From the early times of explorers and settlers to the present day, the United States has been a nation of immigrants. Diversity makes the nation tick.
In the history of migration the (often neglected) participation of women has been crucial. Tales of hardship and bravery are legion. The plight of women who have had to make painful sacrifices has been highlighted by artists and historians, though more easily forgotten by the general public.
Zaida Ben Yùsuf joined the American labor force in the 1890s. She was in the vanguard of women who became professionally involved in the production of periodicals, as magazines reached a mass readership and photographs supplanted illustrations. But it was her migrant mother who had blazed the trail.
Art of Millinery
Anna Hermine Kind was born in November 1844 in Berlin and christened at the Jerusalemkirche in the suburb of Friedrichstadt. She moved to London in about 1867 where she probably learned her hat making skills. Millinery was a thriving business in the capital at the time. The street name Hatfields, Lambeth, recalls the fact that numerous hat manufacturers were based in the area.
Mustafa Ben Yùsuf was born Mustapha Moussa Ben Youseph Nathan about 1845 in Algiers. Aged fifteen he moved to London by way of Paris in the company of his sister and her husband. One of many Algerians who fled their country under the pressure of French colonial rule, he settled in Hammersmith.
The pretext was that the three émigrés had traveled to London to see the 1862 Great International Exhibition at South Kensington, but in reality Mustafa sought an English education and enrolled at King’s College. At some point in the late 1860s, he converted to Christianity and joined the Moslem Mission Society on whose behalf he gave cultural and theological lectures in Arabic dress.
Mustafa and Anna met in London and married in Brighton in 1869 at a seaside wedding. Five months later their first daughter was born in Hammersmith Hospital. Three other daughters would follow. There appeared to have been monetary problems in the family. According to the Records of the Moslem Mission Society Mustafa was forced to resign in late 1872 and instructed to remit money due to the Society. In 1874 he briefly enrolled at Downing College, Cambridge, but did not graduate. Mustafa then tried to earn an income as an actor.
Shortly after the birth of their youngest daughter in 1878 the marriage fell apart. Mustafa stayed in London and later re-married. In 1891 his second wife Henrietta Crane give birth to a daughter. When his son Mussa died in infancy in 1893 the death certificate indicated that Mustafa was working as a “licenced victualler.” He had indeed forsaken Islam.
Calling herself Madame Ben Yùsuf, Anna took her daughters to Ramsgate, Kent, where for several years she worked as a governess tutoring children in private households. Her girls attended school in the seaside town.
Desperate for a new start, she put every penny aside to get away. In 1888, having saved the cash for three second-class fares, she had to make an awful choice. She placed her two younger daughters in an orphanage (promising to send for them later: they would arrive in New York in 1894) and took the older daughters Zaida and Heidi to Liverpool from where they sailed to America.
Throughout her life Anna kept her married name and made no effort to anglicize it. She changed her life, not her name. By 1891 she was working at a milliner’s shop on buzzing Washington Street, Boston, before moving to the city of New York. From September 1905 onward she was employed as an instructor of millinery skills in the Department of Domestic Arts at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute.
Having resigned in June 1907, she set up a school of her own on West 23rd Street. Her book, The Art of Millinery: Practical Lessons for the Artiste and the Amateur was published in 1909. Formatted as a series of lessons, each dealing with a particular aspect of constructing a hat, treating the fabric or creating types of trimming, it was one of the first reference books for teaching the traditional art of hat-making. It included a glossary of technical terms used in millinery.
A revised edition of the instruction manual was reprinted as Edwardian Hats: The Art of Millinery in 1992. Anna died shortly after publication of her book on December 8th, 1909, in New York.
Anna’s eldest daughter Zaida Ben-Yùsuf was born Esther Zeghdda Ben Youseph Nathan on November 21st, 1869, in Hammersmith. She received her primary education in Ramsgate and spent her late adolescence and early maturity in Boston, working her way up the ladder of millinery’s hierarchy.
By 1895 she was listed in New York City Directories as a proprietor, having opened her first shop on 251 Fifth Avenue.
Living at 1 East 28th Street in Manhattan’s Kips Bay neighborhood, magazine illustrator L.L. Roush resided in another apartment on the same block. Did he stimulate her interest in photography and extended her professional ambition? The nature of illustration in periodicals was rapidly changing at the time as the halftone process made it possible to reproduce photographs on the printed page. Fashion became a prominent part in the make-up of magazines.
From 1896 onward, she was engaged in several areas of photography – fine art, fashion, theater, and portraiture – and also wrote magazine articles with photographic illustrations. She quickly established a name in avant-garde circles in New York and London. In April 1896, two of her “photographic art studies” were reproduced in Cosmopolitan magazine.
Later that year she traveled to Europe where she met with George Davison, one of the co-founders in May 1892 of The Linked Ring, a British society created to promote the idea that photography was as much a fine art as it was a technological tool. He encouraged her work and exhibited some of her pictures as part of the society’s Fourth Photographic Salon at Dudley Gallery, Piccadilly.
In January 1897, Zaida Ben-Yùsuf published a photographically illustrated essay “Practical Lessons in Millinery” in the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. By showing a pragmatic approach that would determine her further career, she continued in the footsteps of her mother. Economic independence was a strong motivator in her choice of activities.
Her photographic work progressed with exhibits at the Linked Ring’s Fifth Salon and recognition by the Camera Club of New York. Alfred Stieglitz, editor of the Club’s official journal Camera Notes, published examples of her portraiture in April and again in July of that year. By that time she had opened a Manhattan portrait studio at 124 Fifth Avenue.
In 1898, the Camera Club exhibited more than twenty of her prints alongside those of Frances Benjamin Johnston as part of its regular series of two-person exhibitions. This honor was rarely extended to women photographers. At the time, it was any photographer’s dream to be acknowledged by the Club’s hierarchy. Professional prestige was having a photograph published by Stieglitz.
In 1899, Zaida Ben-Yùsuf relocated her photography business to an exclusive studio at 578 Fifth Avenue in the former townhouse of the late financier Jay Gould. With ten-foot windows on both sides, the space provided perfect conditions and ample light for a professional photographer. Her office was reputedly richly decorated with ‘Oriental’ tapestries and carpets. She took part in numerous exhibitions, including the second Philadelphia Photographic Salon. Her evocative masterpiece titled “The Odour of Pomegranates” was also created in that year.
This was the era in which Alphonse Mucha’s posters reached a wide audience and “le style Mucha” became synonymous with Art Nouveau. Hired by Sarah Bernardt to promote her American tour in 1894, he had “defined” the female image. Zaida Ben-Yùsuf introduced his style into photography.
Portraits & Theatre
Not hampered or inhibited by conventional methods or aesthetics, Ben-Yùsuf entered the domain of professional photography almost as a novice but possessed by a drive to succeed. With a migrant’s sense of self-reliance, she produced highly original and daring work.
Despite her relatively young age, Zaida Ben-Yùsuf attracted many of New York’s prominent figures to her portrait studio. Her list of sitters included former President Grover Cleveland, New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt (in 1899), political cartoonist Thomas Nast, philosopher Elbert Hubbard, actress Elsie Leslie, aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, and journalist Jacob A. Riis who had just published his book of critical social commentary How the Other Half Lives.
In line with family connections the theater was close to her heart. Her father was an actor in Britain; her sister Heidi performed in New York; and once both her younger sisters had settled in America they also took to the stage. Zaida Ben-Yùsuf’s portrait of her sister Pearl, cigarette in hand, graced Metropolitan Magazine in 1901 at a time when smoking women were a social taboo. She regularly provided portraits of actors for the drama section of the New York Times.
Her reputation traveled far and wide. In July 1901 she and Frances Benjamin Johnston assembled an exhibition of work by American women photographers at the Universal Exposition in Paris (to which she contributed five portraits). The show then traveled to venues in St Petersburg, Moscow, and Washington. Later that year F. Holland Day organized an exhibition on behalf of London’s Royal Photographic Society. Entitled the “New School of American Photography,” it featured four of her photographs. Alfred Stieglitz also selected four of her photographs for the Glasgow International Exhibition.
She was celebrated as the Princess of Art Photography and profiled as one of the “foremost women photographers in America” in the November issue of Ladies Home Journal. Zaida Ben-Yùsuf was an independent character who was unwilling to submit herself to any artistic program or manifesto. In spite of success, she came to the conclusion that “fine art” photography was too restrictive for a medium that was capable of capturing the fleeting moments of everyday life. She also had to earn a living.
Producing a large number of magazine illustrations in the early 1900s, she did not shy away from pursuing a commercially viable route without sacrificing her high standards. As a consequence she lost the support of Alfred Stieglitz, the powerhouse and dictator of American artistic photography. Her reputation gradually faded as the number of competitors and imitators increased.
Having left the donnish domain of art photography, Zaida Ben-Yùsuf joined the ranks of restless travelers. For a brief moment she considered leaving her camera locked away in New York, but decided against it. In April 1903 she sailed to Yokohama on RMS Empress of India of the Canadian Pacific Steamship and Railroad Company.
Overcoming her “camera fever,” she embarked on the complementary pursuit of travel writing. The trip yielded “Japan through my Camera” a four-part, illustrated series published in Saturday Evening Post during the spring and summer of 1904 which included photographs from Yokohama, Kobe, Tokyo, Nagasaki, Kyoto (where she rented a house with the purpose of living in “native fashion”) and Nikko.
She spent nearly a decade as a photojournalist and travel writer. For several years she traveled back and forth between New York, Paris, and London. The 1911 British census listed Zaida Ben-Yùsuf and L. L. Roush as a married couple working at Bolton Photographic Studio, Chelsea.
Returning to New York at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, she traveled as Zaida Roush, and settled at 40 West 39th Street to resume her portrait practice. In 1917 she converted her studio into a dressmaking salon. Roush arrived back in the United States a little later, worked as an interior decorator, and died in 1918. His biographers have found no record of his having divorced his first wife in Pennsylvania.
Having returned to the creative domain where she had started her career, Zaida was appointed Fashion Director of the Retail Millinery Association in 1928 with the mission to promote trade exhibitions. The 1930 U.S. Census shows that she had retired by then. Residing in Greenwich Village, she was married to Frederick (Jerry) Norris, an actor and fabric specialist (details of the marriage are scarce). The extraordinary Zaida died on September 27th, 1933, at Brooklyn’s Methodist Hospital.
Illustrations, from above: Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lane, 1936; Mustafa Ben-Yusuf by Hills & Saunders; The Art Of Millinery by Anna Ben-Yusuf (New York: Millinery Trade Publishing Co., 1909); Washington Street, Boston, early 20th century; Zaida Ben-Yusuf self-portrait, 1901 (Library of Congress); cover of The Cosmopolitan magazine, May 1896; Zaida Ben Yùsuf, The Odour of Pomegranates, 1899 (Library of Congress); and Zaida Ben Yusuf, Japan Through My Camera, The Saturday Evening Post, April 23, 1904.
peter Waggitt says
What an extraordinary life that family lived and from such poor beginnings with what must have been a major obstacle of a middle eastern name. – brilliant. Do you think it would be possible today?