In Focus. Edward Henry Elwell

A pioneering editor, publisher, historian, and civic booster.

Edward H. Elwell ca. 1875. Maine Memory Network

It started with the picture above. It appears in the latest issue of the Maine Historical Societies Newsletter. Although not a household name by any means, Edward Henry Elwell holds a position of regard amongst Portland’s historical community. He was a founder of the society who regularly contributed scholarly papers and speeches to the members. In modern times, he’s probably best known for his publication “Portland and Vicinity” of 1876/81. His recent mention regards his work as a publisher and newspaper editor and his efforts to professionalize the field. I felt he deserved some of our time.

Edward Elwell ca 1890. Maine Memory Network.

Edward was born to Charles and Margaret Elwell in Portland in 1825. Charles was a mason and the family lived in a couple of locations on the peninsula, mostly on Winter Street, as Edward and his sister Margaret grew up. He was an early graduate of Westbrook Seminary. He then started working in the printing shops of the city and worked his way up thru the ranks. In 1845 Edward, along with Charles & Samuel Pickard, merged 2 small newspapers to create the ‘Portland Transcript’. This was a literary publication that included book excerpts and reviews, travelogues, poems and essays, letters from foreign correspondents, and more. The partners published the weekly until 1885.

Portland Transcript advertisement from the 1873 Portland City Directory. Author’s collection.

Edward married Sarah Polleys in 1852. Sarah was the daughter of a ship captain and had grown up on Pleasant Street. According to directories of the period, the newlyweds first lived with her parents. They had 3 children before purchasing a lot in Woodfords in 1857. Ella was born and died in 1853. Maribel was born in 1854 and Edward Jr in 1856. Edward purchased the lot for their home from Doctor Eliphalet Clark who was developing the area.

I abominate all houses that present their gable ends to the street , and I don ‘ t care who knows it . In the city , where men of moderate means can seldom command more than thirty or forty feet front , there may be a shadow of excuse for elongating the house , and thrusting it in end wise like a wedge . But when a man has a spacious lot , when he goes into the suburbs and buys himself a garden spot , and then proceeds to erect a slab – sided structure , presenting a narrow gable end to the road , with the rooms running off one behind the other , like a string of sausages , there can be no justification of such folly . An honest house should face the world , and not stand peeping over its shoulder .

Edward Elwell “On Building a House” from “Fraternity Papers. Published in 1886.

What Edward and Sarah built is a solid house that is 36′ on the street and 28′ deep. There is a 14′ x 16′ ell projecting from the center of the rear wall. The house is 2 full stories with a 3rd in the garret. The form overall is conservative. The details are restrained and mostly limited to the eaves where a small dentil molding caps the wall and simple brackets support a modestly projecting cornice line. The center windows on the 2nd floor are paired and capped with a pediment that matches the small pediment of the porch. Above, in a gabled dormer, is a Palladian window that is too narrow for its height but fits the space nicely.

The Elwell plot in Evergreen Cemetery.

The Elwell plot in Evergreen Cemetery is a busy space, what with Edward and Sarah, their 8 children, and Sarah’s parents as well. Sadly, the yews in front of the primary monument have overgrown the spot and are obscuring much of the etching. The 2 of the graves on the far left tell us a sad tale. Not long after the family moved to Deering, Ralph was born. In 1863 Katie followed. Then, in the fall of 1864, the Scarlet fever broke out in the neighborhood. On November 4, Katie, all of 17 months old, died of the fever. Then, not long after the mourning family had buried their baby girl, Ralph came down with the disease and succumbed on the 24th.  It was a very bleak Christmas in the Elwell house that year.

In 1865, Sarah gave birth to a boy named Walter. He was followed by Edward Jr in 1867 and Margaret in 1873. As Sarah’s parents and a domestic servant were living at 113 Pleasant Ave, it must have been a busy place. Maybe that’s why, in the spring of 1871, Edward sailed for Europe in the company of one Harrison Bird Brown. it was their Grand Tour. They arrived in Portrush on the north coast of Ireland. Nearby is the Giants Causeway which they visited and Brown sketched.

Giants Causeway image from

In England, they visited Chester where Elwell commented on the red stone used in the buildings and the great age of 12th century Chester Cathedral, part of which collapsed in the early 1880s. They visited the Lake District where the ever-curious Elwell noted the use of local slate as a building material and how it was laid “with the edges projecting from the mortar thus giving it the appearance of a pile of loose stones”.

Cap Stone house in the Lake District.

Once they reached South-East England, the traditional Grand Tour began with a crossing of the channel to Calais. If they spent any time other than travel in France, Edward didn’t note it. He did mention the chalets of Switzerland. Given his penchant for dramatic landscapes, it would seem likely that Brown would have wanted to tarry a bit in the Alps. Once in Italy, they hit the big spots. Lake Maggiore and Venice would be later painted by Brown. Elwell commented on the slipshod construction of the additions to a medieval monastery to create the hotel in which they stayed in Stresa on the east shore on Maggiore.

Venice, The Campanile, The Ducal Palace And The Piazzetta, View From San Giorgio. HB Brown ca: 1876. American Gallery

After leaving Lake Maggiore, the partners made their way to Florence for an extended stay. As to be expected, they hit some of the high points such as the Academy of Fine Arts, and the Boboli. Elwell noted the quality of the light in Tuscany in July, along with the heat.

It strikes through one like a lance. No wonder the Florentines made their streets narrow , and built their houses high. They afford a grateful shade, as striking in its coolness as is the sunshine in its fervor . We crept through the narrow streets in the shadow of the buildings, and when we encountered an open square a- flood with dazzling light and heat, to cross it was like advancing on a battery under a hot fire. The Italians have a saying that only dogs and Englishmen walk in the sunshine. I thought that counted us in .

The Annunciation. Fra Angelico ca: 1440. Church of San Marco, Florence. Wikimedia commons

The real goal in Florence for Brown, and somewhat less for Elwell, was the Dominican Convent of San Marco. There were, and still are, the fresco works of the friar Guido di Pietro, better known as Fra Angelico. His works have long been seen as some of the great masterpieces of the Renaissance. The convent had been converted to a museum in 1868 in an attempt to deal with the tourists coming to see the works of the painter who worked only for the church.

Fra Angelico: The Annunciation.

San Marco was later the home of another well-known monk although he is probably better known for his attempts to destroy, not create, art. That would be Girolamo Savonarola. Much has been written about the monk and his rapid rise and fall.  He seems to have been something of a tragic character in Elwell’s eyes. In modern times, the monk is best known for the ‘bonfires of the vanities’ and much less so for his powerful and prophetic sermons. To Elwell, the latter was much more important.

Neither is Florence the same. Spellbound under the sway of Lorenzo de Medici, it has lost at once its freedom and its religion. It is as near a pagan city as it is possible for its rulers to make it. Society was never more dissolute, more selfish, or utterly deprived of high aims, than now, full of debauchery, corruption, cruelty, the violation of oaths, the betraying of trusts, caring for nothing but pleasure. Is it any wonder that Savonarola — he who has ever a burning indignation at the sight of wrong, who has a fervent belief in an unseen justice that will put an end to the wrong – is it any wonder that his ardent, powerful nature is stirred to its utmost depths, that he thunders from the pulpit and announces that the wicked shall be scourged.

Powerful stuff. And there was much much more. Elwell devoted some 20+ pages of a 300-page book to the ‘defense’ of Savonarola ending with:

His reign in Florence was of too high purpose to be of long continuance, but so long as it lasted, immorality and luxury were out of fashion, the vileness which calls itself pleasure was paralyzed, and immodesty and impurity scared into corners out of sight.

The ruins of Pompeii. Kahn Academy

After Florence, Elwell and Brown moved south. They must have passed through Rome but it did not spark Elwell to note anything in the ‘Eternal City’. They made their way to Naples and Pompeii. Excavations at Pompeii had been ongoing for over a century by the time our pair arrived in 1872. They would have had to pay an entrance fee in what is believed to be one of the earliest cases of financing ongoing archaeological work from tourism revenue. Brown may have sketched there but Elwell certainly took many notes, and perhaps some ‘souvenirs’ as we shall see.

Note on Elwell and Birds’ return from Europe. Portland Daily Press, September 26, 1871. Library of Congress

By late September the pair of adventurers were back in Portland. Brown, with full sketchbooks in hand, returned to Danforth Street where he lived and had his studio. Edward went back to editing and publishing the Transcript but he obviously spent the winter compiling his notes and thoughts. On Thursday, April 4, 1872, he gave a presentation on Pompeii in the vestry of the Woodfords Congregational Church. The proceeds of which went to the church fund. A note in the Advertiser stated

“The lecture will be illustrated by a large diagram of the partially uncovered city, and articles of domestic use and personal adornment, found in the city. Mr. Elwell’s habits of observation and happy faculty of imparting to others the knowledge he has gained, is a guaranty that the lecture will be one of unusual interest.”

These were the days before it was unacceptable to take your own ‘piece of Pompeii’ home with you. Not so true today thankfully. At the same time as Elwell gave his first presentation, Harry Brown showed his paintings of the Giant’s Causeway and a scene on the Isle of Wight at Schumacher’s Art store on Middle Street. Edward started giving his presentation to other groups and at other venues. In May he spoke at Portland City Hall. In December it was to the members of the Ferry Village Association in Cape Elizabeth, now South Portland. He found some success and was asked to speak at various events on various subjects. One was the dedication of “Beckett’s Castle” on the shore of Cape Elizabeth in 1874. Edward and Sylvester Beckett were long time friends and business associates. Elwell also became a founder of the Fraternity Club which was formed in late 1873 for the “general purpose of good fellowship through the interchange of ideas”.

Beckett’s Castle on the Cape Elizabeth Shore ca: 1880. Maine Memory Network

Starting in 1875, Edward took up writing books along with his work at the Transcript. His first publication was “Successful Business Houses of Portland” in that year. In 1876, he published “Portland and Vicinity”. It was a travel guide, civic booster, who’s who, and historical almanac all blended into one. The travel guide section is divided into walks through various parts of the city such as Market, now Monument, Square to the Eastern Promenade and one to the Western Promenade. Trips to Old Orchard, the Cape Elizabeth Shore, and Prout’s Neck in Scarborough, Mount Washington, and the White Mountains were included. For the modern historian, Elwell’s description of scenes along these walks through the city are a snapshot of a lost era and are pleasantly interjected with the author’s memories of growing up in the city. He revised and reprinted the book in 1881.

1878 saw the publication of “Aroostook: with some account of the excursions thither of the editors of Maine, in the years 1858 and 1878, and of the colony of Swedes, settled in the town of New Sweden” highlighting the settlement championed by Portland’s native son William Widgery Thomas Jr. This was followed in 1880 with “Portland Schools”.

The Boys of Thirty Five cover. Author’s collection

In 1884 “The Boys of Thirty Five” was released. This was a semi-fictional account of life in “Landsport” during the era when Edward was growing up. It’s an interesting book. He makes some odd name changes such as Portland to Landsport and Westbrook to Eastbrook and changes some, but not all, people’s names. He also creates a street out of whole cloth called “Liberty” that would appear to be Exchange Street but that street is included in its own right. The language used is an effected ‘old’ vernacular that was scoffed at by a contemporary reviewer. But, there are glimpses of city life in the ‘pre-steam’ era and for that, it is worth a read.

Along with his writing and publishing of books, Edward continued to write scholarly articles and speak to groups throughout the state. He was a regular contributor at meetings of the Maine Historical Society, The Fraternity Club, and the Maine Charitable Mechanics Association. In 1886 he published his last book, “Fraternity Papers”. This was a compilation of various topics he had spoken to the eponymous society on. They included:

  • “What We Stumbled Upon One Day In Florence”
  • “The Building Of The House”
  • “Conversation”
  • “Dreams”
  • “The White Mountains”

Edward was part of a group that, in the late 1880s, started developing Great Diamond Island for cottages. He purchased a pair of lots on Sunset Avenue and there built a handsome cottage that was still in the family in 1924. I suspect the cottage was ‘architect-designed’ but the information and photos do not give enough detail to aid in discerning who.

Elwell Cottage on Great Diamond Island. Maine Memory Network.

By the late 1880s, chronic heart disease was slowing Edward down. It had lead to his selling his share of the publishing business in 1885. He still wrote and traveled but less often and he needed more rest afterwards. In June of 1890, he and other members of the Maine Press Association took an excursion to Machias. Edward did not return home alive. Heavily fatigued, he took a cottage in Bar Harbor to recover. Although he seemed to be getting better, Edward Henry Elwell died around 5 am on July 16, 1890.

Sara lived in the family house until her death from tuberculosis in 1905. The surviving children sold it that year.  Edward slipped into obscurity for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1975 when Greater Portland Landmarks reprinted the 1881 edition that Portland was reintroduced to his writings and his lifelong love and championing of his home city by the sea.

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