“Where Hostilities Are Now In Progress”: Documents from the MHS WW1 Collection

By Pamela Ruth Outwin, MLIS, Brown Library Intern


By the first week of August of 1914, nearly all of continental Europe was embroiled in war. Russia and France had entered the conflict at the same time, with Russia crossing the border into Germany on August 1. Germany crossed into Luxembourg the next day in preparation for invading France, while Belgium desperately attempted to maintain its neutrality. Their resolution did not last long; within two days, Germany had declared war on Belgium as well, in order to secure their route into France. By August 7 the British military had been mobilized, and the first of the British Expeditionary Forces had landed on French soil.

European Map “Where Hostilities Are Now In Progress” ca. 1914
European Map “Where Hostilities Are Now In Progress” ca. 1914

Throughout June and July, King George V of England was in constant contact with his fellow sovereigns and leaders across Europe, searching for a way to keep his country out of the conflict. The last of the major European countries to join the fight, Britain had tried to act as a mediator between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their closest neighbors in Continental Europe. However, once the threat of violence and the reality of formal war crept towards the borders of Britain, the country was swift to join the action. Word of mouth was not sufficient for instructing the population as to why they had joined a greater conflict, especially with a large amount of pro-German propaganda being printed and distributed on a regular basis. As such, both the British Government and private individuals took advantage of the vast printing and publishing resources available to them to produce material that was used not only by British citizens throughout the course of the war, but sent to the United States in an effort to sway public opinion.

“Great Britain’s Reasons For Going To War.” Sir Gilbert, box 1.
“Great Britain’s Reasons For Going To War.” Sir Gilbert, box 1.

Britain’s entry into the war was not confined to the citizens of the British Isles; the entire Empire came with them. Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand, and all the other protectorates were encouraged to send men, munitions, and any materials they could spare as soon as possible. Australia and Canada, in particular, would have a great deal of influence on the progress of the war, particularly in Turkey and France. Astoundingly, many of the nations of Europe were enthusiastic about entering into combat, certain of their own country’s victory. Most though the war would be over in a matter of months, likely by Christmas or the New Year. That it would continue much longer, and claim many more lives than originally thought, would come as a terrible shock to all involved.

“Young Lions” Postcard, ca. 1914
“Young Lions” Postcard, ca. 1914

The Maine Historical Society’s Brown Research Library is currently in the process of preparing this collection of First World War documents for research, in time for the commemoration of the United States’ entry into the conflict. The collection materials cover the entire span of World War I, from works published at the very beginning that call it “The War of 1914” to documents produced at the end of the conflict that discuss the rebuilding of a devastated Europe.


This is the second article in a series about this collection. The first article can be found here: Assassinations and Entanglements: Documents from the MHS First World War Collection.


NOTE: This collection is not yet available for research. For further information contact Jamie Kingman Rice, Director of Library Services at jrice@mainehistory.org.


The Eloquence of Physical Things

In a wide-ranging talk that moved from Longfellow and the importance of place, to Quaker diaries and John Mead Gould, to the historical riches of physical newspapers, author Nicholson Baker engaged and educated a capacity crowd last night at Maine Historical Society.

Baker’s talk, “Hold On: The Privilege of Keeping Old Things Safe,” echoed themes raised in his 2001 book, Double Fold, about the preservation of old newspapers and books, and the mechanisms, such as microfilm, that were being used to replace physical copies. The talk was the second of seven “Richard D’Abate Lectures: Conversations about History, Art, and Literature honoring the longtime MHS executive director, who is retiring this spring.

Baker’s topic is particularly relevant to MHS given both its mission to “preserve the history and heritage of Maine” by collecting and caring for the state’s historic treasures and the Society’s early embrace of the importance of digitizing historical collections via its online museum, Maine Memory Network.

Baker, who lives in Maine, opened by thanking D’Abate for introducing him more fully to the value of Longfellow’s poetry–which he never encountered as a young English major–and for showing him around MHS and the library when Baker was researching Double Fold. He only had a brief tour back then, but decided to return prior to his “Hold On” talk to look more deeply into the stacks. The items he discovered, with the help of library director, Nicholas Noyes, and D’Abate delighted him.

John Mead Gould, Portland, 1913

An interest in the Quakers pointed him first to two “A Line a Day” diaries kept by Hattie O. Cox in 1918 and 1945, images of which he showed to the audience. The small pages contain four entries from the same day of the year, across four years. D’Abate suggested that he also look at the unusual and meticulous diary of Joseph “Handkerchief” Moody, written completely in code.

Finally, Baker asked Noyes to pull out his favorite diary. Noyes brought him two diaries by Civil War Major John Mead Gould, as well as a book Gould wrote about the war. While Gould’s book and the diary he kept during the war itself is rich with battle details, it was the post-war diary of Gould’s daily life back home–covering everything from anxiety over the Spanish-American War to the author’s recovery from surgery–that most intrigued Baker.

“I felt I was reading an unpublished novel,” said Baker. “Paging through a diary, you have a shell over you that’s the shell of ‘today-ness,’ but it begins to slough away, and you enter” the author’s shell. “You are forced to slow down and think about a life that doesn’t have as many advocates”–as, say, a Longfellow, or another well-known individual.

While high-quality digital versions–such as what exists on Maine Memory–of the priceless artifacts are a great and useful invention, “physical things have an eloquence that copies don’t have,” said Baker.

Two pages from the New York World from the Sunday, June 3, 1900, edition. "The Bathing Girl of 1900" and "The Plunk Family" funnies.

It was this belief that led to his crusade to save newspapers that were being destroyed. In 1999, he and his wife founded the American Newspaper Repository and rented an old mill building in Rollingsford, New Hampshire, to purchase and store long runs of papers like the Chicago Tribune and Joseph Pulitzer’s 1860-1931 New York World, as well as ethnic newspapers such as the Irish World and the Yiddish-language New York Forward. That collection has since been donated to Duke University, which houses the newspapers in a state-of-the-art special collections facility.

The same pages on microfilm. (Courtesy American Newspaper Repository website.)

Baker showed the audience numerous slides of pages from Sunday editions of the Tribune and the World, many of them in vibrant color. He then compared several with images of their microfilmed versions. In many cases, the difference in both the illustrations and the text is stark. Part of the stories being captured–whether they are major headlines, advertisements, comics, special features, or charming oddities like paper dolls or dress patterns–and the sense of history as a living thing, is lost in the grainy, black-and-white versions.

These papers were “what people looked at on a given Sunday in the United States more than anything else, except maybe the Bible,” said Baker. “There were once millions of copies of these papers in existence. Now there’s just one.”

A self-described lover of machines of all sorts, including electronics, Baker is no Luddite. He just wants us to remember the importance of the real, physical thing that has weight and shape and texture and came from a specific place and time. “Microfilm and digital versions are a good beginning” to preservation, he said, “but they are not a replacement. We always need to keep the original.”

Preserving the Real: Nicholson Baker to Speak at MHS

Acclaimed author Nicholson Baker will present a talk at Maine Historical Society on Thursday, March 15, at 7pm that explores the importance of preserving real, physical things in a world that has gone digital. This lecture is part of “The Richard D’Abate Lectures: Conversations about History, Art, and Literature,” a public program series that explores the connections between literature, art, and history.

Baker’s talk, entitled “Hold On: The Privilege of Keeping Old Things Safe,” revisits the intellectual underpinnings of Double Fold, his 2001 book about libraries, paper science, and lost history. In that book, Baker documented his efforts to save a large collection of beautiful and exceptionally rare newspaper volumes, which were being scrapped in favor of microfilmed replacements. Baker’s forceful case served as a seeming coda to the era of print, a beachhead for those who believed in the lastingness of paper, and presaged issues and arguments that historical societies, libraries, and other collecting organizations face in the digital age. Why, we are asked, do we need to keep all this ephemeral stuff now that it can be digitized?

Baker’s talk at MHS will revisit the intellectual underpinnings of his newspaper crusade, share tales of research recently done in the MHS library, and remind us of the essentialness of real things.

Nicholson Baker is the author of The Mezzanine (1988), Human Smoke: The Beginnings of WW II, the End of Civilization (2008), The Anthologist (2009), and, most recently, House of Holes: A Book of Raunch (2011) among other works of fiction and nonfiction.

This program series honors Richard D’Abate who will retire as Executive Director of Maine Historical Society in May after sixteen years. Learn more by downloading “The Richard D’Abate Lectures: Conversations about History, Art, and Literature”. All programs will be held at Maine Historical Society at 489 Congress Street, Portland. Suggested donation: $10 (MHS members $5). This series is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Maine Humanities Council.

May Basket Full of Treasures in This Month’s e-Connection

May basket made by Sarah Owen of Cape Porpoise, ca. 1980. Owen made these for neighborhood children.

The old-time tradition of leaving treasure-filled baskets on doorknobs or doorsteps on the first of May is the subject of both “Stories from Maine Memory Network” and “From the Collections” in this month’s e-Connection. Among other things, learn how World War I-era Biddeford children earned themselves a party after initially being chased away during their May basket reverie.

Speaking of treasures, the newsletter also announces the first round of Community Mobilization Grants–the new Maine Memory Network (MMN) program made possible by funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Open up e-Connection and discover the nine organizations and communities who made the cut! Then hop on over to our “Living History” blog, which shares MMN project work, and read in detail about their plans.

A lush spot by the Longfellow Garden fountain.

May baskets should include something from the garden, and we’ve got that in spades in this month’s newsletter. On May 19, the annual Olmstead lecture focuses on “The Longfellow Gardens: The Evolution of Two Landmarks.” (Yes, there is another Longfellow Garden, here.)

Plus, the Longfellow House and Garden are now open to the public for the season. (At long last… it seemed like that winter would never end!) Check out the tour details and times and come on in.

We’ve even got a way to get you intimately involved with the Garden–right down into the dirt, in fact. May’s e-Connection features a call for volunteers to weed and prune this spring. Check out the details and the dates, and sign up to become one with the soil.

Rounding out the surprises “in store” for you: A seasonally-apt Portland Sea Dogs book coupon good in the museum shop or online.

So now that we’ve left this virtual basket full goodies on your electronic doorstep… won’t you open it? You’ll be glad you did!