In The Archives: Accidental Photographer

If you cannot be a teacher, clerk or seamstress

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.

A portrait of Mary from circa 1880, photographer unknown.

“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.”

The reverse of one of Mary's 1870s-era cartes-de-visites shows her studio logo.

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.

Mystery Artifact

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


  1. By abc
    September 23, 2010 at 5:40 pm | permalink

    OK I am taking my crack and it is just a w. a. guess. It is a precursor to a sterno can. You fill it with oil, or some kind of appropriate slow(ish) burning fuel, and light it up under a pot you want to keep warm. It would burn hot but the pots were cast iron so who cares.

    This could, assuming it were true, explain the delicate handle, it got hot! I would love to see an angled view of this though as I cannot tell if there is something going on inside the well. Do I have to wait to hear just how wrong this is? I can take it now.

  2. September 23, 2010 at 5:50 pm | permalink

    ABC, that is an excellent guess and it certainly looks as though it could serve as a warmer.

    You are right on one account: this item is displayed in the Museum’s kitchen.

  3. September 23, 2010 at 5:52 pm | permalink

    (p.s.: I always hate telling folks they’re wrong, like I’m some kind of know-it-all teasingly and cruelly dangling Mystery Artifacts before people…for the record, I had not the slightest idea of what this item was before I peered at the tiny lettering on the side).

  4. By abc
    September 23, 2010 at 6:10 pm | permalink

    Laura, Thanks for not letting me have to wait… “it certainly looks as though it could serve as a warmer.”

    I can’t think of something more dangerous than a burning pool of fat or grease in the house.

  5. September 23, 2010 at 6:36 pm | permalink

    ABC, it was indeed a good guess–but this item is not a pot warmer I’m afraid. Or a warmer for any sort of vessel, like a chafing dish, &c.

  6. By cosmonıcan
    September 23, 2010 at 7:25 pm | permalink

    I’ll throw in a wild guess that it’s a camphor burner.

    The little well appearing inside would hold a hot coal, with damp camphor chips or another aromatic wood packed on top.

    The fumes are known to repel insects from food and clothing, and retard rust on tools and firearms.

  7. September 23, 2010 at 8:03 pm | permalink

    Cosmonican: That is a very interesting guess. Heat is indeed a factor with this tiny artifact, which by the way likely dates from the Depression era.

  8. September 23, 2010 at 8:47 pm | permalink

    Is it possibly a toaster?

  9. September 23, 2010 at 8:56 pm | permalink

    Vivienne Armentrout: There are a lot of foods that can be roasted or toasted, aren’t there? :)

  10. By suswhit
    September 24, 2010 at 7:18 am | permalink

    I don’t know what it is but I can’t believe that none of you guess-ers noticed the two prong electric plug on the left side!! I am going to guess that it’s for making steam. No idea the crazy use though.

  11. By Anne Laurance
    September 24, 2010 at 8:35 am | permalink

    I think it’s a grater for firm cheese or vegetables to be used in salads. It would be handy to use with the handle on the side and might be turned by either a left or a right-handed person.

  12. September 24, 2010 at 8:48 am | permalink

    Perhaps it’s an electric space heater? Or an early humidifier/vaporizer?

  13. By Lisa Bashert
    September 24, 2010 at 10:48 am | permalink

    I’m thinking it’s a electric item that actually goes into the bedclothes and warms the bed — fabulously dangerous and likely to ignite. Just a wild guess…

  14. September 24, 2010 at 12:08 pm | permalink

    Suswhit: You are right on the money: that is indeed a pair of electric prongs. There are two missing accoutrements that normally go with this item: an electric cord connecting the prongs to a wall outlet, and three small utensils.

  15. September 24, 2010 at 12:09 pm | permalink

    Anne Laurence: It looks very much like a grater, doesn’t it? Another good guess.

  16. September 24, 2010 at 12:11 pm | permalink

    cmadler: Space heater is another good guess…but at 3 by 3 inches, it might take a while to heat a room. :) This is actually used with a specific food item.

  17. September 24, 2010 at 12:12 pm | permalink

    Lisa: Yet another good guess; we do have several examples of bed-warmers in the Museum after all, but most of those are the pan-of-coals variety.

  18. By abc
    September 24, 2010 at 1:05 pm | permalink

    It’s your own a personal deep fryer; one fry at a time.

    No, no

    It’s a corn popper; one kernel at a time.

    Or maybe, it’s a butter melter.

    What would you cook that is so small?

  19. By Laura Bien
    September 24, 2010 at 3:47 pm | permalink

    ABC: hee hee. And yet you ask the perfect question, indeed: what would you cook that is so small?

  20. By Lucy
    September 24, 2010 at 10:33 pm | permalink

    Is it a personal electric egg poacher?

  21. September 24, 2010 at 11:17 pm | permalink

    Lucy: Another good guess. The food item in question is a wee bit smaller than an egg.

  22. By Irma
    September 26, 2010 at 8:22 pm | permalink

    My guess is a mini-roaster for one individual serving of coffee beans, a precious commodity during the Depression!

  23. By John
    September 26, 2010 at 8:25 pm | permalink

    An individual marshmallow melter for smores.

  24. September 27, 2010 at 8:21 am | permalink

    Irma: That is a wonderful guess considering that more than one Ypsilantian patented a home coffee roaster; one was a combo coffee bean and peanut roaster, with a rotating barrel over a bed of coals. I can say, however, that this is an item designed for a food and not a drink item.

  25. September 27, 2010 at 8:23 am | permalink

    John: Interesting guess. I must point out that there are two original components to this item that are missing from the museum’s artifact: one electrical cord and 3 small two-tined metal forks.

  26. By suswhit
    September 27, 2010 at 9:45 am | permalink

    Well, I still think it boiled water. Anything else would have left stains on the inside. And the darkening on the lid makes it appear that it has been used. The lid has little cutouts at the edge to hold the forks so I think it boils up to three of something (smaller than an egg) but I’ll be darned if I can think of what. Although I suppose it could hold nothing and just get really hot to bake three of something smaller than an egg that doesn’t stain. And you say it’s riculously dangerous. Oy. I give.

  27. By abc
    September 27, 2010 at 12:25 pm | permalink

    Its your own personal, appetizer portioned, interior heated, fondue pot! Oh but then why three forks? If this food is so small why am I sharing it? I now have only questions. Could it be a condiment heater for another plate of food? But I already suggested a butter melter.

  28. By John
    September 27, 2010 at 12:27 pm | permalink

    Okay–I’m amending my guess from the alliterative to a marshmallow toaster. What a mess to clean when it flames!