Online Artist Archive
Hendrickson, Nancy Christenson
b. February 26, 1886; d. November 20, 1978
As the seventh child of pioneering homesteaders, Nancy Hendrickson was a jack-of-all-trades. She was a rancher, farmer, seamstress, gardener, amateur meteorologist, ad hoc counselor to her friends and neighbors, and collector of coins and samples of sand from all fifty states. However, it is her novelty photography of animals in little costumes for which she is best known.
She was born on February 26, 1886 to Sone and Christina Christenson, two Swedish immigrants who settled on a homestead along the Heart River south of Mandan. She was their only child born in the United States.
Although schools opened up in the rural area where the Christensons lived, they often closed after a couple of months. As such, Nancy only received a total of eleven months of formal education and spent three additional months studying for confirmation. Instead, she was educated at home through her parents’ large collection of newspapers and magazines. Further reading material came to her by way of William Rollins, an African-American homesteader who lived near the Christensons.
Nancy’s interest in photography budded in 1902, when she purchased a Kodak box camera for thirty-five cents. It included an instruction booklet, a rig for flash bulbs, and equipment for processing pictures. It would be almost twenty years, however, until she sold her first photograph.
In 1912, Nancy claimed her own homestead a mile from her childhood home. She built a small house and raised currants, rhubarb, and various types of berries.
In the early 1920’s, she moved back to care for her mother - who had taken ill - and run the family farm. (Her father died in 1908.) With money tight, Nancy was able to earn extra income as a seamstress and by selling photographs. She bought a new professional-level camera - an Ansco medium-format unit with bellows - and made photographs of pet cats, rabbits, and gophers in tiny human clothes. She made the small aprons, bonnets, suits, dresses, etc. herself, dressed the animals, and put them on miniature handmade sets of kitchens, sewing rooms, and other various locales. Some photographs sold for about $3.00 apiece and were published under the pseudonym P.C. Bill in the Minneapolis Tribune, the Denver Post, the New York Times Pictorial Magazine, Swedish and British publications such as the Midweek Victorian, and many other home, farm, and women’s magazines. Later, she photographed pigs, ducks, chickens, and coyotes; had her work displayed in the State Historical Society museum; and associated with famed North Dakota photographer Frank Bennett Fiske.
During the 1930’s, Nancy branched out and started to develop and print film for her neighbors. She would make prints by using a contact printing frame, which would tightly align photographic paper next to a negative. Sunlight would enter her darkroom through a small hole in the wall, pass through the negative, and strike the paper. The exposed paper was then processed in a bath of several chemicals. A print could take several days to produce, depending on the weather.
She continued her photography until the outbreak of World War Two, which made the necessary chemicals almost impossible to acquire. In all, she produced almost 5,000 of her own photographs.
On October 2, 1935, Nancy married her childhood friend Carl Hendrickson. This was her second marriage. The first, to Herman Apenes, ended when she was widowed in 1934. Neither marriage produced children.
Nancy died on November 20, 1978 at the Missouri Slope Lutheran Home in Bismarck. She was preceded in death by her husband, who died in 1970, and was survived by three nephews and three nieces.
- Ben Nemenoff
Fristad, Palma. “Rural Homesteader Merits Many Titles.” Mandan Pioneer, November 18, 1963.
Hendrickson, Nancy. Interview by Larry Spunk. Mandan, North Dakota, May 23, 1974.
Obituary. The Bismarck Tribune, November 22, 1978.
State Historical Society of North Dakota
*Images courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (#10200-003, #10200-002, #10200-005, and 0040-015).