Frances and Mary Allen shared an artistic vision for close to fifty years. Recognition of the success of their vision came in 1901 when eminent photographer and critic Frances Benjamin Johnston named the sisters two of “The Foremost Women Photographers in America.” She declared: “Frances and Mary Allen, like most of their professional sisters, are women whose success in photography is the result of patient, painstaking effort. Without any special training but that of well-read women of good taste they have put character, dignity, and artistic feeling into their pictures, and they stand unrivaled in their individual line of work. In that quaint, old Massachusetts town of Deerfield the Allen sisters have found a veritable mine of picturesque material.”1
Frances and Mary Allen’s home and inspiration was in the Connecticut River Valley town of Deerfield.2 Their father, Josiah Allen, owned a successful farm in the Wapping section of Deerfield where he grew corn, potatoes, rye, wheat, grass, and tobacco.3 After Josiah’s 1853 marriage to Mary Stebbins, they had four children: Frances Stebbins, born August 10, 1854; Edmund Eliel, born November 23, 1855; Mary Electa, born May 14, 1858; and Caleb, born December 29, 1861.4 Josiah and Mary Stebbins Allen were devoted to their children. The family was supportive of one another, well established in the community, and closely connected to a wide circle of kin and friends.
Josiah and Mary Allen provided their children with opportunities to advance academically, socially, and artistically. The pleasures of rural life included picnics on Sugarloaf Mountain, sleigh rides, outings to the spiritualist camp at Lake Pleasant, visits to Franklin County cattle shows, and attendance at tableaux exhibitions, dances, and sugaring parties.
Frances and Mary had their share of childhood illnesses such as measles, scarlet fever, and mumps as well as seemingly never-ending colds and sore throats. Although recurring ear infections or scarring may have contributed to their eventual loss of hearing, there is little evidence that their hearing was impaired until they were in their thirties.
Frances attended Deerfield Academy between 1866 and 1873. Mary began her first term at Deerfield Academy in 1868 when she was ten years old and attended for six years. In the fall of 1874, twenty-year-old “Fanny” and sixteen-year-old “Mame” began a two-year program at the State Normal School teacher’s college in Westfield, Massachusetts. Tuition was free to the State Normal School pupils who had agreed to teach in the state’s public schools following commencement. In addition, Massachusetts appropriated money as financial aid. For the last three terms, Frances, along with about half of her class, received financial aid.5 In June 1876, Frances and Mary Allen graduated from the State Normal School.
In October following their graduation, Frances and Mary, chaperoned by their Aunt Louisa Stebbins, visited the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition where there was a Photography Hall that displayed photographs as well as the latest camera equipment. Included in the International Exhibition were the English photographers Julia Margaret Cameron and Henry Peach Robinson, both important figures in the early development of photography as fine art.6
Frances spent the next ten years, from 1876 to 1886, teaching school. Due to poor health, her sister Mary’s teaching career was sporadic. In 1876 she taught primary school at the Green River School. The following year she was an assistant teacher at Deerfield Academy-Deerfield High School. Although Frances and Mary had planned to devote themselves to the classroom, hear loss forced both to give up their chosen careers in teaching.
Ultimately, the Allen sisters’ loss of hearing strengthened their support of one another and likely fostered mutual interests.
Photographs courtesy of Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, MA.