- by Carol Standish
The remarkable collection of images which make up A Day's Work - A Sampler of Historic Maine Photographs (Tillbury House; 379pp; $35.00pb; $55.00hc) annotated and compiled by W. H. Bunting, covers both rural and city life in the state of Maine between 1860 and 1920. Because photography came into general use in the late nineteenth century, that historic period is the first to leave a photographic record. As Bunting says in his introduction, "drawings and paintings can be powerfully evocative, but few seize our attention or provide information quite the way a good photograph does…there is no substitute for looking at a real person face to face, dead or alive."
As an amateur economic historian, Bunting’s stated goal in compiling this book is to "engage the curiosity of the general public." He has certainly succeeded. His selection of two-hundred and twenty-five antique photographs of work activities from all over the state is nothing short of riveting. All manner of crafts, trades, and general laboring activity which contributed to the collective economy of the region are depicted. Photographs of men logging, cutting granite, mowing, loading coasters, building schooners, carving quarter-boards, assembling cast iron stoves; women "hootchie-cootchie" dancing, sorting sardines, spinning, sewing shirts, posing on passenger steamers, provide sharp-eyed glimpses into the past. Broad panoramas of Belfast, Calais, Castine and other harbor towns in the 1880s are accompanied by meticulously researched descriptions of the scene, building by building in some cases.
In fact, Bunting provides comments, anecdotes and explanations for each photograph on the facing pages. His writing style is casual and conversational, capturing the feeling of a personal letter. The reader is never left to wonder what in the world the scene depicts but also never feels lectured. In providing just the right amount of background information, Bunting hopes his effort will be enjoyed by "grazing" readers, that the book will offer "an experience akin to wandering the open stacks of a library, sampling odd little volumes, and finding unexpected items of interest…" (which sounds a lot like surfing the net). The low-key approach to the presentation of economic history is painless and absorbing. Photographic images grab the "grazing" reader and the scene specific annotation stuffs him/her full of historic fact and detail without so much as a twinge.
Since the compiler’s self-admitted bias is toward marine topics, coastal activities are heavily represented in a wide array, both various and detailed. Nineteenth century ship portraits, under sail, in dry-dock, from the deck; sail, steam, and muscle powered; famous, infamous, and unknown; under way, under water, and on their sides, victims of bizarre accidents, comprise a major portion of the photographic collection. From sardine carriers, "carroways," to the Kennebec, a handsome 265 foot passenger steamer, which plied the Kennebec River between Popham and Gardiner, the state’s rich maritime history is chronicled in the sharp and intimate detail that old black and white photographs seem to do better even than the modern digital miracles.
Neither a frivolous coffee table book nor a dry history, A Days Work will make a gift of long-lasting pleasure for anyone who loves the State of Maine. This pictorial treasure is as much a page turner as any mystery but infinitely more sustaining. The book has the added appeal (and virtue) of being published by Tillbury House of Gardiner, Maine. Support your local bookstore and your local publisher this holiday season!
W. H. Bunting is the author of two other works Portrait of a Port: Boston 1852-1914 and Steamers, Schooners, Cutters, and Sloops. He plans a second volume to accompany A Day’s Work.