New Women and Progressive Education

Science Class, Washington, D.C.

The Colby Museum is pleased to announce the acquisition of Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Science Class, Washington DC. A freelance photographer and photojournalist, Johnston (1864–1952) became well-known for her portraiture of renowned individuals such as Booker T. Washington and William McKinley, in addition to her photographs of architecture. Lauren Lessing, Mirken Director of Academic and Public Programs, offers insights into a particular cyanotype of Johnston’s that illustrates changes in American education at the time.

Frances Benjamin Johnston belonged to a generation of New Women—female professionals who pushed their way into the spaces left open by the many young men killed or maimed during the American Civil War. Her privileged position as an only child in a well-connected Washington, DC, family helped her at every turn. She studied painting at the Académie Julian in Paris but abandoned those aspirations when George Eastman, a close family friend, gave her a light, portable camera in 1887. She was instructed in its use by the first curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s photography collection, Thomas Smillie, and she decided to follow in the footsteps of her pioneering mother, Frances Antoinette Johnston, a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, by becoming a photojournalist.

As a freelance photographer in the late 1890s, Johnston sought out subjects that could illuminate the rapid social advances of the Progressive Era. During the previous decade, the forward-thinking superintendent of schools in the District of Columbia had instituted a series of reforms based on the theories of Francis Wayland Parker, a man whom John Dewey would later call “the father of progressive education in the United States.” Like Dewey, Parker rejected traditional practices such as rote memorization in favor of immersive experiences. He stressed the importance of field trips, physical movement, direct observation, and hands-on creativity for holistic learning. Johnston set out to document these methods—collectively called New Education—by taking photographs of classrooms in every public school in the District. She used some of the resulting pictures to illustrate an article that she wrote for the Ladies’ Home Journal titled “The New Idea in Teaching Children,” and she hoped to expand that essay into a series of instructional manuals for teachers. However, the expense of such illustrated books put them beyond the reach of most schoolteachers, and only the first volume in the series, Primary Education, was published. Undeterred, Johnston displayed five hundred of her New Education photographs, including images of white students in Washington, DC classrooms; African American students at the Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes; and Native American students at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, at the 1900 Paris Exposition, where she won a gold medal.

The Colby Museum of Art’s cyanotype [Fig. 1] depicts children in Miss Fishback’s fourth-grade science classroom gluing botanical specimens that they have undoubtedly gathered out-of-doors to backing boards under the watchful eye of their teacher. Pictures of nature line the chalkboard and the walls of the classroom, and two American flags are prominently displayed. Though their desks are arranged in a grid, the children—both boys and girls—emerge as distinct individuals who sit or stand, lean intently into their work, or approach it more dispassionately. The lovely deep blue tones of the cyanotype soften and aestheticize the scene.

Fig. 1: Frances Benjamin Johnston, Science Class, Washington DC, 1899. Cyanotype from glass negative, 7 1/4 x 9 3/8 in. (18.4 cm x 23.8 cm). Colby College Museum of Art. Museum purchase from the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund, 2017.476.

No darkroom is needed to produce prints like this one. Instead, a photographer needs only sunlight, iron salts, and plain tap water to make them. Professional photographers sometimes printed cyanotypes to proof their negatives before making finished photographs with more expensive silver or platinum solutions. Johnston may have produced this and other cyanotypes of the late 1890s as proofs; however, as a fierce advocate for women artists, she was likely also aware that cyanotypes were the preferred medium of the Victorian botanical illustrator Anna Atkins, who was one of the first professional female photographers.

Fortunately, Johnston wrote the name of the thirty-five-year-old teacher depicted in the Colby Museum’s cyanotype on the back of the print. Lucy Overton Fishback offers a glimpse of another professional woman of this period who, though nearly the same age as Johnston, was not blessed with the photographer’s resources or connections. One of five children of a gardener of modest means, Fishback nevertheless attended a prestigious school—the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies in Massachusetts. She married just after her graduation but the relationship did not last, and two years later she was hired (using her maiden name) as a teacher in the Washington, DC, public schools. There she remained for the next seventeen years. Making the most of her $750 annual salary ($50 less than her male colleagues received), Fishback shared a flat with four other women from Massachusetts—presumably former classmates. Four of the women worked as teachers or government clerks. The fifth woman kept house.

Like Fishback, Johnston eschewed traditional marriage to a man, living instead with her long-term business partner, fellow artist, and lover, Mattie Edwards Hewitt. In her well-known 1896 Self-Portrait (as “New Woman”), [Fig. 2] Johnston flaunted her disdain for Victorian gender conventions, showing herself leaning forward in profile with legs crossed and skirt lifted, cigarette and beer stein in hand. The following year, she published an article in the Ladies’ Home Journal urging “energetic, ambitious women” to consider photography as a means of financial independence. For such women, she claimed, success was always possible, because “hard, intelligent and conscientious work seldom fails to develop small beginnings into large results.”

Fig. 2: Frances Benjamin Johnston, Self-Portrait (as “New Woman”), 1896. Gelatin silver print, 19.7 cm x 15.7 cm. Library of Congress.