Waldo County Through the Eastern’s Eye,” a collection of photos taken 75 to 100 years ago in Waldo County, opened Thursday at the Allen and Sally Fernald Gallery at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast and will run through April 30. The exhibit shows a fraction of the Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Co. collection owned by Penobscot Marine Museum.
“It’s the biggest single collection of photography that all goes together [in Maine] — apparently by a long shot,” said Penobscot Marine Museum’s photography archivist Kevin Johnson.
Eastern Illustrating set up shop in 1909 on High Street in Belfast and became the largest manufacturer of real photo postcards. Sales peaked in the 1920s when it was selling more than a million postcards per year.
The museum began collecting Eastern Illustrating glass-plate negatives when the Maine Photographic Workshop’s basement flooded in 2007, and it donated a collection of 35,000 Eastern Illustrating negatives to the museum.
“I was working with the collection [at the Maine Photographic Workshop], and I like to say I was donated with the collection to the museum,” said Johnson.
The museum staff quickly learned that they didn’t have the entire collection because many negatives had been sold in antique shops. So, they set to work to reunite the lost negatives with the collection.
Some people have donated negatives, or the museum has purchased them. They now are raising money for a batch of 7,500 negatives, which will bring the collection to about 50,000.
The seller agreed on a low price of $6.50 per negative, but for 7,500 negatives, that equals $48,750. In about a year, 75 percent of that amount has been raised in donations.
“People seemed most passionate about their town. If we found a negative of their town, they would sort of adopt it by donating money for that negative,” Johnson said.
Of the 50,000 negatives, about 24,000 are from Maine. The other negatives are of New York and New England states.
For the Waldo County exhibit, Johnson involved local historical societies by asking them to research the photos and write captions.
“If it’s a building, they tell me when it was built, what it was used for, when it burned down, that type of thing,” Johnson said. “In terms of records that might have come from the company, we don’t really have any. In most cases, we don’t know the date the photo was taken. I really rely on the historians.”
The exhibit will consist of 32 photos of Waldo county homes, waterfront scenes, summer camps and shops. Out of the county’s 26 towns, only five aren’t represented: Belmont, Jackson, Knox, Palermo, Thorndike and Troy.
“It’s quite a treasure to have pictures like that because the average person didn’t have the means of taking pictures like that,” said Winterport Historical Society archivist Theodore Weston. “That postcard business was quite a big deal in those days, and the fact that they did that saved us a lot of history.”
Weston wrote captions for two Winterport photos from the 1920s: the C.C. Moody Variety Store and a ferry on the Penobscot River.
Megan Pinette, president and curator of the Belfast Historical Society, has been working closely with Johnson since he came to the museum with the collection.
Using history books and newspaper articles, she identified and provided information about the North Church, now the American Legion Hall, Edgar Hanson’s grand house on Northport Avenue that has since burned down, and the Colonial Movie Theatre, a prominent landmark in downtown Belfast.
The museum’s Eastern collection includes about 400 negatives of Belfast.
“It’s absolutely an invaluable collection to have in Maine,” she said. “I run historical society programs at the library here, and I’ve had Kevin come with some of the Eastern Illustrating collection probably three times now, and he filled the room.
“People just want to see that world,” she said.
An Internet database of the images should be complete for the opening of the museum’s summer season — and its 75th anniversary. The database will have a “talk back” or “Wiki” element that will allow viewers to add information about the images.
“People are dying to see these photos, and we want to get them out there,” Johnson said. “They aren’t doing any good to anyone in a museum where they can’t be seen.”
In late March or early April, the museum plans to offer a slide show of additional photos of Waldo County towns. A reception for “Waldo County Through Eastern’s Eye” will be held 5-7 p.m. Jan. 27. For information, visit penobscotmarinemuseum.org.