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Cache of Bicknell Memorabilia Discovered

by Michael Ivankovich

  Until recently, very little has been known about J. Carleton Bicknell, one of Portland, Maine’s most famous early 20th century photographers. Much of what little information we did have was obtained several years ago from Nancy Bicknell Stone, and was included in our latest book “Early Twentieth Century Hand-Painted Photography” (2005, Collector Books). A synopsis of what we reported there was that:

* John Carleton Bicknell was born on May 28, 1871.
* At the age 7 he nearly lost his life, and did lose his right arm, after falling out of a tree.
* At various periods his Bicknell Mfg. Co. was located at 16 Pitt St. and 231 Middle St., both in Portland ME
* He had a brother, Edward Alton Bicknell, who owned and operated the Bicknell Photo Service in Portland, but the two apparently had a falling out and rarely spoke again.
* We had no idea about when he died, or anything else about his business.
   Years ago another source, Gary Bicknell, who described himself as the great grand-nephew of J. Carleton Bicknell, confirmed that Carleton had indeed lost one of his arms earlier in life. We talked about the difficulties that must have faced an early 20th century photographer with one arm. Imagine driving an old pick-up truck, without power steering, while simultaneously steering and shifting the truck’s manual transmission stick shift, with only one arm. Imagine traveling into the back country carrying a bulky camera and tripod, and a box of heavy glass plate negatives, and other assorted photographic equipment, all with only one arm. Imagine loading and unloading fragile glass plate negatives, from an unstable tripod camera, all with only one arm. Talk about a major impediment to an early 20th century photographic career.
   Yet in over 30 years of collecting hand-painted photography, we had found very little other information on J. Carleton Bicknell. We had never even seen a picture of him. Until now.
   A recently discovered cache of Bicknell memorabilia has recently come forth which sheds some significant information on J. Carleton Bicknell and the Bicknell Picture Co. And this memorabilia has been consigned to our November 11th-12th Auction where more than 1000 individual Bicknell items  will be sold in its entirety in approximately 50 separate lots. But before we sell it, let us share with you what new information we have learned about John Carleton Bicknell and the Bicknell Picture Co.
   Actually “how” this information came to market is quite interesting.
  Apparently Carleton and Alice had one child, a son named John Alfred Bicknell (hereafter called Alfred) No evidence has come forward that Carleton had any other children. After closing the 16 Pitt Street Studio somewhere around 1956, Alfred moved to 99 Tolman Street in Westbrook, Maine where he continued to operate the Bicknell Mfg. Co. on a relatively limited basis. He entered a nursing home circa 2004 and  apparently died in February, 2005. Our consignor’s in-laws lived next door to Alfred. They purchased Alfred’s home in 2004 and the deed stated that everything left in the house went with the house. And in the basement were the final “remains” of the Bicknell Mfg. Co.
   Based upon the “History and Genealogy of the Bicknell Family and Some Collateral Lines of Normandy, Great Britain, and America”, which was published by Thomas Williams Bicknell (Editor and Publisher) in 1913, we know that:
* John Carleton Bicknell, son of John R. and Mary (Moulton) Bicknell, was born in Madison Maine on May 28, 1871.
* On August 16, 1899 John Carleton Bicknell married Alice H. Coffin of South Beddington, Maine. Alice was the daughter of Augustus and Ruth Coffin.
* Together they had one child, John Alfred Bicknell, who was born on July 1, 1910 in Portland, Maine.
* The Genealogy also tells us that: “At the age of seven John Carleton came near losing his life by the felling of a tree, which cost him his right arm. His business education was gained at Skowhegan High School (Skowhegan ME), Somerset Academy (Athens ME), and Shaw’s Business College (Portland ME). He was first an accountant, and later established the Bicknell Mfg. Co. of Portland ME, in which he and his brother Edward have won merited success as honorable and reliable business men. His home is in Portland, ME”.
   In a letter to Howard Dunning of Grant’s Kennebago Camps in Oquossoc ME dated July 21, 1956, Alfred states “Since hearing from you, my father has passed away and I have moved the business to the above address (99 Tolman Street). This would suggest that J. Carleton Bicknell lived from 1871-1956, and was approximately 85 years old when he died.

The Start of the Bicknell Picture Co.

   To the best of our knowledge, no one has ever been able to determine when or how long Carleton was in the photography business. The Bicknell Genealogy states that J. Carleton started the “Bicknell Mfg. Co.” with his brother Edward, but no starting date was given.
   Upon inspection of the actual Bicknell Stock Certificate book, we see that Carleton’s business was actually called the “Bicknell Picture Co” and not the “Bicknell Mfg. Co.”. Stock Certificate No. 1 was issued to J. Carleton Bicknell on April 2, 1902 for 100 shares. This would confirm that Bicknell’s photographic business started circa 1902.
   A copy of “The Messenger” (a Bicknell Mfg. Co. salesman’s catalog) dated January 1909 includes a New Year Greeting from “J.C. Bicknell, Treas.” The Messenger also includes a photograph of each of the company’s three salesmen, who included Fred M. Johnson, Grant Winchell, and Edward A. Bicknell.  This confirms that as of 1909, Carleton was the company Treasurer, and his brother Edward Alton was a company salesman. But no mention is made of who served as company President. And since the Genealogy mentioned above was published in 1913, it would appear that Carleton and Edward Alton must have had their falling out sometime after 1913, at which time Edward went on to establish the Bicknell Photo Service.
   We also have seen that between 1943-1950, Carleton and Alice Bicknell transferred most of their shares to Alfred, presumably turning control of the company over to him around this time. Over the years Alfred H. Whitmore, Mary A. Whitmore, Jason M. Farnsworth, Edward A. Bicknell, Perry Simmons, Madeleine F. Bicknell, Ada E. Doble, and J. Howard Shaw all owned a limited number of shares in the Bicknell Picture Co. The last new Stock Certificate was issued on April 8, 1952 when Stock Certificate No. 26 was issued to Ada E. Doble.
   And one other mystery also remains: Was the “Bicknell Picture Co” the same company as the “Bicknell Mfg. Co”? Most paper labels that we have seen on Bicknell’s hand-painted pictures refer to the “Bicknell Mfg. Co”. Yet the Stock Certificate book clearly reads “Bicknell Picture Co”. Was the “Bicknell Mfg. Co” the same company as “Bicknell Picture Co”, or did Carleton own a second company? Unfortunately, we haven’t resolved this question.

The Scope of the Bicknell Picture Co.

   The Golden Age of Hand-Painted Photography was 1900-1940. And with Carleton’s business starting in 1902, we can see that he was a part of the hand-painted photography craze at its inception. And with his studio located in Portland, he just happened to be working in one of the hotbeds of early 20th century hand-painted photography. Yet, although the hand-painted photography craze slowly declined during the 1930’s depression, we see that the Bicknell Picture Co. stayed in business into the early 1960’s and beyond. And if the Bicknell’s weren’t selling hand-painted photographs, what were they selling?
   The vast majority of Bicknell pictures were taken in Maine, including Portland, Rangeley, Eustis, Bethel, and many other areas. He also took pictures in New Hampshire (North Conway, Franconia Notch), Vermont, and several other states. Hundreds of different Bicknell images were used as Postcards, and many carried the Bicknell Mfg. Co. imprint on the back of the cards. Bicknell pictures also appeared on Calendars, Address Books, Greeting Cards, various Advertising pieces, and many other oddities.
   Private commissions from Maine businesses also represented a sizeable portion of the business. Carleton and Alfred often took the photographs at the direction of a specific business. And often times private businesses would take their own pictures, and then send them to the Bicknells with instructions to turn them into postcards for re-sale in their business. Correspondence in this memorabilia lot indicate that certain customers had repeat orders year-after-year to prepare for the upcoming tourist season.
 This lot includes correspondence from such businesses as The Birches on Moosehead Lake (Rockwood ME), King and Bartlett Lake Camps (Eustis ME), and the Chinook Kennels (Wonalancet NH), all of who provided the Bicknells with  postcard and calendar work. We even found pictures in this lot of the famous Von Trapp Family of  “The Sound of Music” fame.
Ed. Note: Michael Ivankovich’s next Auction will be held on Friday, November 11th and Saturday, November 12th at the Alderfer Auction Center in Hatfield PA. In addition to the 60+ Bicknell Lots, this Auction will featured 350+ Wallace Nutting Pictures; Wallace Nutting Furniture, 250+ Nutting-type Hand-Painted Photographs (including many Portland and other Maine pictures); and a nice assortment of Early 20th century Prints (Gutmann, Parrish, Fox, O’Klein, etc), Early 20th century Pastels (Chandler, Glatthaar, etc), and assorted Works of Art on Paper. If you are unable to travel to Pennsylvania for this Auction, this sale will be featured on eBay Live Auctions. Ivankovich also accepts and encourages Absentee Bids. For further details contact the Michael Ivankovich Auction Co., PO Box 1536, Doylestown, PA 18901, (215)-345-6094, E-Mail:, or you can visit their Web Site: