The New Woman's Camera: Miss Mary Winslow Travels All Over the Country in a Cart Taking Photographs (1895)

This absolutely delightful article describes the life and times of a spunky photographer named Mary Winslow, who traveled about California taking photographs on commission. Moreover, she traveled alone, with only a man’s hat and a revolver for protection. -- Peter E. Palmquist


To be a traveling photographer is a new departure even for the new woman, but that is what Miss Mary Winslow has been for the past three years. She intends to follow the business all her life, unless she gets so rich that her time will all be occupied in taking care of her money, and even then she thinks she will have to steal out for a short trip once in a while. She has already amassed $2,500 towards the fortune.

She travels in a buggy alone, and thinks nothing whatever of driving her own horse over any road where somebody else’s horse has been driven. She is twenty-five years old, shrewd, self-reliant and not afraid of anything. Her only arms are a revolver and a man’s hat, and she goes wherever she pleases. She makes views and outdoor portraits, and they are good ones, too, but it was not always thus. When she started on her first photographic trip she was familiar with the theory of photography and understood chemical reactions, but as far as practical knowledge of the apparatus was concerned she hadn’t the least bit, but she was tired of the city and city life, so she left San Francisco with the determination to make pictures or die, and she made pictures. Her first attempt was to photograph two young men who wanted to immortalize themselves and their load of hay. The tripod behaved like an elephant, and as for focusing she simply wasn’t in it. When she discovered that a certain part of the camera worked back and forth she restrained a desire to toss up her hat and shout "Eureka," and proceeded to make two negatives with the plate-holder securely closed. She was out three weeks on this undertaking, and carried home with her enough orders to net her $125, after making due allowance for accidents when she made the negatives and also for failures in developing; for with characteristic independence she learned to develop by developing.

As she has a small buggy she can carry only a very limited outfit, and has to depend largely upon the courtesy of resident brothers of the craft for the development of such of her negatives as she cannot keep until her return home, and the making of her proofs. This is no great drawback to her success, however, as she invariably finds them obliging and willing to lend her such help as she needs. For finishing, she usually takes her negatives to her headquarters in San Francisco and prints from the window of her private room, in which same room, she tones, mounts and does all the other things that are necessary to produce a first-class photograph, and for them she gets first-class prices.

When the weather grows warm in the spring she dons a short, plain traveling suit, hitches up her horse and bids farewell to home and friends, to return only when she happens to feel like it. She has been three times to San Jose over the three different routes, stopping everywhere on the way, once to Marysville, once to the Yosemite, once to Los Angeles, and has completely done all the country bordering on the bay. Sometimes she stays four or five weeks in a lively town where business is good, and at other times she drives, day after day, through mountainous country places where the coyotes stand by the side of the road and look at her in astonishment. When night finds her a long way from any place where she can get bed and board she puts on the man’s hat and a black alpaca ulster, as a sort of disguise for her sex, sees that her revolver is in good working order and feels perfectly at home and without any fear of even a tramp.

She picked up a stray tramp by mistake late one evening, thinking him to be a nice old countryman with a heavy bundle who had been to town and would be glad for a lift on his way home. His home didn’t materialize, and the bundle proved to be a frying-pan and a ham, so she soon decided that she had rather ride alone: and driving up to a watering place where there were a number of men standing she informed her passenger rather decidedly that he had better make that his stopping-place. He did so, and she drove on.

The traveling photographer has a range and latitude in selecting subjects that is simply without bounds, but Miss Winslow’s native Yankee shrewdness prevents her from speculating in pictures until she is sure of a sale. Never but once has she been cheated out of her pay, and that, strangely enough, was by a woman. A pretty little schoolteacher engaged views of the schoolhouse, with and without children, of herself with various surroundings, and of her numerous friends, and made herself security for the whole amount. The security proved worthless, and all the artist gained was a little experience.

Her route is never mapped out before she starts, as she believes with the bird that "wherever it wisteth there to flee" is the proper way of conducting business. Acting on this principle she went with a party to the Yosemite, where she duly admired the wonderful, had a jolly good time and made photographs at the same time. On her return she astonished the party with such pictures that every one of them bought two or more sets apiece, and in this way they not only paid all her expenses, but a good deal more.

Just after her return from the Yosemite, Miss Winslow received word from some real estate agents in Los Angeles, acquaintances of hers, that they wanted some photographic work done, and she started, not on the train, but in her buggy, to do it for them. She reached there in good time, accomplished the work in the most satisfactory manner, and drove home again, all the way alone. The expense of the entire trip, including all her "stop-overs," was covered by the amount she earned picturing orange groves, cottages and broad acres at Los Angeles, and she made a clear profit of all the work she did on the way there and back.

She doesn’t like the country on account of the inhospitality of the farming people, which, she says, is widespread and prevalent. Very often, when in need of food for herself and horse, she has been absolutely forced to call on the proprietor of a crossroads saloon to find it. Not that she hasn’t a woman’s dislike for such places, but she had to go there or go hungry, and she doesn’t believe in doing the latter when there is food to be had. She has always been treated with the utmost deference by the manager and all those around him. Indeed, the only time she has ever been made to feel fear on account of being a woman was when, having been belated, she attempted to drive into San Francisco at ten o’clock at night after a pay-day. She was accosted by a half-dozen drunken hoodlums, but, giving her horse a sharp cut with the whip, she escaped and drove at a furious pace to the nearest livery, where she left her rig and went the rest of the way on the cars. She isn’t anxious to try that experiment again, though.

The photographic work as she does it is not merely a peculiar fad, but, as she herself expresses it, is for "pecuniary pleasure," with duplicates always in order.

San Francisco Examiner (March 14, 1895). Reprinted with permission from Peter E. Palmquist, Camera Fiends & Kodak Girls II: 60 Selections By and About Women in Photography, 1855-1965. New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1995.