March 9, 2009 Reported By: Keith Shortall
There was a time in America when postcards were as popular as email or instant messaging are today. In the early part of the last century, postcards were an inexpensive way to connect, even briefly, with friends and loved ones, and in some cases share a snapshot of the sender's hometown. A collection of picture postcards from this era is on exhibit at the Maine Historical Society Museum in Portland. It's a tour of Maine downtowns at a time when the state was making the transition into modern times.
The first stop on this tour of the show called "Maine Street Maine" is a large blown-up photo of an old store filled with postcards, an inkwell, and a mailbox. "And I like to compare this to possibly an Internet café today and postcards would be like email of that time frame," says photo archivist Kevin Johnson, who says this is an image of the Miss A.L. Jackson postcard store in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. "You can see the store is filled wall-to-wall with postcards, and they have a table with an inkwell to sit down and write your postcard and drop it in the mailbox on the way out."
Such was the popularity of postcards at the time. And it's that popularity that prompted the Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Company of Belfast to travel into the far corners of Maine and take these photographs. "I think the company did a great job in preserving history, and I don't think that was their intention, but they really succeeded in doing that. Over a period of three decades, they almost did a survey of the state and the entire New England region," Johnson says.
More than 30 Maine towns are represented, from the northern farming community of Lille, to the Downeast fishing village of Stonington, to the ship-building town of Thomaston. Johnson says missing from the collection are any images of the state's larger cities--Bangor and Portland. "There were many, many postcard companies out there and Eastern saw their niche as all the small towns and villages, and they kind of steered clear of cities like Portland and Bangor, as there were so many postcard companies there, and focused on the small towns."
Keith Shortall: "So you have images of a town, rural Farmington, like Lille in northern Maine that you otherwise probably would never have been able to have."
Kevin Johnson: "It's true. And they almost had a formula. They would go into a town and they would have certain images that they just had to get. And with some towns the four corners might be the whole town, but they would photograph the post office and the city hall and whatever businesses were there, and any tourist interest sites."
Johnson works at the Penboscot Marine Museum in Searsport, which owns the collection that supplies this rare glimpse into the heart of Maine between 1910 and 1940. Steve Bromage, Assistant Director of the Maine Historical Society says the collection captures a time when small towns and cities were making the transition from gaslight to streetlight, and from horse and buggy to automobile. "So what you see here in front of the garage, and there's a general store, I believe down the street, that have all put gas pumps out in front of themselves, you know, so they're not service stations, but everybody had a piece of the action."
Bromage says the collection should be of interest to those who are, once again, interested in restoring life and function to downtowns all over the state. "I think so, and I think these images in particular, they're just of an era that's really captivating. You see the advertisements, you see new kinds of businesses, you see cars, and you can see the impact of change. You can just feel kind of modern life arriving. And so I think, you know, when people get sentimental or have those kinds of thoughts about Main Street, it's very easy to see in these photographs and kind of idealize what may have been going on."
KS: "And while, for example, in this shot of Belfast, a lot of the details of course are changed and the businesses are gone, but the buildings themselves are largely as they were."
Kevin Johnson: "It's true. You could take that same picture today and it would look very similar."
KS: "In the case of Thomaston there was a big change in the way it looked--this was in 1910, we're looking at an image that no longer looks like this at all, because of a disease."
KJ: "Dutch Elm disease. And you see that throughout the New England pictures. The downtown's greatly altered by the loss of these great trees that, in Thomaston's case, formed almost a virtual canopy over the street. And they're missed. It was a beautiful time."
Maine Street Maine, Downtown Views from the Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Company, is on exhibit at the Maine Historical Society through May. The Penobscot Marine Museum owns some 30,000 negatives from the Eastern Publishing Collection, and offers fine arts prints to help fund the project.