The natural beauty of its rugged coastline, and the ready availability of lobster, may be two of the top reasons for traveling to the state of Maine, but for history and museum enthusiasts there are sights galore.
The state’s long-standing popularity as a destination belies the challenges its location has always posed to the locals. The short northern growing season makes the state less ideal for agriculture than regions further south and west, but the abundance of natural resources, particularly fish and timber, allowed early settlers to eke out a living. Towns along the coast, Portland in particular, became busy trading ports, with merchants establishing houses and channeling a certain amount of imported luxury goods along with necessities to the region.
Throughout the 18th century, Maine belonged to the state of Massachusetts, but the remoteness produced a culture of independent people who often felt neglected or otherwise at odds odds with the state legislature in Boston. Travellers in Maine often commented on the curiosity, whether friendly or antagonistic, with which locals regarded the outside world. The reaction of travelers to their sudden status as fonts of knowledge ranged from understanding to the sarcastic, as this anonymous travel diary from 1797, written by a Frenchman or French-Canadian, suggests:
“The commonalty abstracted from news in the recesses of the country indulge an unbounded curiosity, which they imagine every one they meet, especially strangers, are bound to gratify. ‘Well, Mister, what’s the news,’ is their favorite phrase, and is the signal of a string of inquiries being about to take place concerning the person’s name, age, country and occupation, whence he came, and whither he is going. Foreigners who are aware of this ceremony scarcely ever fail to mislead them with some strange story, which is generally circulated with large additions the ensuing Sunday betwixt meetings.”
As is to be expected, the reality often belied the exaggerated claims of outside opinions. As with the rest of the country, many of the state’s citizens were engaged with both local and national news. If they happened to be long-lived, they bore witness to spectacular changes in politics and technology that changed how people lived their lives. One such person was Jotham Bradbury of Farmington. Born in 1790, a year into George Washington’s presidency, he lived until 1889. By the last decade of his life, he was locally celebrated for his longevity and personal recollections of the state’s history—his daily diary also records his thoughts on politics (he was a Republican, but disliked Roscoe Conkling), his health, electricity as a cure for ailments, and his first experience with the telephone at the age of 93.
After the seceding from Massachusetts in 1820, Maine found prosperity during the industrial revolution. Logging, quarrying, textile mills, and larger fishing enterprises brought an economic boom to the coastal regions. Beginning in the 1850s, Maine’s started becoming a popular summer destination for families located further south looking to escape the heat and bustle of the more populous regions. Their “cottages,” while certainly smaller and in comparison with those of, say, Newport, did not lack for luxury. Furniture, art, and all the fixtures of modern life throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries can be found in houses such as Portland’s Victoria Mansion (formally called the Morse-Libby House). As these summer coastal communities became more popular, artists and craftsmen followed, most famously Winslow Homer, who, despite being from a “seasonal” family lived on Prout’s Neck year round. This artistic interest in Maine paralleled the grown of cultural institutions. One of the earliest publicly-accessible art collections in Maine began at Bowdoin College in 1811, which also happened to be one of the earliest university-based collections in the country. By 1882, when the Portland Society of Art, an organization which became the Portland Museum of Art, was founded, the arts had an unshakable foothold in the cultural life of the state.
Gradually, as these cultural institutions expanded and became more permanent, Maine became a destination for cultural tourism in its own right. The Trust is not the first organization to travel to the state specifically to see its decorative arts. Beginning in the 1940s, the Walpole Society, an organization of museum professionals and collectors united by their shared love of decorative arts, touring, and general hijinks. The most memorable of their trips to Maine (perhaps for the members, but certainly for the locals) was doubtless their 1968 excursion into southern Maine. In between “brief, painless slide resumés” of previous trips and decorative arts histories, they descended on local houses of interest—including the Lady Pepperrell House in Kittery, Hamilton House in Piscataqua, the Sarah Orne Jewett House in Berwick and the Wheeler House in York—to inspect the furniture and fixtures with the expert eye. Although H.F. du Pont, who was making his last trip with the society, did not manage to snag another period room or even a piece of furniture (as far as we know), Winterthur’s then-director Charles Montgomery was caught sneaking off to antique shops, and formally reprimanded for the causing “the first cracks in company discipline.”
While hopefully more serene, the Trust’s upcoming symposium will be no less in-depth and more geographically far-ranging within the state, starting in Portland and ranging north to Bath and south to Kennebunkport. We are looking forward to bringing the Trust to Maine, and exploring institutions and collections new to us.
Symposium participants wishing for more extensive background reading may find the following books helpful and interesting:
Collin Woodard. The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier. (New York: Penguin, 2004)
Lincoln Paine. Down East: A Maritime History of Maine. (Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 2000)
Laura Sprague. Agreeable Situations: Society, Commerce, and Art in Southern Maine, 1780-1830. (Lebanon, NH: Northeastern University Press, 1988)
Lydia Vandenberg and Earle Shettleworth. Bar Harbor’s Gilded Century: Opulence to Ashes. (Down East Books, 2009)