Mary Forbes’ Calendars
“Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I recently found these seven calendars in an antique store in Reno. They are small, postcard sized, and are real photographs with the stamp and calendar added on, or in one case typed in. The calendar interested me because I hadn’t seen this kind of presentation of real photographs before and at a dollar each they seemed a useful acquisition. Back at the hotel I did a quick internet search and discovered Mary R. Forbes had dozens of entries under her name, thanks mostly to her assiduous documentation of family history as well as her husband having some reputation as a photographer. These cards aren’t just curiosities, they have direct connections to the early history of photography in the American West.
Mary Rozette Prutsman was born on March 5 1876 in Illinois. At some point her family moved to California where in 1909 she married Andrew Alexander Forbes. His name meant nothing to me when I first looked it up but it transpires that in the 1880s he began working as an itinerant photographer in Oklahoma, specializing in images of cowboys and sodbusters. He moved to California about 1902 and began photographing local Paiute people, at home and in the studio. These weren’t ethnographic studies in the sense that Edward Curtis thought his were. If anything it appears Forbes had his eye on the touristy trade and turned a number of his photographs into postcards. At least one article about Forbes’ Paiute photographs has been published – Jon Bosak’s Andrew A. Forbes - Photographs of the Owens Valley Paiute in The Journal of California Anthropology, Vol 2 No.1, 1975. His photographs however are held in university and museum collections across the southwest USA. They have become important because they document the era when the West underwent transition from frontier to industrialization, the arrival of the car and the telephone and the fencing off of the wilderness.
This is the only photograph among the seven attributed to Andrew Forbes and as you can see it doesn’t exactly typify the American west. He had been dead some eighteen years when it came out on the calendar though Mary had access to his stock. Throughout their marriage she had been the business manager of the studio, had travelled with him and taken her own photographs. The one in the gallery of the Illinois house might be one of hers, might even be her family home given she came from there.
Clearly Mary Forbes knew a thing or two about managing businesses since the photographic studio and real estate were just a couple of her interests. According to the 1934 calendar she was also a notary and insurance broker. Apart from her role as press secretary for the Covina Women’s Club, she was a genealogist. On both sides of her family she could trace her ancestry back to immigrants who had arrived in America in the 1730s. Some had taken part in the War of Independence, which entitled her to become a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. In the 1940s the DAR was vocal in support of segregation. This didn’t necessarily mean all its members took a hard line on race though obviously, if you were in any degree left of centre or a campaigner for civil rights you wouldn’t join on principle.
The signature “JMF” on some of the photographs refers to her son John McLaren Forbes, a geologist who worked in the Philippines in the 1930s and in Nevada in the 1950s. As another photo shows, he also travelled through Central America. It appears he died some time in the 1980s so in all likelihood these photos began their journey to the antique store from his attic. One reason I think that is because none of them have been used. The paper on the calendars has yellowed but the prints look as fresh as if they’d been kept in a box for years.
Here is Mary Forbes C1950. She would have been in her mid 70s when this was taken; notice the cluttered desk. She was still hard at work and for all we know may have only retired reluctantly. She died in 1967, aged 91. The photographs on the calendars may not be especially interesting though the way she used them was. They are perfect examples of ephemera, intended to be thrown out once the last sheet on the calendar had been used. But here it is worth remembering that when Mary died her husband’s name meant little except to a handful of social historians. Like a lot of itinerants his work was scattered across several states and when it entered collections curators didn’t always make the necessary connections until the Internet made that easier. Now he is regarded as a photographer of some importance these provide a link back to a pioneer era in American photography.