Portsmouth Marine Society Press History

Publishing books since 1982

by Peter E. Randall

The original Portsmouth Marine Society was chartered in 1808 as an organization of ship captains, officers, and owners who shared navigational and business information about domestic and foreign ports and provided some benefits to the families of members lost at sea. In those days of sail, most ships had individual owners, and once a captain left the local port with a cargo, he was on his own. Arriving at a distant port, the captain might have to navigate a poorly marked harbor, and then find a buyer for the cargo. He would negotiate a price, and then buy other goods to bring back to the home port or sail on to another place, where he might sell his cargo and then purchase more. Knowledge about other ports and knowing who to trust in selling or buying a cargo were crucial to a successful voyage.

Portsmouth captains would have relied on fellow Marine Society members for this vital information. Many ports had similar societies, perhaps the most famous being the one in Salem, Massachusetts, which became today’s Peabody Essex Museum. Usually
the members of a particular port shared their knowledge locally and not with members of other societies. When accurate charts eventually became available and sailing vessels were replaced with steam and diesel ships owned by large companies, the marine societies were no longer needed. By the end of the nineteenth century, the era of commercial sail was over. The membership of the Portsmouth society had dwindled to just a few old men, most of whom hadn’t been to sea in years. The remaining members dissolved the organization in 1895, leaving their records in the Portsmouth Athenæum.

By the 1970s, Joseph Sawtelle had developed an interest in Portsmouth’s maritime history. He knew about the Marine Research Society of Salem, Massachusetts, an organization that published twenty-three books of mostly Salem history in the 1920s and 1930s. Aware that Portsmouth had its own wealth of maritime history, Joe began to think about ways to research and preserve the historical record.

His idea became reality a few years later. In 1982 Joe offered me office space for my fledgling publishing company. Coincidently I began to work with Yvonne Smith, who was researching a biography of John Haley Bellamy, the famed wood-carver of Kittery. I talked with Joe about the book. Seemingly overnight, he and the late Joseph P. Copley developed a plan to reestablish the Portsmouth Marine Society as a nonprofit historical research organization.

For a number of years, Joe Copley was the face of the Portsmouth Athenæum. Originally with a hundred members, the Athenæum had a large library, a small budget, a tiny endowment, and only a part-time librarian. And Joe Copley. He was there most days taking care of the place and helping researchers. He knew where everything was, even if it wasn’t cataloged, and he knew that the certificate plates for the original Portsmouth Marine Society were tucked away there.

Joe Copley, who also bought and sold antiques, mostly to dealers, found a number of the items now in the Sawtelle Maritime Collection. Because the two Joes became close friends, Sawtelle undoubtedly told Copley about his publishing plans. Sawtelle had already published one book, Portsmouth’s Heyday in Shipbuilding, by a New Castle neighbor, Gertrude M. Pickett. The paperback book was poorly printed, and Joe wanted the new society’s publications to be quality produced in hard cover. A reprinted clothbound edition of the Pickett book was published later as number 28 in the series.

Copley, who came up with the idea and the name of the new organization, suggested that the old plates that had been used to print the original certificates could be used to reprint them, and the reprints could be sold to founding members to raise money
for publishing. Sawtelle liked that idea and he quickly sent out a promotional mailing to friends, Portsmouth Athenæum proprietors, and businesspeople. One hundred and sixty-six people responded, paying $135 for the unique certificate and becoming founders of the new Portsmouth Marine Society.

Sawtelle’s idea was that people were actually paying for research, and for their support they received a copy of the finished book. With me as a resident publisher and John Haley Bellamy, Carver of Eagles as the first book, the Portsmouth Marine Society was under way. Joe was the guiding force until his death, approving books to publish and, when funds ran short, providing financial support. It was thought that we could publish three books a year, but it was not possible to generate enough manuscripts. As time passed we learned that we could pay for each new book with its first sales and the continuing sales of previous volumes.

A few titles sold out quickly; others languished in storage. Because of the small print runs and the use of color plates in many titles, most of the books were produced at a loss. As Joe used to say, “We don’t sell books, we just publish them!” But we accomplished his goal of making the research available. He had hoped to surpass the twenty-three-volume output of the Marine Research Society.

Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection is volume 31 in the Portsmouth Marine Society series. The print run for most volumes in the series was a thousand copies, but a few runs were only five hundred copies and some were two thousand. Joe didn’t want to reprint sold-out books, believing that our responsibility was fulfilled with a first printing. Three days after Joe died, however, fire destroyed the Allard warehouse, where the society’s books were stored. The blaze took thousands of books, including nearly two thousand clothbound copies of the just-published history of the Albacore, many of Joe’s book on John Paul Jones, and a number of other titles. Fortunately many copies of several titles were in the Randall office. An insurance settlement was not adequate to reprint books as hardbound copies, but it was sufficient to reprint some of the lost titles as paperbacks and to bring back several previously out-of-print volumes.

As important as Joe was to the society, it could not have happened without the efforts of many authors who, for the love of research and history, were willing to work on manuscripts, sometimes for many years, for only token payments. We published eight books in the first four years, including two titles by Richard E. Winslow III and three by Ray Brighton, both of whom had been working on a number of manuscripts, some of which were ready to be published. Ray eventually wrote five books in the series, as has Winslow. Woodward Openo and John D. Bardwell each wrote two books. Joe compiled his own publication on John Paul Jones.

We strayed from our main subject occasionally, publishing books on Prescott Park, embroidery samplers, a trolley line, Tobias Lear, and the Treaty of Portsmouth. But nowhere else can a reader find as much information about Portsmouth’s naval shipyard, submarines, sailing ships, tugboats, lighthouses, privateers, whaling, and the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge.

Long after we are gone and forgotten, these books will remain a tribute to the foresight of Joe Sawtelle and a reminder of his appreciation for historical research and a community he loved.

Peter E. Randall – March 2011. Reprinted from Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection.

In 2012 the Portsmouth Marine Society officially merged with and into the Portsmouth Historical Society, as its new publishing arm, which hosted the Maritime Portsmouth exhibit in 2011, and then published Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology and Discovery on Smuttynose Island, in 2012 as an exhibit-related publication under this new institutional structure.

In 2013, Portsmouth Marine Society Press published a new book by Richard E. Winslow III, “A Race of Shipbuilders”: The Hanscoms of Eliot, Maine, publication number 33.

Today the Portsmouth Marine Society Press continues to publish high quality books, including art exhibition catalogues on American Eagle: John Haley Bellamy, (2015), American impressionistic painter from New Castle, NH, Edmund Tarbell (2016), Seacoast contemporary artist Wendy Turner (2016), Historic Portsmouth Furniture (2017), early 20th-century painter and talented student of Edmund Tarbell Gertrude Fiske (2018), and Seacoast NH and Maine history, including Lives of Consequence: Blacks in Early Kittery and Berwick (2017).

A list of all titles can be found HERE.