Ever wonder where vintage postcards of Maine came from?
ROCKLAND— Browse through any antique shop and you’ll likely come across an old shoe box of vintage Maine postcards. Eerie black and white or sepia-toned shots of lonely stretches of dirt road along a coast, or landmarks and buildings. Where do they come from? And who took all of these photos?
There is actually a rhyme and reason to these randomly scattered postcards around Maine.
“Postcards are one of the earliest forms of social media and they took the U.S. and the world by storm,” said said Kevin Johnson, the photo archivist at Penobscot Marine Museum. “From the late 1800s to WWI, the vast majority of postcards were mass produced at print houses in Germany. In the U.S., many individuals and small business produced real photo postcards, which are actually silver gelatin photo prints on postcard stock. ”
In the midst of postcard's heyday, Maine Governor, Oakley Curtis saw an opportunity to capitalize on this popularity. Ann Morris, a curator at the Rockland Historical Society said, “Maine was one of the first states to really promote tourism and Maine Governor Oakley C. Curtis wanted to encourage people to come to Maine, so he urged Maine citizens to send a postcard of Maine to friends and family outside the state with the message ‘come to Maine.’”
According to historical documents, Curtis made this proclamation in a letter on April 19, 1916, which was deemed “Post Card Day.”
One company in Belfast, Maine, seized on this proclamation. R. Herman Cassens founded the Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Company in 1909 with a goal of making real photo postcards of rural towns and villages. He and a team of photographers would drive all around New England and parts of New York in their Model Ts and take photographs of local landmarks, street scenes, buildings, businesses and people. Virtually anything visually interesting at the time was fair game. They would send the exposed glass plate negatives back to the factory in Belfast, where they’d be processed and printed as postcards.
This early form of photojournalism captured a bygone era where the roads were still dirt and the coastlines were mostly undeveloped.
General stores and post offices were the main purveyors, selling these postcards for two-to-five cents apiece. Postcard stamps were one cent. Ostensibly, this is where people got their postcards to send out to friends and family after being urged by Curtis.
“For instance, if a photographer went through a little town like Norway, Maine, and took a picture of Maine Street or a farm, he’d stop at the local General Store, or confectionery store and say, ‘We’re making postcards of this town, would you like to order any?’” said Morris. “Then the store owner would say, ‘Yes, I could probably sell about 200 of these.’”
Between 1909 and the mid-1950s, Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Company made more than 50,000 glass plate negatives of Maine, New England, and parts of upstate New York. “He wanted to photograph the entire United States, but he was never able to pull it off,” said Johnson.
For the fifth year, the Rockland Historical Society has hosted a postcard show, offering tens of thousands of antique Maine postcards, where dealers and collectors come to buy and trade. This year, it was held at the Rockland Congregational Church on September 16 with more than 120 in attendance.
“We have members of the Rockland Historical Society who love collecting these post cards,” said Morris. “They watch for them on eBay and bid on them, particularly any postcards from the Midcoast area.”
Today, so many of these postcards are now found in attics, estate sales, yard sales, old photo albums all over the world and finding their way back home to Maine through these postcard shows.
For more information on the history of the Eastern Illustration & Publishing Co. visit: https://penobscotmarinemuseum.org/eastern-illustrating-publishing-company/
For more information on the 100th anniversary of Maine Postcard Day visit: https://penobscotmarinemuseum.org/postcards-from-maine/
Kay Stephens can be reached at email@example.com