The sitting woman smoothed a tiny wrinkle in her lap. She glanced up at the large skylight partially screened with gauzy curtains. It was a May day in 1872. Large fluffy clouds sailed silently behind the glass. The photographer was taking a while adjusting something on the camera. Finally it was ready. “Look at me, please,” said the photographer. Click.
“That was very good, thank you,” said Mary Parsons, Ypsilanti’s only 19th-century female studio photographer.
Born in Vermont in January of 1838, Mary Elizabeth married John Harrison Parsons when she was 21 and he 25. The couple followed other western-bound migrants, and during the Civil War both taught in Ohio. By war’s end the couple had two sons, Dayton W. and Frank John.
The conflict had decimated the student-aged population of young men. In 1865, John and Mary came north to Ypsilanti. John bought the equipment of retiring photographer J. A. Crane and created his own studio. It occupied part of the top floor of Ypsilanti’s post office building, then on the west side of North Huron next to Pearl Street. It was a good location near the bustling downtown on Michigan Avenue. Mary helped run the business and kept house in the family’s apartment, next to the studio.
Five years into the work, the couple were supporting a family of six that included nine-year-old Dayton, five-year-old Frank, 3-year-old Viola, and the baby, Ina. Mary was pregnant with another child.
After New Year’s Day of 1871, she gave birth to a son, naming him John, Junior.
The baby’s namesake was deathly ill. He was diagnosed with consumption, or tuberculosis, Washtenaw County’s leading cause of death in the late 19th century. The disease accounted for 15% of all county deaths.
After a struggle, John died on February 24. On May 13, Mary’s new baby John also died of consumption. Mary did not have relatives in the area. She had to forge ahead or see her remaining children suffer. She became a professional photographer.
“For the benefit of any sister seeking a place among the limited situations for our sex, I would say that women can succeed in any department of the photograph business,” Mary wrote in a letter to Martha Louise Rayne, who published it in her 1884 book “What Can a Woman Do: Or, Her Position in the Business and Literary World.”
Mary continued: “… I should not have chosen it as a life-work had not circumstances pressed me into service. My husband and myself were both teachers when we were married. He was a teacher of a commercial school when the war broke out and took so many of the class of young men that were beginning a business education that he dropped his professorship and took up photography. I learned printing of him, and afterwards, as his health failed, I assisted in different departments, and when he finally died, leaving me with a family of five little ones, I took his advice, and have carried on the work successfully enough to support my family ever since.”
Mary concluded: “I hope you will make it a successful medium in giving encouragement to our sex, compelled by adverse circumstances to support themselves, for all cannot be teachers, clerks, or seamstresses.”
The 1873 Scripps, Clark, and Polk’s Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory lists 195 Ypsilanti business concerns and businesspeople. Only 10 businesswomen are listed. Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Case were milliners [hat makers] on Cross Street, Mrs. Curtis and Mrs. Shrieves were milliners on Huron, Mrs. Earing was a milliner in the Hewitt block, and Mrs. Martin was a milliner on Michigan Avenue. Miss Coe was a milliner on Huron and Miss Rogers was a milliner on Michigan Avenue. Miss Cramer was an agent of the Howe sewing machine on Michigan Avenue. Miss Casey was a manufacturer of “rats,” the colloquial term for women’s hairpieces.
The information is at least two years out of date: John Parsons is included in the listing as a photographer, when by that time Mary was operating the shop. She did it well, and ran an ad in the June 13, 1874 Ypsilanti Commercial:
“PHOTOGRAPH GALLERY. Mrs. Parsons has been making improvements in the sky-light of her gallery, giving much quicker time in the taking of negatives and a nice effect for ‘shadow pictures.’ She is trying to keep up with the times in all that will help to improve the art. Those wishing a good picture give her a call.”
Mary produced cartes-de-visites and cabinet cards. Cartes-de-visites were portraits about the size of an elongated baseball card and were a very popular keepsake to trade with friends and relatives. One of the cartes-de-visites Mary made bears her colophon on the reverse, in the elaborate style of the day. Cabinet cards were photographs whose larger size of 4 1/4 by 6 1/2 inches soon made them more popular than the older cartes-de-visites. Both techniques used albumen prints mounted on stiff board.
By the time Charles Chapman published his History of Washtenaw County in 1881, Mary merited a mention. “Since the death of her husband, Mrs. Parsons has carried on the photograph business. The work in the operating-room is done by an assistant, but the finishing and printing she does herself. Her business has increased and been generally successful.”
A dozen years into her work, Mary received a marriage proposal from Erastus Samson, a fellow native Vermonter and the owner of Ypsilanti’s first drugstore, where he also sold whiskey, gin, and some dry goods. Erastus had lost his wife Georgianne in 1882. On March 30, 1883, Mary and Erastus married. She was 45 and he was 61. Mary moved into the Samson home at 302 Cross Street.
Mary sold her studio and all the equipment she and her husband had accumulated over the years since the business’ beginning almost 20 years ago. Her career as a photographer was over. She settled in to a comfortable life.
Erastus and Mary remained married for 22 years until his death at age 83 in 1905. Mary lived to age 80 and died in 1918. Her photographic legacy is housed in various family albums in the Ypsilanti Archives.
This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.
JR Roberts correctly guessed last column’s item. He or she wrote, “a tacking iron for dry mount photo tissue (essentially paper impregnated with hot-melt glue). You’d use this to heat, and thereby hold, the tissue in place on the back of your photo; trim them both at the same time; position the photo on matte board; tack the tissue onto the board; then put the assembly in a dry mount press, which would heat the glue in the tissue, and flatten the photo at the same time.” Roberts added, “This was also handy for hot waxing cross country skis.”
Vivienne Armentrout noted, “Yup, I gave away a dry mount iron like that a few years ago too.”
This time we don’t have it so easy, I daresay. This is a new acquisition by the Ypsilanti Historical Museum. It’s a 3-inch-cube container with a removable lid. It is an item so weird, so impractical, and despite its tiny size so dangerous that you don’t wonder why they stopped making them. Dream up the craziest application you could think of for this doodad and you’ll likely hit it on the nose. Take a chance and good luck!
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an idea for a column? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.