Sisters Helena, Louise, and Andrea Nelson donned overalls and posed on their family’s farm near Tabor, Yankton County, South Dakota in this candid photograph dated circa 1916. Andrea, nineteen in the summer of 1916, had recently completed her studies at the Southern State Normal School in Springfield.1 Both Helena, fifteen, and Louise, sixteen, would be students there in the fall, while Andrea would go on to her first term as a teacher at a one-room country school.2
Pitching in to help out on the farm would have been the norm for the Nelson girls, the three middle children in a family of nine. Helena’s daughter later recalled her mother’s stories of working in the fields in the summertime,3 and in a letter dated 1918, in response to a question from her cousin about taking summer courses, Andrea replied, “Oh, how I’d love to, but guess it’s chickens to tend etc. and overalls to wear. Suppose that too will be sport, but after all, is there anything like being a schoolgirl?”4 The Nelson girls would have been especially needed on the farm that summer, as their older brother, Ole, was in the service.
While many decades had yet to pass before women wearing pants would become truly mainstream, I can’t imagine that it would have been unusual at this time for young women to wear the clothing most suitable for farm labor while at home among family. The overalls and loose collared shirts worn by the Nelson girls might have been hand-me-downs from their father and brother (even Levi Strauss & Co. didn’t begin to make jeans especially for women until the 1930s!), and, positioned side-by-side in a field with wide-brimmed straw hats atop their heads, the sisters—or the photographer—clearly recognized that this was a photo op not to be missed.
Copyright © 2017 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
1 The Echo, Vol. 1, “Andrea Nelson,” Springfield, South Dakota, 1916; privately held by Melanie Frick.
2 Andrea Nelson to Fred and Christine (Schimdt) Nelson, letter, 18 November 1916; privately held by Melanie Frick.
3 Smith, Lois Elaine (Wiese). “Memoirs.” MS. 2007. Photocopy privately held by Melanie Frick.
4 Andrea Nelson to Edith Nelson, letter, 27 March 1918; privately held by Melanie Frick.