An Archival Mystery… Solved in the Children’s Room!


Have you ever wondered about the large metal book press solidly fastened to the circulation desk in the Children’s Room? I hadn’t given it much thought, myself, long assuming that it was just a helpful fixture in the library. We use it to repair books and it couldn’t be handier.

The counter itself is a piece of Gardiner history. For many decades, it belonged to the Maxcy Insurance office on Water Street.

Working in the Community Archives Room (and relatively obsessed with all things historical in the library), I had read the plaque on the counter and knew that the desk had stood in a long-operating, family-owned insurance office here in Gardiner for many, many years. Somehow, however, I never paused to consider just why an insurance office would need a book press….

The counter was donated to the Library by the daughters of an employee who ultimately inherited the company.

In the 1830s, Smith Maxcy brought his growing family to Gardiner from Windsor, Maine, and operated a grist mill on Bridge Street.  He was widowed three times in his life, raising five sons and three daughters in Gardiner.  The eldest son, Josiah, married Eliza Jane Crane and remained in Gardiner, where they raised five sons of their own.  In 1853, Josiah established his own insurance agency, which, as several of his sons joined the business, ultimately became Josiah Maxcy & Sons Insurance.  It operated for over a century in the upper floors of where Ampersand Dance Studio is now located.

We were lucky to receive a donation of a large collection of Maxcy business and family materials in the Archives some years ago.  Josiah and his son William Everett Maxcy were significantly involved in Gardiner business, as well as many municipal and charitable activities and the collection provides amazing glimpses into our local history over many decades.

One item, in particular, has fascinated me for some time.  It is a book of numbered pages of the thinnest paper – it resembles onion or tracing paper, but even thinner. There is an index in the front of the volume and each of the tissue-thin pages bears a hand-written (or, occasionally, a type-written) letter.  All are dated about 1913. When a researching descendent stopped by some months ago, we were equally flummoxed by just what this book was and how it was created.  The pages were too thin to write on directly – they would tear too easily – and, clearly, the book contained “copies” of official correspondence sent out by the office.  These weren’t carbon sheets and they hadn’t been compiled and bound together after they were created.

Naturally, a Google search helped to deliver some additional evidence and we found both an answer AND a second mystery revealed and solved.  It turns out that this bound volume was a “letter book” or a “pressed letter book” and was a state-of-the-art method of copying outgoing correspondence in the mid- to late-19th century and early 20th century.

Much faster than re-writing a copy of a letter, these books required the use of a special copying ink in writing the initial letter and then quickly placing the letter beneath a moistened page of tissue paper in the letter book.  Then, with sheets of oil cloth inserted to protect the other pages,   the volume was slid into the press and the top was screwed down to tighten and impress the moist page against the freshly written letter.  What resulted was an inverse image of the letter on the back of a page of tissue paper thin enough to read properly from the front!

One of our Google search hits came in this illustrated chapter discussing various examples of “Business Practices and Technology” one might find in archival collections.

The process may not have required an advanced skill set to complete, but it did demand a bit of savvy in its operation.  The sloppy example below was found in our letter book and was likely an instance of too much moisture allowing the ink to bleed.

The explanation of this common technique of copying office papers was simultaneously informative and enlightening.  A-ha! Our book press in the Children’s Room had certainly come with the desk when it was donated and it’s long history had absolutely nothing to do with book repair.

Instead, it was likely one of the first and most used “copy machines” in town!

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Historic Photo Mystery – Solved in the Archives!

Of all the wonderful reference questions we field in the Community Archives Room, some of the most engaging involve identifying photographs and their subjects, relative to Gardiner history.  Often people bring in photos of family members or local buildings and want to know just where or when or why a photo may have been taken.  We have wonderful historic maps and directories, as well as many already-identified photos that help with picking out clues to solve the mystery.  And, inevitably, every “solve” brings out new and enlightening details of our richly historic town.

Recently, a  mystery came our way electronically.  Someone had noticed an image for sale by auction on eBay and it struck up lively conversation on Facebook, with folks wondering just where in Gardiner the photograph had been taken.  The auction has since ended, but the image is still view-able online (simply Google: Gardiner bridge 1904 eBay, or click this link: http://goo.gl/dazhU8). The photo shows a young woman standing on a bridge, alongside intricate metal balustrades and a tall railing, with many wooden buildings on the waterfront behind her; writing on the back noted that it was taken September 1904 on the Gardner [sic] Bridge in Maine.

The photo offers some wonderful close-up details, but was taken from a perspective rarely seen in our collection and was not instantly identifiable.  It was not surprising that questions and discussions arose about the location, as Gardiner has at had least four to six bridges that have changed architecturally over time (Gardiner-Randolph, Bridge Street, Winter Street, New Mills, as well as those on Maine Avenue crossing both the Cobbossee and the Causeway).  Only by following each clue and connecting the right dots, could the location be pinpointed.

Many still recall the old Gardiner-Randolph Bridge (c.1933) with concrete railings and balustrades at either end.

 

New Mills Bridge (with trolley arriving, c.1910) was one of Gardiner’s metal bridges for decades, but also lacked the intricate details shown in the mystery photo.

 

Commonwealth Shoe factory, along the Kennebec, c. 1910.  The Causeway bridge in the foreground has the same metalwork and balustrades as in the mystery photo, but has different buildings in its vicinity.

Close inspection of the mystery photo shows small rosettes in the ironwork.  Many will recall similar rosettes that were removed and sold as souvenirs when the old Gardiner-Randolph Bridge was dismantled in 1980.  According to the details in the photo above (if you really zoom in), they also ran along Maine Avenue.

 

Sometimes it takes finding just the right image, taken at the right time of year (e.g., after the protective wooden sidings of winter are taken down) and, of course, in the right year (e.g., after 1896 when the 1850s bridge washed and was replaced, but before the concrete sidings were changed in the late 1920s-early 1930s) to make the solve. The image below was contemporary with the mystery photo and it showed ironwork matching the 1904 railings.

An older photo of the Gardiner-Randolph Bridge, c.1905, showing the metal balustrades and railing that match those in the photo, as well as background buildings that appear to be on the Randolph side of the bridge.

The final clue came by matching the above photo with a period map of Randolph.  The buildings on the north side of the bridge match those in the background of the mystery photo.  By 1910 (not shown), some of the buildings in question were already gone.

1903 Sanborn Map detail of Randolph, including the wooden buildings on the north side of the bridge, matching the those in the mystery photo.

At last, it was safe to conclude, without a doubt, that the mystery photo was taken on the northern Randolph side of the Gardiner-Randolph Bridge.  Although the process sounds a little tedious and drawn out, our marvelous collection led to an answer in under 15 minutes!

Of course, in true form to all our research discoveries here in the Archives, no sooner is a mystery solved than a new and exciting detail — or further mystery — crops up!  A few days later, when browsing microfilm of Gardiner newspapers to pursue a completely different question, a note about the Gardiner-Randolph bridge caught my eye in the July 20, 1906, Weekly Reporter Journal caught my eye:

Apparently some of those small details were not so small after all!

Of course, we still don’t know who the lady is.  If you have any idea — or if you have more Gardiner photos (mysterious or otherwise) — please share them with us!!  We love a good Gardiner mystery!

100 Years And Counting!

Did you know that there was a booklet published in 1981 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the library?  It was written by Jody Clark, illustrated by Betty Heselton, and gives a concise history of the first centennial.

 

Recently we found a small box of these booklets tucked into the back of a closet.  They are now at the front desk and can be yours for the price of any monetary donation.
Here’s a taste of what you will find in it: 

 

A lovely sketch of the fireplace in the Hazzard Reading Room

 

 

A poem written by Laura Richards which she recited before the Library Association in 1916

 

An extensive list of Gardiner authors
A list of the officers of the Association in 1981 along with the names of the staff of the library at that time.
Scott Handville, Assistant Director