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Perspectives Womens History

Immaterial: The Mystery and Legacy of Omene

How one woman uncovered the lost identity of her great-grandmother through cigarette cards

Jun 6, 2022

A digital collage of Omene cigarette cards

In the inaugural episode of The Met’s new podcast, Immaterial, host Camille T. Dungy talks about the personal scraps of paper that we keep and carry with us for years, sometimes for our whole lives. But for some, there is an important overlap between these personal keepsakes and historic ephemera.

Karen Phillips grew up with framed pictures of her great-grandmother hanging on the wall of her childhood home. She knew from her family members—and the yellowing, monochrome photo on her wall—that the confident and familiar-looking young woman in the photos was a dancer. But she didn’t know that her great-grandmother was Omene, an infamous belly dancer who once captivated audiences not only with her suggestive dances, but with her stories, which painted the covers of tabloids across the country: a high-profile jewelry theft, rare entry into a secretive gothic club, and endlessly shifting claims about her true identity.

More than a century ago, Omene’s image was printed on collectible cards in cigarette packs and distributed widely. Her image could be collected, traded, and eventually it made its way into The Met collection. To a historian, these pocket-sized, weathered objects represent an important milestone in the history of printing. To someone who grew up seeing near identical prints staring down at her each day, they represent the possibility of an obscured connection to the past.

Two Omene cigarette cards. Left: Issued by Kinney Brothers Tobacco Company. Omene, from the Actresses series (N245) issued by Kinney Brothers to promote Sweet Caporal Cigarettes, 1890. Albumen photograph, 2 1/2 x 1 7/16 in. (6.4 x 3.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.220.245.1408); Right: Issued by Allen & Ginter (American). Omene, from the Actors and Actresses series (N45, Type 8) for Virginia Brights Cigarettes, ca. 1888. Albumen photograph, 2 5/8 x 1 1/2 in. (6.6 x 3.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (63.350.203.45.1376)

Now spread across storage areas in Phillips’s and her sisters’ homes, some of these old photographs and cardstock reproductions draw a link between an early celebrity and the paper ephemera we save and pass down from generation to generation. Phillips has spent years studying digitized online records and paper heirlooms to learn the truth about her family’s obscured history.

I spoke with Phillips over video chat, where she shared some of these images and further untangled the mystery of Omene. The limits of distance and technology tell the next chapter in the story of paper ephemera: In this interview you will see images of paper that was saved in a shoe box, moved to a garage, photographed from a cell phone, and then emailed, collected, and safely stored in a folder on my laptop.


Benjamin Korman:
Let me just start by asking: who are you?

Karen Phillips:
I’m Karen Phillips. My mother passed away suddenly. Naturally what you do when someone’s gone is look back into the past, right? You cherish pictures and things that were theirs. I was looking through my mom’s papers and heritage and Omene’s name popped back in my memory. We’ve had her picture on our wall ever since I was a young child. It’s not something we talked about very often—she was not a dinner-time conversation—so the fact that I remembered her stage name was nuts. And so my husband and I were able to go and do some research on her.

I am the great-granddaughter of Omene.

The episode of Immaterial about paper focuses on palm-sized pieces of ephemera like valentines, baseball cards, and the kinds of cigarette cards on which photographs of Omene appeared. I really want to know more about the pictures that your family kept.

I don’t remember the size because I was a child. But I remember touching pictures of Omene in the shoebox my mother had. I could tell they were old because they were worn on the edges. They were on this thick paperboard, not even cardstock—but for a child it would be like cardboard. My sisters have all of this in their possession. My sister actually took a picture for me of originals that she has in her home. I tried not to lose my mind with excitement.

A collection of original Omene cigarette cards owned by the Phillips family 

You said that Omene wasn’t spoken about in your family much, but that you had heard the name when you were a kid. So how do you remember your family approaching the topic of the infamous ancestor?

I was probably about six or seven, and I was very curious about the framed photograph of Omene on the wall. My mom was a quite conservative Christian woman. She was very open with family stories, but the story she told us was that Omene was an Egyptian dancer. And so me as a child—this was the era of I Dream of Jeannie on TV, right?—that’s what I thought of an Egyptian dancer. Only later in life did I learn that she was more of an exotic dancer. Never did my mother share stories of that goth side of her, that darker side, her sensationalism with the press. We didn’t talk about that.

Karen as a child, holding a framed photo of Omene from her childhood home

That was in articles that I have found through the years. Also, my grandmother Nadine—who was Omene’s daughter—I had a very good relationship with her. She died when I was probably about nine or ten, but I knew her very well. She never spoke of her mother. Omene died when Nadine was eight. So as a child, she probably was not very aware of what her mother was up to. I thought it was interesting to me as a child hearing it only from my mother, not from my grandmother.

I didn’t ask my grandma Nadine about growing up or where she was born, just that she grew up in Pasadena, California, and that was it. I was told as a child—and now this makes sense—that she would wander the beaches a lot. It never even occurred to me why she was alone all day. Well, Omene was off doing her work, right? She was probably gone all night and did her nightlife thing. So grandma Nadine would wander the beaches. She would go up to people and picnic with them.

Nationally famous and nationally naughty…

– Karen Phillips

It’s interesting that your grandmother’s name was Nadine, which is one of the names that Omene was known to go by.

Yeah. There are a couple of names on my and these public websites where people can input and update records. There’s Madge, which was a nickname for Margaret—she has the name Margaret Hargreaves listed, also. And then she also has Nadine listed. I’m not sure if she was just taking her child’s name to be obscure, or if they were both Nadines, or if my grandmother is Nadine, Jr. I don’t know. But there’s a last name, Wilson, which was her mother’s maiden name, and then Hargreaves. There are a lot of really mixed records on who she is. There are no death records.

I can only find one: it was a census. It shows her birthplace as England and I believe she was listed as Margaret Hargraves.

What was your reaction when you found out that she wasn’t just a dancer, but that she was nationally famous?

Nationally famous and nationally naughty… it was really cool. It was so surprising because my mom didn’t really go that deep. Maybe she was being hyper conservative or maybe she was a little embarrassed or something. When my husband and I stumbled upon a few old newspaper articles talking about her stealing jewelry and the club she had participated in, it was really exciting to see that she had paved such a path.

I actually have an image of her lying on her death bed. I remember my mom showing it to me My mom told me that she had some sexually transmitted illnesses and they shipped her off to Boston. That was the story.

Omene on her deathbed

She was only in her thirties. I feel like she lived such a crazy-hard, scandalous life.

Oh, I also have pictures of all of us put together, face pictures of all the generations. On the left that’s a zoom-in of Omene. And then next to her is her daughter Nadine. And then next her is her daughter Janice, and then me. That’s all of us together.

Left to right: Omene, Karen’s grandmother, Nadine, Karen’s mother, Janice, and Karen

This interview has been edited for publication.

Listen to Immaterial to learn what artists’ materials can tell us about art, history, and humanity.

Read full transcript with artworks here

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