Can a dress change a life? Probably not, unless you’re Cinderella. But a dress can mark a turning point in your life…. I inherited many photos of a young woman named Ollie Cornelius. Often, there is an air of sadness about her.

Studio portrait of Ollie Cornelius, taken in Colusa, CA.

I’ve been trying to find out more about her from an ancestry site, with limited success. Ollie Cornelius and my mother became friends as young teenagers, and they were still writing to each other in 1950.

Ollie, left, and my mother, right (with ukelele) in a school playground, Redwood City, CA, circa 1918.

Ollie posing in a schoolyard. She is wearing a corduroy jacket over her school uniform. Circa 1918.

Young Ollie on a bench in Redwood City, CA. Although posing for a friend, she doesn’t look happy.

Ollie looks sad in the next photo because, having made friends in a new city — Redwood City, California — she was uprooted when her family moved again, to Colusa, 148 miles away.

Ollie in Colusa, CA, about 1919.

On the back she wrote, “When I had this picture taken I was thinking of Redwood City [That’s] why I look so sad.”

Today friends exchange photos instantly; then, people also kept in touch by mailing photographs back and forth. Luckily for us, these pictures often have writing on the back.

Ollie posing on a bridge, about 1919. This is not a period for flattering fashions…. but she knew how to wear an enormous black tam-o-shanter.

In her later teens, Ollie’s sadness had a more serious cause: she was diagnosed with tuberculosis — the “consumption” that killed so many in Victorian times.

On the back of the bridge photo, Ollie wrote, “This was taken before I was sick.”

Ollie is wearing the same dress in this photo taken at Weimar TB Sanatorium.

Ollie on the steps of her ward at Weimar Joint Sanatorium.

In 1919 there were no antibiotics; the usual treatment for TB was a move to a place with “better air” and complete rest for several months. Obviously, for working class people, quitting work and spending months in a private sanatorium was not an affordable option. Often, they continued working, incidentally spreading infection, until they literally dropped in their tracks.

Another tam-o-shanter. Ollie did not come from a wealthy family.

For a young office clerk like Ollie, TB could be a death sentence. Among men receiving treatment, the mortality rate was 50%.

Ollie and Claude (another TB victim) on the steps at Weimar Sanatorium.

Given America’s current attitude toward healthcare, it’s disconcerting to read that one hundred years ago, public health officials realized that an epidemic of this frequently fatal, contagious disease could only be prevented by treating the poor as well as the wealthy.

The Weimar Joint Sanatorium was created by the State of California and subsidized to give working class people the same chance of recovery as people who could afford private care.

Ollie at Weimar Sanatorium. The back of this photo says, “Where I used to live.” Dated 1919.

Fresh air was considered necessary for TB patients; Ollie is standing by a screened-in sleeping porch — unheated.

Three patients at Weimar; Ollie is on the right. The photo was dated 1919 by my aunt, who received it in the mail.

Ollie made friends with other women in her ward; in spite of their grim situation, they were still young and tried to cheer each other up.

Fellow patient Mrs. Alice Smith with Ollie Cornelius, about 1919.

On early photos, Ollie respectfully called her “Mrs. Smith.” “She was just married above a month,” [when she was diagnosed with TB] Ollie wrote. Apparently, Mr. Smith came to visit, still in his First World War military uniform.

Ollie with Mrs. Smith, who is clowning in her husband’s tunic and hat. “It is her husband’s uniform; her name is Mrs. Alice Smith.” I wonder if he took the photo.


Ollie and other young women at Weimar Sanatorium knew they might be facing death.

“…Patients frequently became depressed due to the severity of their infection and the hopelessness of a cure or because of separation from their families. In many cases it was difficult for families to visit either due to the cost of travel or because of the fear of becoming infected themselves. Seeing other patients die was another cause of despair.” — read more.

But a change came for Ollie. Was she really feeling well again? Had her doctors given her hope that she might be able to go home? These pictures of Ollie in a pretty new dress seem to mark a turning point:

Ollie next to her bed on the sleeping porch at Weimar Sanatorium.

Ollie modeling her new dress. Did it come from a catalog? Was it a gift?

Ollie reading in a common dining area. She still has dark circles under her eyes, but this is a different Ollie. She’s happy.

Ollie did recover, at least for many years. Trivial as it sounds, taking an interest in fashion may signal the end of her physical illness and resulting depression.

Ollie in Colusa, CA, about 1920.

Also, her friends had not forgotten her.

Ollie in a chic, sheer-brimmed hat, with my mother. About 1920.

My mother and her friend Ollie, 1920s.

Ollie fell in love:

Ollie and Lloyd Jennings, about 1920.

She got married:

Ollie and her husband. Note her Marcelle-waved hair. 1920s.

Ollie and my mother on a vacation, late 1920s.

Thanks to low-cost care during a public health crisis, Ollie survived TB and returned to active life:

Ollie, second from front, in the snow, circa 1931.

Ollie fashionably dressed (including necktie) for the snow; this photo was printed in February 1931.

Ollie with my Uncle Holt, 1930’s.

How wonderful that she had a future!


Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1920s, 1920s-1930s, Hats, Musings, Sportswear, vintage photographs, Women in Trousers, World War I

16 responses to “Ollie

  1. jay

    Such a transformation!

  2. Thank you for sharing Ollie’s story. It is quite moving, and yes, what one wears can speak volumes.

  3. TBG

    I’m crying as I read Ollie’s story. Thank you for sharing it and making my day!

  4. ceci

    This is very touching, and as you say has implications for the current health care crisis. The picture with your uncle is especially moving.


  5. Great post–I was just reading a debate on my local NextDoor about homelessness and drug addiction, and the idea of public clinics resonated. We don’t really know how to cure drug addiction, but back in the 20’s, they didn’t really know much about curing TB…

    • Good point! There’s a saying, “The perfect is the enemy of the good;” while we’re waiting for the perfect solution, we shouldn’t ignore a good, but imperfect solution. In 1919, they didn’t have penicillin, so they treated TB with fresh air, regular meals, and rest. They didn’t save every patient, but they saved some.

  6. I love this! I held my breath through to post until I came to Ollie’s turning point. Thanks so much for sharing.

  7. During research of my own family history I learned that in NYC the establishment of a Board of Health during the late 19th century was seen as being in the best public interest. Confining outbreaks of epidemics, treating the patients and addressing the causes were all to benefit the city as a whole. NYC still continues this today with the New York City Health & Hospital Corp. They have an Options Plan where New York City residents can receive care and pay on a pro-rated basis. Some pay little others pay slightly more.

  8. P.S. I did enjoy your photo history of Ollie’s journey towards recovery. It is true that having something to look forward to can create an outlook of optimism. Perhaps that is what the new dress did for her.

  9. P. Halsey Varady

    I’ve read this several times and cried every time. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  10. Marsha Lindgren

    I found Ollie’s parents in Ancestry.com. I started a tree and would like to add these photos, if that’s alright . I would like to send you the tree and make you an editor to add whatever else you have. I would need your email to send the tree .

    • I have emailed you some other photos, and permission to copy the ones on this post. My email is witness2fashion@gmail.com. I really don’t have time to edit your tree — I’m so far behind on my own parents’ relatives! I found so many strange and interesting secrets that I could spend the rest of my days just researching those stories…. But I need to prioritize family photos. Good luck with your trees!

  11. Donna Horton

    Help, please. I am meeting a cousin or aunt found on 23 and me. She’s the daughter of Lloyd and his second wife.
    I think Ollie could be my grandmother. How can I contact you?

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