Today we have Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook. But in 1909, Americans were enamored with another — albeit slightly slower — app for sending pictures and updates to their friends and families: the postcard.
“At that time, mail was delivered multiple times a day,” said Kevin Johnson, the photo archivist at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. A new exhibit there about the Maine postcard publisher, Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Co., displays a look at everyday life in early 20th century Maine. “It was very common for people to send a postcard across town and say ‘Hey, do you want to come to dinner tonight?’ And they could get a response back a few hours later.”
The exhibit, which is open seven days a week through Oct. 7, explains how then state-of-the-art printing technology and low postage costs allowed Americans to constantly send snapshots of their towns and travels to each other. The U.S. Postal Service estimates that Americans sent 700 million postcards in 1908, when the U.S. population was about 89 million. Many of the postcards were from popular places such as New York City or Baltimore, but the large publishing companies rarely found it worthwhile to print postcards for small towns like the ones all over New England.
Enter R. Herman Cassens, a young German immigrant with a camera, a moustache and a Model T. Cassens made small towns his niche market for postcards. In 1909, he launched Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Co., in Belfast, from which a small crew of photographers hit the dirt roads of rural New York and New England. They took pictures not just of sunny beaches or majestic mountains, but of everyday scenes from small town life. There were postcards of a fertilizer factory in Belfast, a shipwreck near Islesboro and a few farmers in a field in East Sullivan. Together, these photographic snippets of life formed an accidental time capsule of early 20th century New England.
“We wouldn’t go out today and take a picture of a Bank of America to make into a postcard,” Johnson said. “But when you think about it, every person in this town probably worked in that sardine plant. And they want to send something to a relative to say ‘This is our town, this is where I work.’”
One postcard in particular shows off Eastern Illustrating’s verité style. The picture is of a group of children, some of whom are barefoot, standing on a dirt road in front of a large warehouse-like building with smokestacks on top. Along the bottom of the image reads “American Can Plant, Lubec ME.”
“Lubec is a touristy area nowadays,” said Toussaint St. Negritude, the poet laureate of Belfast, who also works as an interpretive guide at the exhibit. “So you wouldn’t see this in a postcard of the city now. By today’s standards, we would call the barefoot kids by a factory poor.”
Some depicted Somerset County towns such as Flagstaff no longer exist because they were flooded long ago to make room for a reservoir called Flagstaff Lake.
The subjects were often poor, but the postcards were popular. At its height, Eastern Illustrating produced a million postcards a year out of its tiny shop in Belfast. Postcards remained popular through the 1930s, but demand for them waned during World War II. They were never the same again.
“After World War II, there was less of the life-in-our-town style,” Johnson said. “Postcards became more focused on tourist places like Bar Harbor or Belgrade Lakes.”
Eastern Illustrating faded, too; Cassens sold the business in 1947 and died in 1948. He and his staff left behind a legacy of over 40,000 images of New England and New York. Many of them were nearly lost in 2007, when a pipe burst and caused a flood in the collection’s storage room at the Rockport Institute of Photographic Education. At the time, Johnson worked there as an archivist, and with the help of friends he managed to haul the collection out of the building.
“It took like six weeks of drying it out,” he said, “but I was essentially able to save the collection.”
And a vital piece of New England history was saved with it.
Penobscot Marine Museum
The former Maine postcard publisher Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Co. is the focus of a documentary being made by Maine filmmaker Sumner McKane.
Where: 5 Church St., Searsport
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sundays
Contact: 548-2529, www.penobscotmarinemuseum.org