Mystery photo remains unidentified, but still tells an interesting story of an early businesswoman in Salem:  Mrs. A.L. Stinson, also known as Sarah Watt Stinson.

The Photo

Photograph of unidentified woman. The back of this photograph is what really caught our eye. W.P. Johnson Photographer. WHC 2014.082.0011.027.

Reverse of photograph of unidentified woman. Inscription shows both the photographer and the printer’s information. WHC 2014.082.0011.027.

The Willamette Heritage Center houses over 200,000 photographic images documenting the history of Salem and Marion County.  There is nothing more disappointing than coming across an unidentified photo. We may never know who the dour looking woman is staring out of this cabinet card taken by Salem photographer W.P. Johnson sometime between 1877 and 1888 — the years he operated his photo gallery in Salem.  However, a little research into some interesting markings on the photo itself did offer insight into the life of another enterprising woman of the time.

The backside of this photograph features the photographer’s name amidst palm fronds, pyramids and sphinxes, all printed in shimmering silver.  At the very bottom of the logo are the unadorned words: “Mrs. A.L. Stinson and Son, Printers.”  This little phrase gave made me pause.  Professional women in Salem during the latter half of the 19th century were, to use a phrase of the time, scarce as hen’s teeth. The U.S. Census bureau didn’t even keep statistics on women in the work force until 1890.  By then only 515,260 married women were employed in the entire United States, just 2% percent of the American workforce.[1]  How many fewer were actually business owners?

Mrs. A.L. Stinson (a.k.a. Sarah)

While her business name was always Mrs. A.L. Stinson, she was christened Sarah Watts and her life was not an easy one.  Born in Illinois in 1843,[2] she came across the Oregon Trail as a young girl of 4.  Her family settled in Linn County, near Peoria.[3]  Her father died when she was just 11 years old.  The only photograph I could find of Mrs. Stinson (maybe a bit ironic for a printer) is in a 1917 Oregon Journal article describing the reunion of veterans of the so called Oregon Indian Wars.  In it she recalls knitting socks for fighters as he mother spun yarn.[4]

Sarah married a printer by the name of Ashby Logan Stinson in 1862.[5]  Their marriage would last a grand total of 17 years and four children before her husband fell dead of a heart attack on the street in Salem.[6] She suddenly became a single mother in a community where there were few employment opportunities for women.  We can do little but speculate how she got into the printing business.  Maybe she learned at her husband’s side?  Her husband, after all, is credited with bringing the first cylinder press to Salem[7] and ran several newspapers and a job printing business in Albany and Salem.[8]   In any case she is listed in the 1880 Census a year after her husband’s death in the as a 37 year old widowed woman in the “printing business.”  Her 17-year-old son Lewis is listed as “printer.”[9]

The Printing Business

There are precious few remnants of her career, and the business name seems to be constantly in flux.  The 1880 Directory of the City of Salem was printed by “Mrs. A.L. Stinson, Book & Job Printer.”[10]  Just a few years later in the Oregon, Washington and Idaho Gazetteer and Business Directory by the R.L. Polk Co., she is listed in the classifieds under “Printers – Book and Job” as Mrs. A.L. Stinson & Co.[11]   This name change may be explained by an obscure reference found in the finding aide for the Thomas Jefferson Cronise photos held at the Oregon Historical Society, which claims that Cronise – later to become one of Salem’s preeminent photographers – first worked for a printing business owned by Mrs. A.L. Stinson after his arrival in Oregon in 1882.[12]

Mrs. Stinson sold out the business to James E. Godfrey and Ross E. Moores in February 1886.[13]   It is a bit ironic that the news of the sale of the business gives us maybe the best idea of the type of work Mrs. Stinson did.  In a correction notice by Godfrey and Moores, they declaimed any responsibility for information published in a paper they were printing, suggesting that they merely printed the paper under contract as ”Mrs. A.L. Stinson, formerly did with the College Journal and Baptist Beacon.”[14]   The advertisements taken out by Godfrey & Moores ”Successors to Mrs. A.L. Stinson” also suggest something about her capacities.  They claim their business as Job Printers specialized in ”All kinds of Plain and Fancy Printing, done to order, on short notice.  First Class Work, and reasonable Princes” including “a complete line of Legal Blanks.”  It can be hard for us to consider in a time of word processing the important role job printers played in everyday business around town.  They could create forms, print invitations, pamphlets and advertisements and even create logos and stationery like that found on the back of our mysterious cabinet card.

After selling the business, Mrs. A.L. Stinson really only shows up in the newspaper entertaining at her West Salem home called “Le Mati Grove” and in relationship to the exploits of her children.  Her woes continued.  Daughter Alice, who had gained fame as a doctor in Salem with the somewhat unbelievable name of Dr. Prettyman, sadly died at age 39, leaving behind a little daughter of her own.[15]  She had to rush to her son‘s side  on an October evening in 1915 after hearing a shot, to find he had taken his own life.[16]  Her daughter Mary married her mother’s business successor, Ross E. Moores.  Mary would not outlive the dispersal of her mother‘s estate and her husband became her only surviving heir.[17]   A sad end to an interesting story.

Even an unsolved mystery can offer some clues.  Who knows, maybe someone will recognize our mystery woman from their family tree?  Stranger things have happened.

Article by Kylie Pine.  Parts of this article were published in the Statesman Journal Newspaper in November 2018. They are reproduced here with citations and additional reference materials for research purposes.


In the course of this research we uncovered a number of clues in collections across the city to help connect the dots on Sarah Watt Stinson’s Life.

Salem Public Library

City Directories show much of the advertising she did about her business.  A photo of Mrs. Stinson was found in a July 18, 1917 Oregon Daily Journal  article, available via microfilm.

Willamette Heritage Center

Photograph with her printer’s mark on back: WHC 2014.082.0011.027 (digital image above)

Agreement between A.L. Stinson and W.A. McPherson of Yamhill County for McPherson to print state documents.  Dated 22 August 1870.  WHC 0081.015.0001.012

Photograph of Young Girl with address printed on back “493 Mrs. Rena Stinson, Salem, Or.”  WHC 2014.082.008.010


[1] Taken from Chart Series D 1-10 LABOR FORCE – Persons 10 Years Old and Over GAinfully Occupied; In agricultural and in nonagricultural pursuits; and total and married women in the labor force or gainfully occupied, 15 years old and over; 1820 to 1940.  Chapter D. Labor Force, Wages and Working Conditions.  Historical Statistics of the United States, 1789-1945.  Census Bureau. U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics

[2] Early Oregonians Database.

[3] “Personal Mention”  Daily Capital Journal.  31 Jan 1914, pg 6.

[4] “Spry ‘Young’ Vets of Oregon’s Indian Wars Gather Here.” Oregon Journal. 18 July 1917, pg 1.

[5] Oregon Historical Society; Portland, OR; Index Collection: Pioneer Index

[6] “Death of A.L. Stinson” Grant County News, Canyon City, June 14, 1879.

[7] Oregon Historical Society, Pioneer Index.   “Printing PRess.” NEw Northwest.  27 October 1871 pg 3.

[8] Put info here.

[9] 1880 US Census.  Salem, Marion, Oregon.  Page No 22.  Enumeration District No. 78.  The family is listed as living at 237 Front Street.

[10]See reference on the Salem Pioneer Cemetery Website.

[11] Oregon, Washington and Idaho Gazetteer and Business Directory, 1884-5.  Volume I.  R. L. Polk & Co., 1884.  Digitized and available through Googlebooks.

[12] Thomas Jefferson Cronise Photo Collection, Oregon HIstorical Society,

[13] ”Godfrey & Moores.”  Oregon Statesman, 1 Jan 1887 pg 1.  ”This firm commenced business the 1st of February 1886, by purchasing the established and well known printing office of Mrs. A.L. Stinson.

[14] ”To Whom it May Concern.” Oregon Statesman 3 Nov 1886, pg 2.

[15] ”Died.” Capital Journal 12 Nov 1907.  ”Dateline MIlton-Freewater” East ORegonian (Pendleton) 23 Nov 1907 pg 8.

[16] ”L.R.Stinson Takes own life at home.” Oregonian 6 OCt 1915.

[17] Capital Journal. 5 Dec 1924