by J Dennis Robinson
Portsmouth is unique. New Hampshire’s only seaport, soon to celebrate its 400th anniversary, blends charm and culture with vitality and commerce. In this series historian J.Dennis Robinson profiles people who influenced, honored, pictured, preserved, and promoted the historic architecture of “The Old Town by the Sea.”
By the turn of the 20th century, individual photographs of historic buildings in the Portsmouth area were being collected into souvenir “viewbooks” and penny postcards. The pictures, however, were often muddy, and cheaply reproduced. Caleb Stevens Gurney (1848 – 1924) raised the bar on photo books.
His hardcover book, Portsmouth Historic and Picturesque (1902), was a tour de force of the city’s architecture. His comprehensive coverage included 400 images on glossy paper. Gurney combined a written history of Portsmouth, borrowing from the works of Charles Brewster and Sarah Haven Foster. He combined 19th century photos taken by Lafayette Newell, the Davis Bros., and others with his own photos of most downtown buildings.
Caleb Gurney was a creative character in search of commercial success. Born in Hebron, Maine, Gurney was middle-aged before he began work at the Portsmouth Shoe Company as a shipping clerk in 1889.
While his wife, Laura, continued to hold down a manager’s job at the shoe factories in Kennebunk, Maine and later Portsmouth, Caleb pursued a freelance career in photographic “artwork.” In 1892, he formed the Acme Portrait Company at 8 Market St. He systematically photographed all key buildings and sites in the city and collected them into a single volume.
After publishing Historic and Picturesque, he opened the Gurney Ball Joint Umbrella Company at 74 Islington St. The company was successful enough to allow Gurney to retire to Boston. Caleb Gurney’s umbrellas are long forgotten, but his photographic tribute to Portsmouth remains a key visual guide for lovers of the city’s architectural history.
J. Dennis Robinson, is the author of a dozen history books including Mystery on the Isles of Shoals, available in local stores and online at Amazon.com. You can follow his history posts on Facebook here.