Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company

More than 50,000 glass plate and film negatives made by photographers of a “real photo” postcard manufacturer in Belfast which covers Maine as well as the rest of New England and Upstate New York

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.”

Real Photo Postcards

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.

Find Your Town

The Eastern Collections has negatives from the following states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and Florida. There are even a small number from Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Maryland and Bermuda. Nearly 30,000 of the roughly 50,000 negatives are accessible through our online database. Using the advanced search option put “Eastern” in the “Collection” field, the name of your town in the “city” field and the state in the “state” field. If you don’t find your town, feel free to send us an email to see what might be available in the portion of the collection not yet online.

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.

End Of An Era

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 50,000 glass plate and film 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.

Archiving The Negatives

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.

Maine On Glass

In 2016, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Maine Postcard Day, a book focusing on the Maine portion of the collection was published by Tilbury House. Maine on Glass: The Early Twentieth Century in Glass Plate Photography is the joint effort of Kevin Johnson, Penobscot Marine Museum’s Photo Archivist; W.H. Bunting, Maine’s foremost interpreter of historic images; and Earl G. Shettleworth Jr., Maine State Historian. This book uses images from the Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company to focus on early 20th century Maine life, from people at work to people at play.

MWPA Maine Literary Award Finalist John N. Cole Award for Maine-Themed Nonfiction

2017 book award from the New England Society of the City of New York

Read the review from the Portland Press Herald
Read the review from the Bangor Daily News here

Order your copy here.

Eastern in the Movies!

Wiscasset filmmaker Sumner McKane created a feature length documentary on the Eastern Collection in 2016. “The Northeast By Eastern” in which film, history and live music combine to illustrate a way of life from a simpler, more patient, yet enterprising American era with film & music by Sumner McKane and live music by Sumner McKane & Josh Robbins. For years, Belfast, Maine-based Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Company sent traveling photographer-salesmen on the roads all over New England and beyond with cameras, catalogues, and order books, seeking buyers and markets for their unique “real photo” postcards. “The Northeast by Eastern” combines Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Company’s comprehensive collection of early 20th century photographs with archival film footage, interviews, oral histories, a musical soundtrack featuring period music, as well as an original score by Sumner McKane.

Watch the trailer here.

Read an article about the film and Sumner in Downeast Magazine.
Read a review in the Portland Press Herald (PDF)

Order your copy here.


Maine Streets: Selections from the Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Company

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.


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