. In addition to her work as an editor, Ann Usher also appears to have written several articles for magazine. Some, including a work on the effects of T.V. on children, a babysitters’ “Bill of Rights,” and an article entitled “How your baby learns to think” seem firmly planted in the traditional domestic sphere; however she also wrote an article on the effects smoking in 1958 that might have pushed a bit beyond that traditional sphere (“U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 –” Accessed 22 June 2016. Web link.; “1940 United States Federal Census –” Accessed 22 June 2016. Web link.;“1940 United States Federal Census –” Accessed 22 June 2016. Web link.; Miriam Forman-Brunell, Babysitter: An American History. NYU Press, 2011.; “Better Homes And Gardens Magazine : May 1948, Vol. 26 Number 9 Issue – Schroeder, Ralph M. / Huttenlocher, Fae / Hendricks, J. Evans / Foster, Harry T. (Stories By).” Accessed 22 June 2016. Web link.; Patricia Mellencamp, Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism. (Indiana University Press, 1990).; “Some Facts About Smoking – Gospel Guardian vol.14, no.46, pg.2,11a.” Accessed 22 June 2016. Web link).

[14]These lower case letters likely are the initials of the typist who produced this letter, and others, for Usher.