Maine state historian Earle Shettleworth talks about the Main Streets exhibit in 2008, the EIP collection in general, and working with museum archivist Kevin Johnson.
MPBN interview with archivist Kevin Johnson, March 9, 2009, Reported By: Keith Shortall
WERU Voices interview with archivist Kevin Johnson, May 26th, 2009, With Cathy Melio & Carolyn Coe
Download (PDF) Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Company Feature Story – Creative Image Maker Magazine
In 1909, R. Herman Cassens, a young entrepreneur, started a postcard company, the Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Company, in the mid-coast town of Belfast, Maine. Postcards have always been a popular item, especially for travelers, but at the turn of the century they were the absolute rage.
At a time when the telephone was not an integral part of the American household and email was still nearly a century away, postcards provided both a visual and written link, whether from across town or across the country. Cassens saw a niche between personal/amateur postcards and the mass-produced postcards available in the bigger cities. He had a dream of “Photographing the Transcontinental Trail–Maine to California,” focusing on small rural towns and villages. He and his small crew of photographers traveled through rural New England and New York focusing their lenses on locally known landmarks, street scenes, country stores and businesses, events and people. The exposed glass plate negatives were sent back to the “factory” in Belfast where they were processed, printed and sent back to the general stores for sale at “2 for 5 cents.”
Unlike the mass produced variety, EIP’s postcards were the type known as “real photo postcards” meaning they were actual photographic prints, products of the chemical reaction caused by light onto a light-sensitive surface. The term “real photo” was one used by the makers to emphasize photographic authenticity and to distinguish their cards from the abundance of mechanically reproduced and printed cards that dominated the market. These real photo postcards are still tremendously popular today among collectors; one only has to spend a few minutes on eBay to see just how popular.
Campaign to Complete the Eastern Illustrating Collection
The museum is raising funds to acquire 7,500 glass plate negatives to substantially complete its collection from the Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Co.
Cassens sold his business in 1947 and died in 1948. Though his dream of photographing all 48 states was not realized, his company did manage to make over 40,000 glass plate negatives of New England and New York between 1909 and 1947. The images are fascinating on many levels. They take their viewers back in time to when the roads were still dirt, horse drawn carriages outnumbered cars, coastlines were still undeveloped and elms lined the streets.
The glass plate images seemed to die along with Cassens. The company stopped producing the “real photo post cards” and eventually switched to the more contemporary color postcards. The glass plates were left in storage, collecting dust for the next 40 years, until the Rockport Institute for Photographic Education acquired them in the late 1980s. In June of 2005, the monstrous task began of cleaning, identifying, organizing, cataloging and scanning the glass plates. In early 2007, the collection once again changed hands after a near disaster. A broken pipe caused a flood in the building on Rockport Harbor where they were stored. The collection was soaked but a strong effort saved it and the collection was ultimately donated to the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine, just a few miles from where the whole story began.
Since its arrival in Searsport, the archiving of the negatives has continued at an accelerated rate thanks to the help of several volunteers and support staff. Over 10,000 of the negatives have been scanned and 33,000 entries have been made in the database. Not only has the collection become more organized, it has increased in size! Several caches of the negatives that had escaped over the years have been reunited with the collection, adding several thousand negatives to the existing archive. These “new” negatives were donated in a few cases, and in others purchased from their owners with financial help from supporters of the museum. Several additional groups of the negatives have been located and the museum is seeking help in securing them. Plans for the collection include making them available on the museum’s website and providing web access to a database that will allow searches to be made across the collection.