Kevin Johnson put the tattered cardboard boxes in the back seat of his Toyota Highlander, snuggling them between seat cushions borrowed from his boat and hoped for the best.
Johnson then drove nearly 300 miles – from Warren, Massachusetts, back to his office at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport – with the delicate and irreplaceable cargo.
The boxes riding shotgun were filled with 300 breakable glass plate negatives, made a century ago in New England by photographers working for the Belfast-based Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company.
The trip marked the 50th batch of Eastern Illustrating negatives Johnson has reunited with the rest of the museum’s collection since he started scouring the countryside in 2007. When he began, the museum held around 35,000 negatives. Now, it has more than 50,000, thanks to his efforts.
He’s not done, either.
Nobody knows how many Eastern Illustrating pictures are yet to be found.
“I don’t know where the finish line is,” Johnson said. “There are more out there, which is both the fun and the frustration.”
The latest cache of negatives, which were originally used to make postcards, came from an antique dealer. The man’s asking price was $6,000 and it took Johnson a year-and-a-half to raise the funds. Though a lot of money, Johnson considers it a good deal.
The price puts each image at $20 but the dealer could have easily gotten $200 apiece on the online auction site Ebay, Johnson said.
Photographer R. Herman Cassens founded Eastern Illustrating in 1909. Cassens sent photographers to nearly every town and hamlet in Maine, documenting Main Streets, boats, docks, farms and businesses for the postcard trade.
Eastern Illustrating’s photographers used large, wooden view cameras while making their pictures. The tripod-mounted contraptions produced 5-inch by 7-inch glass plate negatives which were then cropped to make 3×5-inch postcards.
When Cassens started his business, telephones were not widespread. Postcards were a short, inexpensive way to communicate – the old-time version of a text message. At its peak, Eastern Illustrating produced over a million postcards a year.
The company survived after Cassens died in 1947, but eventually switched to color film for its postcards. The old negatives went into storage for decades before being passed between several organizations.
Each time the collection changed hands, more negatives would vanish, mysteriously ending up in dealers hands.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, you could buy them at Uncle Elmer’s Barn for a few bucks apiece,” Johnson said, referring to a well-known Maine antique store. “They weren’t considered valuable.”
Now, they’re considered important historical items, well worth preserving. Originally printed small, the negatives reveal amazing details when enlarged.
“The great thing is that these are the unvarnished, ungarnished view of what these communities actually looked like,” said Maine state historian Earle Shettleworth, who collaborated on a 2016 book about the collection with Johnson. “Everytime you look at one of these images, you learn something new – something that if that photograph had not been taken, would be a lost piece of information to local and state history.”
Maine images included in Johnson’s latest addition to the collection include fascinating views of high streets in Biddeford, Van Buren and Bingham. Other pictures show sailing ships docked at Cape Jellison and a boarding house, plus all its residents, in Sheridan.
Even with his 50th victory in the bag, Johnson already has his eyes set on another cache of Eastern Illustrating negatives. He said he stays motivated for two reasons: Joy and compulsion.
As part of his job as museum archivist, Johnson talks to many local groups around the state about the Eastern Illustrating collection. The first part of his presentation is always about the company. In the second half, he breaks out the local photos.
That’s when people’s eyes light up. His audience gets to look directly into the past, via his little glass negatives. Johnson said he never gets tired of seeing their delight.
As for the compulsion, he said he has the “collector gene” and he loves the thrill of the chase.
“It all started with baseball cards, when I was a kid,” he said.
Not really knowing how many Eastern Illustrating negatives are still out there to be found, Johnson said he hopes anyone who sees one will contact him.
“I definitely want to know about it,” he said.
The museum in Searsport is currently closed for the season but some of the Penobscot Marine Museum’s Eastern Illustrating images are currently on display at the “Main at its Midpoint” exhibit at Freeport Antiques & Heirlooms Showcase in Freeport.