Olan Mills Inc., was established in Tuscaloosa, in Tuscaloosa County, by Olan and Mary Stephenson Mills in 1932. Until 2011, when company president Olan Mills II sold it to its major competitor, Lifetouch Inc. of Minnesota, it was among America's most significant twentieth-century portrait photography businesses.
Olan Mills Sr. (1904-1978) was born into a large Nebraska farm family. He entered the University of Nebraska in the 1920s to study medical science but soon left and moved to Florida to sell real estate. When the Great Depression ended the financial boom there, he hitchhiked to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to seek a new business opportunity. On the way, he met photographers who traveled door-to-door selling enlarged copies of photographic portraits belonging to their customers. He joined them and began to learn the photography business.
In 1930, Mills married Mary Stephenson (1905-1974), a descendant of early residents of Selma, Dallas County. Mary studied art at the University of Alabama and later worked in Selma as a finisher for a portrait photographer. Around 1930, the newlyweds organized a photograph-copying business serving Selma and the surrounding area. The couple bought a car on credit and roamed the area looking for work. A board-and-batten shed near Selma's riverfront served as their first processing and finishing facility.
The operation foundered financially, and the Millses lost their car. Undaunted, the couple sought another photography venture. Hearing that Clements Studio in Tuscaloosa had gone bankrupt, they acquired it and moved from Selma, with their son Olan Mills II, born in 1931. Olan Mills II recalls that they paid for the move with $10.00 from his piggy bank.
The Millses continued to make reproduction photographs, but they soon switched to portraiture. They solicited business door-to-door and were awarded a contract to take portrait photographs of students for the 1933 University of Alabama yearbook, which provided cash flow in the business's first year and allowed them to expand their business. In March 1933, Olan Mills Studio, co-founded by Olan and Mary Mills, formally opened in downtown Tuscaloosa. About this time, Mary Mills began the company's first outreach efforts in Greensboro, Hale County, 30 miles from Tuscaloosa. There, she scheduled prepaid sittings and arranged for temporary lodging so that her husband could photograph sitters there. Olan Mills would travel to Greensboro, take the photographs, and then return to Tuscaloosa to process the film and print the images. Finished photographs were returned to customers by U.S. mail. Until 1935, the company offered only two products: 8 x 10-inch black-and-white prints on paper and smaller porcelain prints, which were printed on white translucent glass that resembled porcelain china.
By 1935, Mary Mills, who was experienced in art and in hand-finishing photographs, had created a distinctive, easily recognizable portrait style for Olan Mills Studio. This new style, an 8x10 duotone portrait lightly touched up with oils, replaced the old 8x10 black and white prints. Duotone printing produced tonally rich images that needed only a quick touch of handwork to create a suggestion of color. Mary Mills's new strategy resulted in quicker production because less handwork was required than in older hand-coloring methods.
The distinctive Olan Mills portraits featured a head-and-shoulders black-and-white vignette—in which the background is masked to focus on the sitter's head and shoulders—enlivened by touches of handcoloring and background airbrushing that made each print unique. Each print bore the distinctive Olan Mills signature, serving to reinforce the company's brand and suggesting that each portrait was a work of art. The new introduction became very popular and the business was an immediate success. By September 1933, the couple had hired their first salesman and first darkroom technician. In 1935, Olan Mills Studios hired its first traveling photographers and had seven full-time employees by the fall of 1936.
The company also standardized its cameras, lenses, and developing and printing processes to reduce handwork and create efficiencies of scale and profitability. All negatives continued to be processed and bulk-printed in Tuscaloosa. By the late 1930s, Olan Mills studios had a staff of hand-coloring and finishing artists, who were typically women. Mary Mills trained them to turn out a standardized, highly professional product: Negative retouchers minimized temporary facial blemishes, including fever blisters and minor scratches, but only removed permanent birthmarks, moles, and scars at a customer's request. The Millses were generous and caring employers who scouted out safe and suitable lodgings for their employees, entertained them in their home, and made sure they had medical coverage.
The company grew rapidly. When Olan Mills Studios held its first convention of plant, office, and field personnel on July 4, 1938, it had 200 employees, with 75 in Tuscaloosa and 125 in the field. By 1939, the company had more than doubled in size, with 500 employees and a fleet of six airplanes and 100 cars, which had logged more than two million miles in the previous business year. That year, the company began doing business outside Alabama, expanding its field operations to other southern states, the Midwest and New York, Pennsylvania, and New England. In addition, the company had opened permanent studios in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and Terre Haute, Indiana.
The company's 650 employees, working three shifts around the clock, turned out 12,000 finished portraits each day. Workers processed negatives, printed them, and finished the completed prints, including the handcoloring and airbrush work, and then returned them to customers via the U.S. mail. In addition, they ran a business office, with the usual support services for a large business. In 1940, the Tuscaloosa processing plant was predicted to gross more than $2 million. An additional plant constructed that year in Springfield, Ohio, served the expanding Midwest market.
Olan Mills developed an innovative customer-retention strategy. It was the first to sell contracts at a single pre-paid price for three photographic sessions (and three sets of photographs) per year. This strategy brought in revenue throughout the year at a time when most photographic studios generated the bulk of their revenue during the holiday season. After customers adapted to having their photograph taken throughout the year, they often signed up for another year's photography.
The success of Olan Mills Studios was in part the result of its high-quality products, but it was also a tribute to Mills's shrewd analysis of the portrait photography business and his ability to create a profitable combination of production and marketing strategies. The company concentrated exclusively on portraits, long the mainstay of photographic businesses in America. Standardized techniques and equipment produced economies of scale and efficiencies in the taking, processing, and printing of photographs and allowed for consistent quality control. The company also made effective use of the telegraph system to receive orders and reports from the field and the postal service to deliver finished products.
The company developed and implemented ongoing employee training and offered opportunities for promotion within the company. Olan Mills required honest businesslike dealings with staff and customers. Because the family owned the company outright, company executives could make decisions quickly. With these strategies, Olan Mills created a standardized high-quality product on an unprecedented scale, continually updating production to yield greater speed and economy, yet continuing to incorporate a swift touch of genuine handwork.
As World War II loomed on the horizon, Olan Mills understood that the company would experience setbacks. He realized that the company's fleet of cars and airplanes would be grounded by gasoline rationing and planned for the company's sales representatives and photographers to travel by rail for the war's duration. Anticipating staff and material shortages, Mills reorganized and shrank his business. He closed operations in the Midwest and New England (almost two-thirds of the company's markets) and concentrated the company's efforts in the Southeast. In 1941, not long before war was declared, Mills closed the Tuscaloosa processing plant and relocated the company's offices and main processing plant to Chattanooga, Tennessee, a centrally located railroad hub.
In November 2011, when Olan Mills II sold the family-owned company, it had hundreds of studios across the nation and more than 20 in Alabama, mostly in Kmart and Belk stores, and a large and very active Church Directory Division, which since the 1970s produced church yearbooks that include portrait photographs of individuals and families. The purchaser, Minnesota-based Lifetouch, Inc., the world's largest employee-owned photography business, is the nation's leading producer of school portraits, having acquired Olan Mills's school division in 1999, and now the nation's largest portrait photography business.
Olan Mills. The First Fifty Years 1932-1982. Chattanooga, Tenn.: Olan Mills, Inc., 1982.
Olan Mills. The First Fifty Years 1932-1982. Chattanooga, Tenn.: Olan Mills, Inc., 1982.
———. 1935-1960 Our Silver Anniversary, corporate brochure. Chattanooga, Tenn.: Olan Mills, Inc., 1960.
———. 19 Years of Progress: The Story of Olan Mills. Chattanooga, Tenn.: Olan Mills, Inc., 1951.
Robb, Frances Osborn. Shot in Alabama: A History of Photography, 1839-1941, and a List of Photographs. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016.