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Fogler Feature: Customs Registers as Biographical Documents

This is the second post in a new series highlighting the research materials available at the University of Maine. This semester Khronikos will be highlighting some of the collections held in Fogler Library’s Special Collections. Established in 1970, the Special Collections Department is a repository for Maine related material, including manuscript collections, newspapers, books, pamphlets, state documents, and other forms of printed material covering Maine’s cities, towns, counties, people, and institutions. Material pertaining to broader subject matters, such as marine history, may also be located in Special Collections.

Joseph R. Miller, Ph.D. Student, University of Maine

Custom House and Post Office, Castine, Maine c. 1910, Postcard.

Custom House and Post Office, Castine, Maine c. 1910, Postcard.

The records of Customs Houses in the United States have been consistently used in material-grounded social histories and are a staple of maritime history. They have a great deal of potential for cultural histories of foodways and consumer economies because they not only catalogue the products imported to a city but often do so in very local context. The registers of major Custom Houses like in Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Charleston can capture a more general sense of imports into the United States while the two registers of the Castine Customs House in Fogler Library Special Collections provided a much more local context for products in Maine. Scholars in social and maritime history have employed these registers as an important part of their research methodologies. Ignoring this already established used for custom house records, this post will focus on how a biographer, one specifically concerned veterans’ issues and disability studies, can use the registers as the sole record of an individuals life, using a similar methodology as the one described in a previous post, Manuscript Cookbooks as Autobiographies.

United States Custom House (Castine, Me.), Account of fees collected in the district of Castine 1886-1891. Special Collections, Fogler Library, University of Maine. Orono, Maine.

United States Custom House (Castine, Me.)

One of the two registers of the Castine Custom-House included in Fogler’s Special Collections is the register of Deputy Collector Frank F. Smith. Any studying of a name Frank Smith is problematic but it is fairly safe to assume that this collector was a Frank F. Smith listed in other records, including census records, death records, marriage records and military records; as born in 1852 and died in 1907.  Frank served as a very young, but not out of sorts, private in the First Maine Calvary during the Civil War[1]. He drew no pension and the 1900 census recorded him as a successful head of a house in Bucksport Maine, married to Cora H. Smith with a daughter, Celia.[2] The census records reveal that Cora’s father was disabled and Frank married into the family during hard times.[3] The Customs Service was known to accept respected men who had become failures, however, it seems that based on local Bucksport Maine records that Frank F. Smith might have drawn his position to support his new family after the death of Cora’s father, Joshua Hill. Frank Smith would use the skills he gained as a Customs official to work as a grocer and serve as selectman and treasurer.

United States Custom House (Castine, Me.)

United States Custom House (Castine, Me.)

The most striking thing about the Frank Smith’s register was how few days included more than one inspection or filling out a bureaucratic form, and the several occasions of month long lapses in work. In a record dating from 12 July 1894 to 12 June 1897, Smith filled out a hundred and twenty-six Master’s Oaths and eleven Bond License of Enrolled Vessel forms. There are a total of seven month long gaps and roughly twenty ten day gaps in his records, which because of inconsistencies cannot be attributed to trade patterns. It is clear that Frank F. Smith’s labors were not arduous. The spoils system is often attached to these light or no work jobs, and this is certainly true at the higher levels, but this ignores the fact that customs was the United States’ chief revenue generator. Furthermore, while these jobs were easy they were also very necessary.[4] There was a practice of hiring politically connected figures to essentially no show jobs, but Frank Smith’s register also illustrates how useful these jobs were for families that required more support from the husband to manage the home. It is important to realize that the Custom service was a both a den of corruption and place where men fallen on difficult times could restart their lives. This aspect of work in Customs Houses has been understudied and lives like Frank F. Smith’s unlock some of the very important ways that the United States helped respectable men in hard times and in this one case a husband supporting a troubled family. Franks’ role as deputy Collector of Customs was a job that not only helped him support his family, but that also carried his gained skills into running a grocery, the town of Bucksport, and the local treasury, and represents the very best parts of what the light duty of a job in Customs could do for a man fallen on hard times.

For more information about the United States Custom House records, please contact the staff at Fogler Library’s Special Collections.
Joseph R. Miller, “Fogler Feature: Customs Records as Biographical Documents,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), February 26, 2014, http://khronikos.com/2014/02/26/fogler-feature-customs-registers-as-biographical-documents/.

United States Custom House (Castine, Me.), Account of fees collected in the district of Castine 1886-1891. Special Collections, Fogler Library, University of Maine. Orono, Maine.

[1]National Park Service. U.S. Civil War Soldiers, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007.

[2]1900: Census Place: Bucksport, Hancock, Maine; Roll: 592; Page: 14B; Enumeration District: 0044; FHL Microfilm: 1240592

[3]Year: 1880; Census Place: Bucksport, Hancock, Maine; Roll: 480; Family History Film: 1254480; Page: 33C; Enumeration District: 138; Image: 0067. It is interesting because Frank and a very unique F in his signature and it links him to Cora in her death certificate. http://interactive.ancestrylibrary.com/1962/31515_204310-15038/1696058?backurl=http%3a%2f%2fsearch.ancestrylibrary.com%2fcgi-bin%2fsse.dll%3fdb%3dMaineDeathRe%26h%3d1696058%26indiv%3dtry%26o_vc%3dRecord%253aOtherRecord%26rhSource%3d70612&ssrc=&backlabel=ReturnRecord. Cora would die because of inuation, in 1902, (Inuation represents a broad range of illnesses relating to soreness that could be characterized from flue like symptoms, to mutilation, to deformity) and then you can follow Frank because of their daughter Celia, to his job as a grocer in 1900, and the first selectmen Tran Officer in 1910 and a treasurer in 1920. Year: 1900; Census Place: Bucksport, Hancock, Maine; Roll: 592; Page: 14B; Enumeration District: 0044; FHL microfilm: 1240592 Year: 1910; Census Place: Bucksport, Hancock, Maine; Roll: T624_540; Page: 5A; Enumeration District: 0054; FHL microfilm: 1374553. Year: 1920; Census Place: Bucksport, Hancock, Maine; Roll: T625_642; Page: 5B; Enumeration District: 10; Image: 991.

[4]The more widely recognized Joshua Chamberlain would become the Portland Surveyor and traveled the country extensively during his tenure, although I would be hesitant to call this corruption rather than a common position for an old soldier to rest of his laurels. For a description of the Spoils System see National Park Services, John Frayler, “A Tangled Web,” Pickled Fish and Salted Provisions: Historical Musings from Salem Maritime NHS, Vol. 4, Number 5 (AUG 2004), 2-7

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