Alice and Clara Rigby ~ Independent Photographers in an Age of Few Women Owned Businesses.
by Margaret RiddleIowa-born Alice and Clara Rigby arrived in Everett, Washington at the dawning of the 20th century and did what few other women of their time dared to try: they owned and operated a professional photo studio. From 1905 to 1915, the Rigby and Rigby Photo Shop successfully competed with prominent local photographers J. D. Myers and Bert Brush, as well as half a dozen smaller firms, and found a niche for themselves in a profession dominated by men.
|The Rigby sisters were part of a growing number of women in the early 1900s who sought social and economic independence, and the West was fertile territory for this progressive kind of thinking. Issues of the day included the rights of working women and, more significantly, a woman’s right to vote. By 1910 Washington State would grant women suffrage.|
|But the need for independence had more immediate and personal roots for Alice and Clara. As the result of an unhappy marriage, their mother, Delia, encouraged her daughters to seek professions, not husbands. And, in like manner, Delia’s sister, Emma Sarepta Yule, was a highly successful and independent lady. Arriving at the Everett town site in 1891, Emma Yule became Everett’s first school teacher. When other teachers were hired, Emma became Principal. From 1897 to 1900, she served as Everett’s Superintendent of Schools. In 1900, Emma Yule left Everett to teach in Alaska. Showing such independence, intelligence and ability, Emma was likely a significant role model for her young nieces.|
|Rigby family members say that the sisters called their studio Rigby and Rigby in an attempt to conceal the fact that they were women, but Clara and Alice also found ways to capitalize on the pluses of their gender. The Rigbys advertised as “Portraitists” who specialized in baby pictures, and it can be imagined that Alice drew on her teaching experience to aid in photographing the young.|
|By 1900, times were changing economically for the region. With the severe depression years of the 1890s now in its past, the Pacific Northwest was once again feeling prosperous and optimistic, and Everett gained its share of new arrivals, many of them immigrants, seeking to better their lives in a new place. In the century’s first decade, Everett’s population tripled.|
|Everett now had families, and families had “Kodaks”. By 1900, photographic advances and cheaper prices made it possible for amateurs to take their own pictures. Working with either a small glass-plate camera or a new popular roll film model known as the postcard Kodak 3A, they photographed their families, their homes and businesses, as well as activities on their city streets. They also recorded heavy snowfalls and floods and documented their vacations and trips abroad.|
|Often poor exposed and usually of poor composition, these photographs were, nevertheless, priceless ways of sharing experiences with family and friends miles away. Studios processed and duplicated these amateur views, often printing them as postcards, which could be mailed. Over the years, these amateur postcard images have become historical treasures because they often documented events of everyday life in a way that studio views do not.|
|The Rigby negatives were stored for many years and then dispersed, some finding their way into the files of Lee Juleen, which are now housed at the Everett Public Library. Few of their photos remain. Only a small number of negatives and postcards in the Everett Public Library are easily attributed to them. What the Rigby family has retained are priceless photos that Clara and Alice took of each other, showing the fine quality of their portraiture.|
|In the 1920s Clara married James Casperson, an employee of the Everett Pulp and Paper Company. The couple moved to California where they grew and marketed nuts. Clara eventually returned to live in Everett. She died August 27, 1953.|
|Rigby descendants speak of Alice as the quieter and gentler sister, but while Clara was a stern and imposing figure to her relatives, it is Clara they remember, since she lived long enough to be a presence in their lives. What made the sisters different from other Snohomish County women working in photography at that time? Were the Rigbys wealthy enough to be able to buy a photo studio while the average retoucher was not? “No,” the family says, “they didn’t have money.” Perhaps just the skill, the drive and the dream. And that, the sisters certainly had.|
Rigby, an oral history interview circa 1980 by Margaret Riddle and
David Dilgard; Iris Broad, an oral history interview, August 20, 2001,
by Margaret Riddle;
Polk's city directories for Everett; Washington, 1900 to 1915. © 2006 Margaret Riddle;
Previously Published in Snohomish County: An Illustrated History Kelcema Press, 2005.