Eastern Illustrated meets historical society

(Originally published April 2008.)

Recently I discovered that most of the glass plate negatives produced by the Eastern Illustrated and Publishing Company photographers were acquired by the Penobscot Marine Museum (www.glassplateimages.com). Eastern Illustrated operated out of Belfast, Maine and its owner, Herman Cassens, sent photographers across New England and northern New York State to produce photo postcards that the company sold wholesale to local merchants, to resort and summer camp owners, and to others. Eastern is an example of one of a few photo postcard businesses that expanded well beyond its home base. Another is L.L. Cook Company of Lake Mills, Wis.

Although the founder of the company never obtained his goal of covering the whole country, Eastern produced thousands of real photo postcards of hundreds of New England and New York towns. There are a total of more than 30,000 glass plate negatives in the Penobscot collection.

I was excited to discover that the Penobscot Marine Museum had hired a curator, Kevin Johnson, for the Eastern collection and that prints from the original negatives are available. In addition to collecting real photo postcards in general I collect postcards of Orwell, the small Vermont town where I live. I own a few Eastern cards of my town but was elated to find that there were images I had never seen in the Penobscot collection. Through contacting Johnson (Kevin@penobscotmarinemuseum.org), I was able to obtain scans of 12 glass plate negatives used to produce the Orwell rppc.

I attend the monthly meeting of the Orwell Historical Society and at a recent gathering I brought the scans. Members were enthusiastic about them and didn’t hesitate to order prints. We got a whole set for the OHS with additional copies of the school and the churches to present to those organizations. We promptly received our purchases and were pleased with the quality of the reproductions and how our request had been handled. The Society presented a large print to its principle of the original school; the building was demolished to build the present structure. The principle is having it framed to hang in a prominent place in the school.

I am relaying this personal experience because it illustrates the possibilities for obtaining copies of photo postcard images and their potential use. Although the Penobscot Museum has an unusual outstanding collection of real photo postcards and their negatives, probably one of the largest in the country, there are many other institutions with great real photo holdings.

For example Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., has a wonderful collection of Matsura’s postcard work (www.wsulibs.wsu.edu/holland/masc/xmatsura.html). In addition to these two sites, postcard collectors can visit the special collections sections of museums and libraries in their region, including those at colleges and universities, and ask about their postcard holdings.

Outstanding digital copies such as those we got from the Penobscot museum will never satisfy the desires of the real postcard collector; they want the real thing. But, because prints from original negatives may be available from archives, local history buffs and historical societies can obtain quality images that might not be available through other means. The cost of the high quality digital prints was less than one could expect to spend for a rppc of the same image. By getting copies and sharing them with local historical societies and community members in various institutions, postcard collectors can spread the word about the value of these images and recruit people into the hobby.