Instead of watching the Super Bowl, they saved history

The day that 35,000 of Maine’s historical negatives were almost destroyed

Posted:  Monday, November 20, 2017 - 9:45pm
Share: 

SEARSPORT—In a recent story behind the origin of Maine’s iconic vintage postcards, I learned of an incident that happened in the 1990s in which 35,000 negatives of historic Maine photos used for many of those postcards were almost lost forever.

Kevin Johnson, the photo archivist at Penobscot Marine Museum, is the man familiar with the intrigue.

“I thought everyone had already heard this story,” he said.

Turns out, not everybody. In case you haven’t heard it, here it is from the beginning:

A century ago, a Rockland man, Herman Cassens, started a postcard printing business in Belfast, calling it the Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Company. He sent his crew to all of these small New England towns with their box cameras asking local citizens what they should photograph and ended up capturing scenes of small towns and rural byways . 

According to the PMM site: “The Eastern collection is the largest single photographic collection in Maine, consisting of nearly 50,000 images of Maine and the rest of New England and upstate New York. Most of the photos are on glass-plate negatives.”

The company stopped making real photo postcards in the 1950s. Here’s where Johnson picks up the thread.

“The owners of DownEast Magazine purchased the company and negatives in the 1980s,” he said. “They had the idea of a vintage postcard line and access to the old images to use in the magazine, but neither came to be.

“Then, in the early 1990s, they donated all of the negatives to the Maine Media Workshop in Rockport. I came to the Workshops in 2003 as a student and learned all about photography. I wanted to stay in the creative bubble at the Workshops in Rockport, and got offered a job digitizing and cataloguing the negatives, and figuring out a plan to market them. When the recession hit in 2006, we were all laid off. On Super Bowl Sunday in 2007, one of my friends called me and told me that there had been a flood in Union Hall where all of the negatives were stored and I needed to get down there right away. The basement was soaked and they were going to throw all of the negatives out.”

An interesting twist for someone who no longer even worked for Maine Media Workshops, but Johnson decided what needed to be done.

“So, I dragged all of my friends who were coming to watch the Super Bowl at my house and brought them to Rockport and we spent between five and six hours bringing up all of the negatives from Union Hall and depositing them up to the dining hall,” he said. “I made some calls to the Eastman House and found it was OK for the negatives to get wet. The catch was that they couldn’t be allowed to dry touching each other or in the archival envelopes that I’d been putting them into for two years, or else the emulsion of the images would peel apart and they’d be destroyed.”

Johnson, who now gives this talk as a slideshow, laughs about it now.

“I spent five and a half weeks hand drying each one,” he said. “I had to wrap everything in plastic to keep it wet before it could be dried properly. During this time, the school had changed hands to the Maine Media Workshop and the new owners did not want the collection. David Lyman, who owned the Workshops donated them to the Penobscot Marine Museum and the only catch was: they had to take me with them.”

Johnson has now been with Penobscot Marine Museum for 10 years and has orchestrated a number of photo archive events, including the 100th anniversary of Maine Postcard Day in 2016, with its exhibition “Wish You Were Here: Communicating Maine.”

“Postcards are the third most collected item in the world following stamps and coins,” he said. “People are kind of obsessive about them.”

The people of Maine have Johnson to thank for that obsessiveness, as well.

For more information visit: www.penobscotmarinemuseum.org

Related story: Traveling back to 1845 in the film ‘The Home Road’


Kay Stephens can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com