The History of Maine's Small Towns, Captured in Postcards
Wiscasset-based filmmaker Sumner McKane’s latest film, "The Northeast by Eastern," explores the story of a Belfast company that, in the early 20th century, documented small-town life in the Northeast through the medium of photo postcards.
That might sound strange, but postcards were a big deal in the early 1900s, and at the time, new technology allowed an army of camera-toting salesmen to turn them into a good living as well as, later, a historical archive.
Of the roughly 75,000 glass-plate negatives the Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Co. shot, more than 40,000 are at the Penobscot Marine Museum. McKane uses these, along with oral histories, historians and both original and period music to tell that story.
McKane: They were based out of Belfast, and Herman Cassens, the owner, would send out four or five photographers throughout New England in the spring, and they’d stay out all summer and shoot every small town they could possibly find. They’d go into hotels and stores and ask the owners if they wanted an Eastern Illustrating postcard rack on the counter at their store or hotel. And they’d shoot images, send the negatives back to Belfast and get them sent back and set up their little display in stores and go from town to town and do that throughout the summer.
The thing that EI did, was this unique to this company?
McKane: It was pretty unique to Eastern, because they shot these tiny towns that the bigger postcard publishers weren’t in or didn’t shoot. So they had the market on these tiny towns in the northeast. And at the time you could get mail two times a day, so that was how people communicated. So postcards were pretty big.
These photos tell stories about a particular period in history, and Maine in it. If you think about it, from 1909 to the ’50s, you had World War I, World War II, Prohibition, the Roaring ’20s, and the Great Depression. And these guys were shooting through all these pivotal times in American history. And you can see little hints of the eras in the postcards, so obviously Prohibition, customs houses everywhere, lumber towns — The towns in morthern Maine were bustling at the time, and if you take a look at Millinocket in the ’30s, it looks like a completely different town.
Any images that stood out for you particularly?
McKane: There’s one oddly of a customs agent in Madawaska, there’s just something about it, it told a story, it was the agent standing outside the custom house at the end of the International Bridge in Madawaska. There was just something about it, and it was a catalyst to come up with a way to tell a bigger story.
So I was going through some oral histories that I had, and some older interviews that were done in the ’60s, and I came across one of a woman who grew up in Madawaska, and she was telling the story of smuggling booze across the International Bridge, during Prohibition.
Another story that was told by Bill Bunting, a historian that I interviewed for the film. He talked about how when the river drivers would come out of the woods in Patten after the river drive, all the women were expected to stay inside, not because they were afraid of the men, but so the men wouldn’t be embarrassed by their own behavior. It was a civic sort of agreement that the men would stay out of sight.
That kind of tells the story of northern Maine at the time, when Patten was bustling. You go up there now and it looks totally different.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You can see this film on Maine Public Television, click here for details, or go to a screening of the movie with a live musical accompaniment Dec. 30, at St. Lawrence Arts in Portland, and Jan. 28, at Lincoln Theater in Damariscotta.