Retrospect: The Alabama origins of Olan Mills Inc.

The Nation's Studio blended Olan Mills' business savvy with Mary Mills' artistry to create portraits of students, military personnel and citizens across the U.S.

Olan Mills. Photo from “Olan Mills: The First Fifty Years,” published by the company, 1982.

Portraiture was long a luxury reserved for the wealthy. Few are the paintings of 19th century, blue-collar ancestors. By the early 20th century, however, photography made portraits cheaper and more widely available. Commercial portraiture was a new frontier. From humble beginnings in Tuscaloosa, Olan and Mary Mills built a portrait empire that developed into one of the world’s largest. 

Born in 1904, Olan Mills was a man in a hurry. In the early 1920s, he abandoned his medical studies at the University of Nebraska and decamped to Florida to take part in the real estate boom. But the onset of the Great Depression dashed his hopes of striking it rich selling swampland. The itinerant young striver soon found himself in north Alabama, where he signed on as a traveling salesman for a company that made photographic enlargements of existing prints. “Copy work” is the industry term, and Mills took to the trade well.

Along the way, he met artist Mary Stephenson of Selma. They married in December 1930 and went into the copy-work business together out of a small Selma studio. They bought a car on credit to expand their reach into the hinterlands and other states, including Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma. But slow sales and thin margins doomed the young couple’s first business venture. Eventually, the local bank got the car.

The similar misfortunes of a Tuscaloosa-based portrait photographer helped save the Millses. In 1932, they relocated to Druid City to take over a foreclosed downtown studio. They continued to solicit copy work, but the new space and equipment allowed them to expand into portraiture as well. The following year, they received a contract to take portraits for the University of Alabama yearbook. They reinvested the profits from the job into their business and slowly began to expand, with weeklong photo sessions held in other Alabama towns.   

Mary Mills. Photo from “Olan Mills: The First Fifty Years,” published by the company, 1982.

The couple were natural partners. Olan’s business savvy and boundless energy and Mary’s artistry blended to create something special. By the mid-1930s, Mary Mills had created a distinctive style: an 8×10 head-and-shoulders photographic portrait with hand-painted oil accents in two muted colors. This hand-tinting made each piece unique but was executed in short order with minimal overhead. In the early days, each portrait was signed by hand with the Olan Mills name. It was a mark of pride. “The name Olan Mills on a portrait is like ‘Sterling’ on silver,” boasted a 1947 advertisement.  

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From their base in Tuscaloosa, the Millses sent traveling camera crews into communities for sittings. Everything was printed and finished back in Tuscaloosa, where Mary Mills oversaw a growing team of artists applying the company’s stylistic flourish. Customers then received their prints in the mail. Between 1936 and 1938, the number of employees grew from seven to 200, the vast majority of them traveling salespeople, in 14 states. An expansion the following year doubled the number of employees and established a fleet of nearly 100 automobiles.

Then came the brick-and-mortar stores. In 1938, the first permanent Olan Mills studio opened in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Soon, Olan Mills studios were popping up in other cities, all staffed by franchisees who took the portraits and sent the negatives back to Tuscaloosa for printing and finishing. There, employees worked in three shifts, around the clock, producing as many as 12,000 portrait prints each day. By 1940, the company had similar facilities in Springfield, Ohio, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. 

Supply shortages and rationing during World War II caused Olan Mills to shrink the footprint of door-to-door sales work. Mills parked his fleet of automobiles and donated the tires. Mills also shuttered the original office in Tuscaloosa and relocated the administrative function to the more centrally located Chattanooga facility. 

During the war, the brick-and-mortar studios throughout the country kept up steady work photographing Americans in uniform, as well as those who carried on in their absence. “Have a picture made for the folks back home,” read an ad for Montgomery’s Olan Mills studio. A Birmingham studio called its 3×5 portraits sent to servicemen overseas “a tender bond of remembrance.” 

The company expanded, seemingly year after year, once the war ended. The number of studios across the country grew, as did the volume of prints — to well over 2 million annually. Mills began consolidating much of the company’s once far-flung offices to Chattanooga. As part of this effort, he closed the Tuscaloosa finishing plant in 1949. There remained nearly two dozen studios in the Yellowhammer State, however.   

This 50th anniversary advertisement appeared in several publications, including Time magazine.

When the time came for a new generation of leadership, the Millses kept it in the family. Olan Mills II and Charles G. Mills — both born in Alabama — grew up in their family’s business. The brothers presided over the continued growth of their parents’ company to include full-color photography. This, in turn, created lucrative opportunities in school and church-directory portraiture. With 700 studios coast to coast, Olan Mills was truly “the Nation’s Studio.”

In 1981, as the company prepared to mark its 50th anniversary, the first Olan Mills opened in the United Kingdom. “The Nation’s Studio will become the ‘Kingdom’s Studio’ — and sooner than you think,” read a company announcement.

Time cannot stand still. Neither can technology. By the second decade of the 21st century, improved camera capabilities in smartphones had begun to destabilize the portrait industry. If, as they say, video killed the radio star, then selfies may have done the same to portraitists. Aware of these changes, Olan Mills executives orchestrated a “noble exit” for the 79-year-old family business. Its chief competitor, Lifetouch Inc., acquired the company in 2011. At the time, there were still nearly two dozen Olan Mills studios located in Alabama and hundreds more across the nation. All were closed by 2019.   

Though its studios are no more, the Olan Mills name lingers still. It is stamped in the corner of portraits displayed in millions of homes, in the memories of the family matriarchs and squirming, sometimes unwilling youngsters who sat before the cameras and in the history books, as one of the most successful businesses with Alabama roots.

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.

This article appears in the May 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

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