fig. 13: Studio Portrait, circa 1900
by Abigail Cardozo

Gallery · Bibliography · Essay

The Indomitable Abbie Cardozo
by Peter Palmquist

Abigail ("Abbie") E. Cardozo (1864-1937) was forced into marriage at age 14 by her parents; her husband was nearly twice her age. When she opened her first photography business at age 33 she was divorced with three teenage daughters to support, yet she not only competed favorably with the three other galleries in town - operated by men - but successfully outlasted them all.

Abbie was active as a studio photographer in the small coastal town of Ferndale, California (nearly 300 miles north of San Francisco), from 1897-1907. Ferndale's main claim to fame was the fact that it was the "furthest west town in America." Its population was about 1,000, and its principal business was dairy farming. The dominant ethnic groups were of Danish, Portuguese, Swiss, and Italian origins. Rural in the extreme, Ferndale easily fits today's notion of a "frontier town," or "cultural backwater," even though it was the largest community in the immediate area.

Abbie's life easily serves as a case study of one woman's survival in the male-dominated setting of the American West. She was the sixth of nine children born to George Washington Dean (1827-1887) and Sarah (Langston) Dean (1831-1886). The Deans came to California in 1850 and settled in Grizzly Bluff, a community of about 15 families, in 1853. Abbie was born here on July 25, 1864. She was married on her 14th birthday to Oscar L. Chapman. (She used to recount that she hardly knew him before their wedding day.) The couple had a number of children, but only three survived infancy: Della (b. 1879); Bella (b. 1881); and Stella (b. 1883). Abbie left Chapman in May 1889, charging him with mental cruelty. He in turn entered a counter suit accusing Abbie of intimacies with other men.

Despite the grave difficulties of her early life, Abbie developed an increasingly strong sense of personal identity and independence. Her separation from Chapman was viewed by local society as outrageous: after all, "How could she support her children?" Undaunted, she found part-time employment, first as a clerk and later in a local photography studio. She was especially proud of her newfound independence, both as a working woman and with the men of her choice.

By 1894 Abbie's divorce had been settled in her favor (Chapman was later murdered by gunshot in 1906). She then married Levi Nathaniel Cardozo (1864-1951). Both were 30 years of age. "Jack" Cardozo was a Ferndale storekeeper, "charming and fun," but somewhat of a town loafer.

By the 1890s Ferndale already boasted a long heritage of professional photography. In fact, more than 30 photographers and studio firms practiced their trade in the community between 1870 and 1906. In 1896, for instance, druggist/photographer Clinton C. Lasley and his wife, Rosie, came to Ferndale. Clinton operated the Ferndale Drugstore while Rosie took over most of the photography duties in their adjacent gallery. Abbie and Rosie became close friends, and Abbie easily observed the advantages of becoming a boss of her own photography business.

The Lasleys soon left, and by April 1897 Abbie had entered into a brief partnership, in portrait photography, with George Crippen. Their goal was to produce stylistic photographic portraits, "Equal in every respect to the best anywhere." After a few months the partnership floundered, and Abbie and Crippen became business rivals along with two other existing studios. By February 1898 Abbie had purchased the "Post Office" Gallery (so called because it was next door to the Ferndale's Post Office). Her advertisement in the Ferndale Enterprise notes her new location and reminds her clients that "she has not been engaged in photography since her childhood, but she invites a comparison to her work with the work of others, simply this and nothing more."

Abbie's portrait photographs, however, were soon among the finest and most innovative of their kind to be offered on the north coast. Instead of the standard (full-face and "stilted") poses common to the period, Abbie developed a special flair for stylish arrangements and poses for her subjects, especially women. One key to her success was the perception that there was a great need for professional hairstyling in Ferndale. She traveled to San Francisco for the latest instruction in this art and was soon able to advertise "free hairdressing with each studio sitting." She also nurtured her growing skill as a painter, painting her own studio backdrops as skillfully as she retouched her portrait negatives. A bamboo chair, various false balustrades, and wall drapes completed her inventory of studio props.

Abbie's portrait business began while the cabinet card was still de rigeur for studio photography. The cabinet card measured about 4" by 6" inches and was the 5" by 7" photograph of the day. Abbie, however, took great pride in introducing new lines of innovative mounts and photographic styles to her clients. This modernization featured ovals and square images on a wide variety of mounts and was a great departure from traditional style portraiture. She introduced photo folders about 1902.

Those who knew her described Abbie as a "clever, energetic, charming woman." These qualities may help to explain how she was able to keep her head above water in a town where turn-of-the-century conventions and small-town gossip could be fatal. She also had many friends. Her major failing seems to have been the habit of marrying unsuitable (at least for her) husbands.

In 1903 she started divorce proceedings against her second husband, charging him with failure to provide for reasons of idleness, profligacy, willful desertion, adultery, and extreme cruelty. Again Abbie won and Jack drifted out of her life.

In 1904 the Humboldt County Tax Assessor listed Abbie's assets as follows: "photo outfit $100; piano $100; wagon $20; harness $10; horse $40; cows $40; calf $5." She also owned a twenty-acre farm assessed at $1,700.

Life in Ferndale, however, was changing. No longer were the townspeople as reliant on local services. Improved transportation and the glamour provided by having one's portrait taken in Eureka (the county seat, some 30 miles north) began to erode Abbie's business. In October of 1905 she leased her business to Edwin O. Garrett, but she continued to take an active interest in the business until 1907. Her divorce from Cardozo was finalized in 1907. Still interested in photography, she moved to Oakland, California, with her oldest daughter, apparently in search of a better business opportunity.

About 1910 she married Andrew Hayes, an inspector for the City of Oakland. She gave up her photography but soon began to concentrate on ceramic painting. She even had her own kiln in her garage. By 1925 Abbie had developed Parkinson's disease, which affected her painting, and she returned to Ferndale, where she remained until her death in 1937.

100 Years of California Photography by Women

All text © Peter E. Palmquist
Shadowcatchers: A Directory of Women in California Photography 1900-1920.
Arcata, California: Peter Palmquist, 1991.