In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Early Maine Photography

MHS Early Maine Photography

Maine Historical Society (MHS) started collecting photographs during the 19th century, as the medium grew in popularity and availability. The rich and diverse photograph collection at MHS is particularly strong in early photography, that is photographs dating from the 1840s through the 1870s.

Lucretia Day Sewall and her children, ca. 1849
Lucretia Day Sewall and her children, ca. 1849Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

The early Maine photographs at Maine Historical Society are loosely dived into three categories: The Vickery-Shettleworth Collection; MHS Compiled Collections; and photographs from within family or archival collections. The Vickery-Shettleworth Collection is standalone collection featured as a separate section of this site. The latter two categories are described here, under a cumulative title of “MHS Early Maine Photography."

The photographs within the "MHS Early Maine Photography" collections found their way to MHS through varied formats. In some instances, images were donated or purchased on their own, or within a small grouping, without companion archival materials or museum objects. In other instances, images were acquired in larger groups, or as part of family papers, business records, or similar archival collections.

Unlike with traditional paper-based materials, many 19th and early 20th century repositories often overlooked the research value of photographs, and MHS was no exception. The principles of provenance aside, many daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes within the MHS holdings were relegated to miscellaneous collections, known as "complied collections" or "artificial collections," which typically separated images by medium or size, and disrupted their relationship with fellow photographs or other materials. In other instances, images remained within boxes of manuscript material, but with limited mention in inventories, finding aids or catalogue records.

Tintype of man in weather resistant clothing, ca. 1900
Tintype of man in weather resistant clothing, ca. 1900Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Such methods for organizing photographs was thought to provide browsing capability and improved access, and while misguided from a modern perspective, met the immediate needs of a small-scale repository, such as MHS during the 19th and early 20th centuries. As MHS grew, best practices developed, and the value of photography as a historic resource became more prevalent, the need to improve preservation and access, as well as reconnect images through provenance, became a priority. However, such large-scale projects must always proceed thoughtfully, as to both honor and document years of institutional work.

Between 2016 and 2018, through support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Maine Historical Society inventoried, rehoused and digitized its daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, as well as a significant portion of its tintypes (tintypes far out numbering the other two mediums.) The work threaded together the once-separated photographs and allows researchers to view relationships, while preserving citations and references years in the making.
This section explores themes found within the "MHS Early Maine Photography Collections" both the “complied collections” and across MHS’ archival holdings. Its themes mirror those of the Vickery-Shettleworth Collection and aim to highlight some of MHS' most revered treasures.

Please visit the final section of the site to explore the entire early Maine photography collection at Maine Historical Society.