If John Martin were alive today, he might be the sort of person to curate an influential Instagram page, documenting the fashions, societal trends and topics of the day through colorful photos and insightful, pointed commentary.
Martin lived in the Bangor area in the 19th century, however, and documented the goings-on in the Queen City through hundreds of pages of journal entries, drawings, newspaper clippings and other musings — providing an invaluable window into everyday life in that era, now held by the Maine Historical Society and the Maine State Museum.
Images and passages from those journals will go on display at the Maine Historical Society’s museum in Portland on March 16, as part of “Representing Every Particular: John Martin’s 19th Century Fashion Illustrations,” part of a two-part exhibit about Maine history through fashion called “Northern Threads: Two Centuries of Dress.”
“There’s nothing else like it out there, as far as I know,” said Tilly Laskey, who curated the John Martin exhibit for the MHS. “Here was this middle-class guy, an accountant and shopkeeper, who had this incredibly keen eye and was interested in everything. What he left us was this amazing resource on what life was like for middle-class people in Bangor in the 19th century.”
Martin was born in Ellsworth in 1823, the son of John and Anne Martin; his father was a British immigrant who died when his son was 11 months old. His mother remarried and they moved to Hampden, where at age 12 John Martin was apprenticed to an apothecary. He later took on a variety of jobs, including bartender, cook, soapmaker and butcher, though in adulthood he mostly worked as an accountant and shopkeeper in Bangor.
Martin clearly had interests far larger than his humble circumstances. His stated purpose for keeping a voluminous 650-page journal documenting the world around him was to make sure his children — six in total, though only two outlived him — would understand what his life was like in a booming lumber town like Bangor.
Far from being a neutral observer, Martin had opinions on everything — from the design of local buildings and the politics of the day, to the clothes worn by fashionable men and women in Bangor’s high society.
Fashion in particular was an obsession of his, and he often wrote in exacting detail about the attention — or lack of attention — men paid to their appearance, or the dresses women wore as they “promenaded” along the Kenduskeag Stream. He did not care for men’s habits of smoking cigars, but he’d heap praise on particularly well-dressed young women, for both their style and wit and intelligence.
“He doesn’t just talk about the clothes themselves, either — he talks about the extravagance some women had, how much money they might have spent on their clothes, and how people tried to keep up with fashion,” Laskey said. “You do kind of have to wade through his opinions, but there’s so much great information there for social history.”
One of the favorite pastimes of the mid-19th century was dancing, and Martin particularly loved writing about and drawing pictures of the various dances he attended in town. In 1855, he co-founded the Dancing Fraternity of Bangor to instruct its members on how to dance, and how to behave properly.
Fashion, dancing and high society were not Martin’s only concerns, however. He was passionate about architecture and gardening, often critiquing the design of both the interior and exterior of the houses owned by Bangor’s wealthy elite. He had much to say about the state of Bangor’s roads, schools and other infrastructure, and even more to say about the politicians of the day — and it was often not particularly positive.
Martin wrote excitedly about the latest innovations in technology, like the first hot air balloon in Bangor, the arrival of Bangor’s electric trolley system, and even the first automobiles to hit Bangor’s streets, only a few years before his death in 1904. Though his journals were ostensibly meant to only be seen by members of his family, one cannot help but get the sense that he also had an eye for broader posterity.
Even more unusually, Martin often illustrated his musings, drawing images of people and places and coloring them in with watercolor paint. Though his drawing style would be considered amateur, one of his most detailed images — a painting of the F. Shaw Brothers Tannery in Grand Lake Stream, where he worked for a time — is held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
After Martin’s death in 1904, his journals were passed down through his family until they eventually landed in a barn in southern Maine, where they sat undisturbed for decades. In 1997 they were rediscovered, and a group of buyers including the Maine Historical Society, the Maine State Museum, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, the Bangor Public Library, the Maine State Library and a number of businesses and donors purchased them at an auction.
A few years ago, the journals were digitized, and are now viewable in their entirety on Maine Memory Network, the Maine Historical Society’s digital museum.
“The fact that it’s now so easily accessible, and people can learn about middle-class life in that era in Bangor from it, is really a great achievement,” Laskey said.