PORTLAND, Maine — In 1909, a young photographer named R. Herman Cassens founded the Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company in Belfast. His main product was photographic postcards. Cassens’ dream was to send his team of photographers out documenting every state in the Union.
That never quite happened.
But when he sold the business in 1947, Cassens’ company had amassed more than 50,000 glass plate and film negatives, covering a huge swath of New England and New York.
After the sale, Eastern Illustrating continued making postcards but the aging negatives eventually went into storage, where they were forgotten for the next 40 years.
The images ultimately found their way to the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. Since 2007, the staff has been cleaning, preserving, scanning and researching each negative. The museum has also been sharing the historic photos with the world.
This week a new joint exhibit with the Maine Historical Society and Maine Memory Network is opening, both online at the Maine Memory Network and on the walls at the Historical Society’s Portland gallery. The new show focuses on Eastern Illustrating photos captured in Sagadahoc County.
“The Sagadahoc exhibit is the sixth county-themed exhibit we have created from the vast Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company Collection,” said Kevin Johnson, photo archivist at the Penobscot Marine Museum. “This particular exhibit faced some significant hurdles due to COVID-19 and so it’s especially satisfying to see it completed on the Maine Memory Network and the walls of the Maine Historical Society.”
Officially called “Sagadahoc County through the Eastern Eye: Selections from the Penobscot Marine Museum,” the show will be on display in Portland, at the Shettleworth Gallery on Congress Street, until the end of the year. The online version will be available indefinitely.
Though originally made solely for commerce, the 46 images of Sagadahoc County included in the exhibit reveal an historic sweep of daily life from the first half of the 20th century. The photos were all made by professional photographers and their quality is impressive.
Additionally, museum researchers have written informative captions for each image.
“The Kennebec River was busy with steamboats carrying people and goods and cargo vessels shipping out lumber, granite, and ice,” the online exhibit states. “Ferries transported horses and wagons, automobiles, passengers, and trains across the Kennebec. Vessels, from fishing boats and clipper ships to yachts and destroyers, took shape on its banks.”
Cassens’ photographers used large, wooden view cameras while making their pictures. The tripod-mounted contraptions produced 5×7-inch glass plate — and later celluloid — negatives. They were then cropped to make 3×5-inch postcards.
When Cassens started his business, telephones were not widespread. Postcards were a short, inexpensive way to communicate — the old-time version of a text message. At its peak, Eastern Illustrating produced over a million postcards a year.
One photo in the exhibit was taken on Front Street in Bath in 1910. Trolley tracks run down the middle of the cobblestoned way. Swett’s Drugstore, on the corner of Elm Street, advertises “physicians prescriptions carefully compounded.” A pedestrian on the left appears in a ghostly blur, brought on by a long photographic exposure time.
Another photo, made in 1935, shows workmen sitting on a truck at the bottom of a feldspar mine in Georgetown. The mineral was an ingredient in pottery glaze. The image caption reads: “Feldspar was loaded on barges at a tidal wharf and shipped to Trenton, New Jersey, or loaded on ships in Bath, Maine, for longer voyages.”
A teamster stands in the back of an empty hay wagon in front of the town hall in Phippsburg around 1915 in one picture. The man holds reins connected to a pair of hitched — but unyoked — oxen in front of him. Wearing a plaid cap, insulated telegraph lines cross the sky behind him.
Cassens had a heart attack in 1945 and sold his business two years later for $7,000. He died in 1948, a year after the sale. He is buried in Belfast’s Grove Cemetery but his images live on as 3×5-inch windows into the past.
Maine Historical Society’s gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Advance tickets are required and available at mainehistory.org.