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.
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!