The Year was 1902

Selma Leeman:
A Finnish-American Immigrant Girl’s
Success Story

From guest contributor Bruce Matson

Map of Kivijärvi

Selma Liimatainen started life in the small Village of Kivijärvi, Finland in 1889. As an 11-year-old, she arrived in America in 1902. Selma Sofia (she later changed her last name to Leeman) came to Quincy, Massachusetts to join her father and her older brother, who had earlier immigrated to America.

Quincy, MA. Post Office Building on postcard.

Selma’s education was minimal. Records show she apparently only had a 7th grade education, likely completed in Quincy. Yet, her accomplishments were incredible. Selma was on the cutting edge of the women’s liberation movement in the male dominated work force of the early 1900s!

Pioneering photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals.

In the 1890 issue of the magazine, Outing, there was a story entitled, “Women & Their Cameras.” The author, Margaret Bisland, wrote, “Women with their cameras surpass all tradition and stand as equals of men in their newly found and most ardently practiced art….When, perhaps, ten years ago, the novices first experimented with cameras as non-professionals, fully as many women as men learned to handle them…have we not to expect that our most famous photographers will be women?” Were these words were wishful thinking on the author’s part?  That still remains to be seen, 130 years later.

In 1912, 22 years after Bisland wrote that article, another article appeared in the Fitchburg, MA Sentinel with a headline: “Selma S. Leeman: Photographic Studio Most Successfully Conducted by Young Woman. A young woman, indeed! She was only 21 in January of 1910 when she took over ownership of the oldest photography studio in Fitchburg.

Who was this person with the vision, skills and ability to run such a business? Already, she had run a successful Employment Agency in Fitchburg. Her advertisements had appeared in the City Directories, yet, by 1915, there were no more ads. Selma had disappeared from Fitchburg and the business world!

Milton Berle

There are gaps in her life which remain a mystery. She resurfaced in the 1940s in Manhattan, where she operated two businesses in the same location. One was called “The Finnish Book Concern” and the other was a travel agency. She either closed or sold these businesses and bought a hotel on Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey, renaming it The Suomi Hovi. Translated, it means the Finnish Hotel (or mansion). This became a popular resort for vacationing New Yorkers, including rich and famous celebrities like Milton Beryl, who flocked to the lake. It was a successful operation for nearly 20 years from 1938 to 1958. It burned down in 1976.

– Postcard

Selma did not know that. She had died five years earlier, in 1971. She never married. Her accomplishments and legacy, like so many amazing women of her time, are mostly lost by now, known perhaps only by a few Finns.

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