by Jack Martin, Reference Librarian
Ever wondered just what it is we keep in all those boxes? The answer is a lot more interesting than you probably imagined.
Truthfully the History Room’s collections cover a lot of ground— most of it related to genealogy & local notables of ages past. There are a few pieces though that would leave you saying “Really? We have that?”
(Of course, I think it’s all interesting, but I know that’s probably definitely just me).
Without further ado though, let’s get into the four most fascinating items in our collection, at least one of which is guaranteed to grab your interest.
Stepping into the History Room, one of the first things to catch your eye would probably be a tall lump of straw. Festooned with vibrant tissue paper flowers and shimmering strands of silver, calling it “hard to miss” would be an understatement.
It would take a closer look though before you realized that the heavily decorated lump is actually a hat.
If you’re wondering why such an unusual accessory is in the archives of quiet little Bath, Maine, then we have to go back more than 130 years and halfway around the globe.
In 1889 a Bath-built ship owned by the Sewall family was caught in a typhoon off the coast of Japan. As the ship began to sink, villagers from the nearby town of Shariki braved the wind and rain to rescue the ships crew.
Stories of heroism abounded. Fishermen tied themselves to rocks so they could walk out and pull the drowning sailors from the sea. Two youths ran over 40 miles to summon help from the provincial capital. A woman held a freezing crewman to her bare body attempting to save his life.
Four of the twenty-three crew members were ultimately saved, but all surely would have drowned if not for the efforts of the villagers.
Even after the sailors were nursed back to health and returned to the United States they maintained a close bond with the citizens of Shariki.
In 1994 Bath and Shariki entered into an official sister-city relationship, a relationship still maintained with the city of Tsugaru which absorbed Shariki in 2005.
Part of this relationship includes an annual student exchange program held every summer. During the 2004 exchange some of the visiting students presented the hat as a gift to the library, which is how it ultimately wound up in the History Room’s collections.
Aside from just being a lot to look at in its own right, the Shariki Hat is a particularly fun reminder that history doesn’t have to be static. A legacy is a living thing which can bright, colorful, and constantly evolving (and sometimes covered in hot pink flowers).
Did you know that Maine’s very first governor was from Bath? Well, technically he was born in Scarborough, but he lived most of his adult life in Bath.
Before becoming governor he was State Representative when Maine was still part of Massachusetts. And then during the War of 1812 he was made a Major General in charge of state militia forces in Maine.
Most importantly though, King played a vital role in making Maine Maine. Starting in 1813 he spent seven years lobbying for Maine’s independence from Massachusetts. As reward for his efforts he won the governorship in 1820 with over 95% of the vote.
Befitting a man of his prominence, King had a handsome mansion in town. Though it was later moved once, covered into a tavern, and finally torn down to build the Carlton Bridge in the 1920s, the house originally sat where the Custom House is now.
The house had a commanding view of the river and Bath’s downtown from where it sat on the hilltop. Around it King had an elaborate garden planted with flowers and ornamental shrubs, as well an orchard of fruit trees the governor was particularly proud of.
Inside the manor was decorated in the best way money could buy. There were high ceilings and a sweeping staircase led up to the second floor. Canopy beds with fine draperies stood in all the bedrooms, while the downstairs parlor featured impressive furniture and large mirrors imported from France.
Governor King was also known to be fabulous entertainer. Bath’s high society regularly graced his parlor for dinner and card parties. Reportedly King was especially fond of whist.
As such we can only guess at who all might have sat in the dining chair we have. Almost certainly the Governor himself and his wife would have graced it at one point or another. But who else might have occupied the seat for a game of cards or a glass of wine?
In the interest of preservation we unfortunately can’t let you add your own name to the list of noteworthy posteriors that have perched on the chair, but coming in to admire the craftsmanship from afar is really almost as good.
Now, everyone already knows about Mark Twain, right? Or at least we all have some hazy memory of reading Huckleberry Finn back in school. And most people have probably heard of The Innocents Abroad before.
As a quick refresher, The Innocents Abroad was a travelogue Twain wrote early in his career as a writer. The book covers the voyage of a ship— the Quaker City to be precise— in the Victorian era on a pleasure cruise of the Mediterranean and the Holy Land.
Interestingly, it’s believed that this trip was actually the first ever commercial tourist cruise in history.
With all that out of the way now, I’m pretty confident I can say almost no one has ever heard of Charles Duncan. Technically his proper title would really Captain Charles Duncan. What was he the captain of, exactly? Why, the Quaker City of course.
While all (good) ship captains keep a logbook detailing things like weather conditions and wind direction and longitudinal bearings, Captain Duncan when one step further and kept a personal diary while on the voyage.
Captain Duncan’s diary covers the whole of his experiences from the trip, as well as those of his wife and children who accompanied him. He wrote about everything from the grimy merchants of Gibraltar to meeting with a Russian Grand Duke in Sebastopol.
He also discussed life aboard the ship including a mock court trial the passengers held to entertain themselves.
There are also a significant number of references to Mark Twain himself, though Captain Duncan uses the author’s real name— Samuel Clemens. From these it seems the Captain’s impression of Twain was… not exactly a positive one.
And this went both ways. Several years after the Quaker City voyage Captain Duncan was serving as shipping commissioner in New York— responsible for hiring and paying sailors for the port. Duncan was accused of using his position to enrich himself and his family by hiring and then seriously overpaying his own sons.
When a New York Times reporter began looking into the issue, he interviewed Mark Twain who proceeded to absolutely roast Captain Duncan. Twain insulted everything from Duncan’s morality to his basic competence as a sailor.
If reading about the actual voyage of the Quaker City isn’t really thing, Captain Duncan’s journal is worth seeing just for all the deliciously messy drama.
This is probably the most traditional kind of archival item on this list, but don’t think that means it’s at all boring.
You’ve likely heard or read that Victorians were taken with all sort of bizarre fads at various points. These ranged from fairly benign activities, such as the then-new novelty of bike riding, to the truly bizarre, like drinking potions made of mummies.
One of the more whimsical activities people were taken with for a time was ballooning.
Of course nowadays riding in a hot air balloon seems fairly quaint— possibly a good idea for a unique date night— but in the middle of the 19th century it was practically a revolution.
Imagine the world before airplanes and helicopters, when air travel was still considered science fiction and the only way to see something from high-up was to climb a ladder. Of course there were also no satellites, which meant no Google Maps either.
Bearing all that in mind you can begin to understand why hot air balloons were such a sensation. It was really the first time people were able to see the world from above.
Aside from recreational activities or the odd 80-day circumnavigation of the globe this technology also opened up new possibilities to map makers. Suddenly they could depict cities not just as plain, 2D street layouts with a handful of supplemental illustrations, but really capture the look of a skyline and render every building three dimensionally.
It became a sort of craze where every truly fashionable city was clamoring to have a birdseye map made from a hot air balloon and cartographers opened special practices to handle the sheer volume of requests.
In the 1870s Bath was beginning to emerge as a localized industrial center as Bath Iron Works was established and ship building continued to expand. Or at least that’s how they wanted to present themselves in the birdseye map the city had done.
The map shows a river full of steamships and schooners. There are factories belching smoke from their smokestacks. A locomotive can be seen chugging along the tracks coming into town. There are ships at the end of every pier and on the ways at every shipyard.
Is this an idealized version of the city? Absolutely. But while some artistic liberties were taken in order to show the city firing on all cylinders, the level of realistic detail is something to behold.
Almost the whole of the city from Weeks Street in the south to Winship in the north is shown and every house is depicted accurately from the style of the roof to the number of windows.
If you happen to live in one of Bath’s many old homes it can be a fun game to see if you can spot your house. Even if you don’t though, whether your house is newer or because you’re just passing through on visit, it’s fascinating to see the city as it looked in 1878.
Which one was your favorite?
I hope this post brought to your attention some of the fascinating (and some of the rather odd) items the History Room has in our collections.
Which one are you going to come see first? Leave us a comment a let us know.
If you have any questions about any of the items discussed here (or any entirely unrelated questions on Bath history for that matter) please email as at firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call at (207) 443-5141 x 18.