Saturday, January 28, 2023

Mabelle Primmer - Early Schenectady Photographer

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Last year, one of the library volunteers ran across a photo in the Schenectady County Historical Society General Photograph Collection dated 1915 with a stamp on the back indicating it was a product of the Mabelle Primmer Studio at 241 State Street. It was a stamp we couldn’t recall encountering before, and it raised some questions: who was Mabelle Primmer? Were there other women in Schenectady during that period who were also professional photographers? A look through the business listings in the city directories, census records, and other areas of the library’s holdings turned up only a handful of women working in the field in the early 20th century. While women may have been employed at one of the male-owned studios, Mabelle was unusual as an owner and proprietor of a studio. 


Directory entry reads "Primmer Mabelle P photographer 241 State, b 341 Summit av." Ad text reads "Studio of Mabelle Primmer Portraits that Please 241 State St. Schenectady NY Phone 221-J Over Lower 5 and 10 Cent Store"
In the 1915 Schenectady City Directory, directory entry for Mabelle Primmer, photographer, and ad for the Studio of Mabelle Primmer.

Mabelle Priscilla (also Philina) Primmer was born on July 2, 1886, in Hepworth, Ontario, Canada, the second of Charles and Mary Ann Beaton Primmer’s nine children. Records indicate she entered the United States in 1905, but the first mention of her living in Schenectady was in 1912. An article from The Argus, an Albany newspaper, dated April 2, 1908, lists Mabelle as a participant in a play there that was part of the entertainment for a Unity Club event.

The Schenectady City Directory has an entry for Mabelle’s brother Charles in the 1904 edition, living on North College Street and working as a librarian at the Public Library. By 1907, his employment changed to the Locomotive Works. His presence in the city may be what brought her here. The first mention of Mabelle in Schenectady was in the 1912 City Directory. At that time she was living on Chestnut Street and working as a stenographer.

A May 29, 1914, notice in the Schenectady Gazette announced that she had purchased the Obenaus Studio and was remodeling rooms of the Fulton Studio in the Patton and Hall building at 241 State Street. She would be the successor of both photography studios, opening as The Mabelle Primmer Studio on June 1, 1914. She “had charge of” the Obenaus Studio for several years and prior to that worked in studios in Toronto and Montreal. She studied Child Portraiture which would be “an important feature of her work”, and advertised children’s pictures, society groups, portraits, and framing. The notice also states that the staff from the Obenaus Studio would remain, “which is a sufficient guarantee of first class portraiture.”

Mabelle Primmer, circa 1914

Mabelle often advertised her studio in the local newspaper personal columns, primarily for child portraiture. A 1915 ad, repeated over several days, read “Some baby will be given a life-size portrait free during April and May. Make the appointment today and give your baby a chance.” Also in 1915: “Graduates – a record of school days can be best kept with a photograph. Something in miniatures for your school album and scrapbook are inexpensive and will please you.” An ad from 1917 states, “You can only be one place at one time but your photographs can be as many as your friends. Discounts given to military men.”

Mabelle’s younger sister, Irene, moved in with her around 1915 and joined her business as an employee of the studio and also a photographer. A society notice in the Gazette from 1916 notes Mabelle and Irene were away visiting Toronto, Hamilton, and other locations in Canada. Her border crossing card from that trip indicates she was visiting her father, returned through Buffalo, was 5’3 ½“ tall with brown hair, brown eyes and states she owned her own photography business valued at $3500 -- over $90,000 in today’s dollars.

On August 9th, 1917, Mabelle married Edward Carlos Sanders at the Little Church Around the Corner in Manhattan. She was 31. Edward, who was 30, was an electrical engineer at General Electric. Their only child, Alice “Robin” Sanders was born on December 5, 1918. 

Mabelle and her daughter, circa 1923

City directories indicate Mabelle was active with her studio until 1919. In the 1920 directory, the proprietor was Signe Lindgren, although it was still called the Mabelle Primmer Studio. Irene was still listed as a photographer there but Mabelle was not, probably giving up her business after the birth of her daughter. The Mabelle Primmer Studio was listed in the Schenectady City Directory only until 1923.

It’s not known if Mabelle continued with photography after her daughter was born, perhaps as a hobby, as census entries after that time indicate she was a homemaker. She did become involved in writing poetry though. More than 100 of her poems were published in a book called With You in Mind by Branden Press of Boston. All of the poems had been previously published in magazines, newspapers or anthologies, including Golden Threshold, an anthology published by the Schenectady Senior Citizens Center. She also wrote short stories, children’s plays, and a biblical novel.

Mabelle was very active in the Schenectady Poetry and Philosophy Group, serving as president for over a decade. She was also a member of the Academy of American Poets, New Hampshire Poetry Society, Albany County Poetry Society, and the Creative Writing Group of the American Association of University Women. Locally she was involved with the Schenectady Museum, the Schenectady Senior Citizens, and the United Presbyterian Church.

Mabelle died at the age of 81 on June 8, 1968, after a short illness. She was survived by her husband, daughter, son-in-law and a granddaughter. She is buried in Parkview Cemetery in Schenectady.

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