Perhaps, like me, you’ve wondered where all those wonderful old picture postcards of South County’s numerous villages at the early part of the 20th century came from. Some of them were locally produced by village drugstore owners like “Doc” Young and the Sealy’s in Wickford and similar folks in Wakefield, Narragansett Pier and Westerly. A few were produced on a very limited basis for special events like fairs or school graduations. But the lion’s share of these wonderful little “windows” into the past were produced by a recent German immigrant photographer and entrepreneur from Rockland and later, Belfast, Maine, named Herman Cassens. Cassens’ company was called Eastern Illustrating and Publishing, and throughout the first quarter of the 20th century, Herman and his photographers, principally Horace Ellingwood, traveled across rural New England and New York and, without realizing it, compiled the most complete and compelling record of an era ever seen, a collection that approached 40,000 different compelling scenes.
Eastern Illustrating’s photo postcards of the many villages that make up South County were taken during the time period of about 1905 to about 1920. The images on these postcards can be dated by subtle differences in the cards’ design, both front and back. The very earliest, which can only be identified by the very typical location description and ID number handwritten on the front, were taken prior to 1910, probably by Cassens himself. The later cards, identified by the sometimes ornate trademark on the card back were taken by Ellingwood between 1913 and 1915. Finally, cards with a less ornate trademark on the reverse were done after 1915, again by Ellingwood.
As these men traveled on the backroads of the region in the company car (seen in the photo at left) they also acted as salesmen, visiting every little mom and pop corner store and market in each town, selling new cards and restocking the popular older scenes as they sold out. Back in Belfast, at the company plant, the job of developing, printing, cutting and packaging the cards fell to a small workforce made up mostly of Herman’s relations. In fact, it was Herman’s sister, Lottie, and his two daughters, Geraldine and Dorothy, who hand-titled and numbered each negative plate, in reverse and from right to left, so it would show properly when printed. At Eastern Illustrating’s peak, upwards of one million cards per year, retailing at two to five cents apiece, were created.
I’m always amazed by the clarity and composition of each of Cassens’ wonderful picture postcards. As I stare into them and wonder about the identity of an unknown passer-by who probably lingered a bit to watch Herman or Horace set up their camera and thereby inadvertently became a part of this unique historic record, I realize that this is as close as I’ll ever get to being a time traveler. Herman Cassens truly understood the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” He always claimed to be “the largest manufacturer of photo postcards in the U.S.” In doing so, he also, without realizing it, became New England’s most important preserver of history. Thank you, Herman.