Special Collections Bears a Hand: Caring for Captain Adams’ Collection

Small Bricker - Edward H. Adams
Small Bricker – Edward H. Adams

The overarching function of Special Collections at Portsmouth Public Library has always persisted in the preservation, dissemination and accessibility of our local history holdings. In recent years, Special Collections has begun to shift to the preservation of the collections through digital formats and online exhibits to make these more widely available. There are currently several collections that have undergone digitization for this purpose. They are located on the library website under the Local History/Genealogy tab, and more than a few projects are in motion. If you visited Portsmouth Public Library during our maritime month this fall or have wandered into Special Collections over the past few months, you may have noticed some wonderful folk art carvings and ship models being worked with and displayed in these areas. These pieces are the work of Capt. Edward H. Adams.  They are part of the Edward Adams Collection, an assemblage of 175 of his models and carvings, previously housed at the Sheafe Warehouse, and are now cared for here at PPL on behalf of the City of Portsmouth Trustees of the Trust.

Female Goldeneye - Adams Collection
Male Bufflehead and Female Goldeneye – Adams Collection

The Captain was born Edward Hamlin Adams to Joseph and Olive Adams on October 22, 1860. Influenced by his artist mother, he began carving as a child, and started modelling his first scale gundalow in 1882. He completed it in 1886 and spent decades hauling freight and navigating the Piscataqua. Gundalows ruled the commercial Piscataqua region from the end of the seventeenth century primarily because of their construction, a “…barge-like shallow draft vessel with a short stump mast and lateen rig, which allowed it to pass under the river’s many low bridges.”[i] But as river work and the need for gundalows declined by the end of the nineteenth century, Adams returned to his family inn a step out his door on Adams’ Point in Durham. Adams never stopped carving or building.

Labeled Whaler/Schooner - Adams Collection
Labeled Whaler/Schooner – Adams Collection

He completed his last gundalow, the Driftwood, in the fall of 1950, with his son and business partner Edward Cass Adams. He passed away soon after, on April 9, 1951.[ii] Between Adams’ earliest carvings and those completed by Cass after his death, more than ninety years of animal and fish carvings, ship models and other folk art are represented; each of which offer singularly unique interactions with the region’s environmental and maritime past. Additional pieces of the Captain’s legacy exist in local institutions and include artifacts and holdings at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, the Portsmouth Historical Society, and the Durham Historic Association Museum. Further holdings also range from the Adams family papers located in the University of New Hampshire archives, to a stunning replica gundalow, inspired by and aptly named for the man himself, that sails today courtesy of the Portsmouth Gundalow Company. A complete list of these links and sources can be found below.

Red-headed Woodpecker - Edward H. Adams Collection
Red-headed Woodpecker – Edward H. Adams Collection

The responsibility of caring for this collection is a dual one. Certainly, stemming the tide of time through preservation and longevity for collection pieces is a chief priority. These challenges are being addressed in several ways. First, the pieces are being individually organized and inventoried with special attention paid to both long-term housing requirements, (i.e. size/weight/physical condition) and to the organization of the pieces, (i.e. chronological, thematically etc.) for the purposes of long-term tracking and physical access. Second, our mission is to bring these pieces of local history to our patrons and a broader public. Currently a limited number of pieces are being exhibited in the main lobby of the library and the hope is to continue revolving exhibitions to will allow varied pieces to be displayed at different times and to supplement other library programming.

signed 'Fish on Stand' - Adams Collection
signed ‘Fish on Stand’ – Adams Collection

For the purposes of digitization and the future accessibility of the collection online, the pieces are being individually photographed to an archival standard and being converted from raw images to both tiff and jpeg files to accommodate the needs of a larger online exhibit and/or the quality that an individual field of research may require. This photography also serves to improve the efficiency of visual access to the physical artifacts once they are individually wrapped, while minimizing the disturbance of surrounding pieces. The photographs undergo post-processing and archival storage in keeping with the highest possible standards we can accomplish in terms of quality control and longevity for the digitized images. For a more complete description of the standards we attempt to reach in digitization, check out the National Archives and Records current digitization strategies listed in the links below.

Eagle on flounder - Adams Collection
Eagle on Flounder – Adams Collection

The dual roles required to both maintain and preserve a physical collection alongside the creation of a digital one is a painstaking and purposeful process and it is one that is specific to the needs of each collection. In this case, the process for preserving and digitizing the Adams Collection is both driven and compounded by his beloved status in our regional history and the integrity of his contributions as a skilled gundalow captain, navigator and builder. For example, in 1936, a model of Adams’ Fanny M., the last working commercial gundalow on the Piscataqua, as well as two others were solicited by the WPA as part of the Historic American Merchant Marine Survey (1936-1937) and eventually became part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives for the purpose of “…document[ing] the design and technical evolution of vessel types significant in America’s commercial maritime history.”[iii]

Hummingbird - Adams Collection
Hummingbird – Adams Collection

The work of Capt. Adams remains relevant and sought after in any number of fields and venues, rendering the diversity of access to his work we are attempting necessary as well. Currently, about half of the Adams Collection has been photographed and rehoused.

Next time you visit PPL, take a glance at the aforementioned pieces on display in the main lobby of the library. If you have any questions related to specific pieces of the Adams’ Collection or any of our other projects, please feel free to stop into Special Collections or contact us anytime at 766-1725.


Portsmouth Public Library Digital Collections: http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/library/history.htm#northend

Portsmouth Athenaeum: Adams -gundalow model – http://athenaeum.pastperfect-online.com/34182cgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=5D7BEE43-1D3E-4F8C-80EB-719135442854;type=101; Listing of all Adams holdings: http://athenaeum.pastperfect-online.com/34182cgi/mweb.exe?request=keyword;keyword=edwardadams

The Gundalow Company: http://www.gundalow.org

The Gundalow Company – YouTube videos: Gundalow building time-lapse video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yq1TNagc3Bc , Gundalow Co. sailing video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOnHX36pPcs

Text sources available at Portsmouth Public Library:

Candee, Richard M. Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection . Portsmouth: Portsouth Marine Society, 2011.http://libcat.cityofportsmouth.com:80/record=b1297779~S11

Winslow III, Richard E. The Piscataqua Gundalow: Workhorse for a Tidal Basin Empire. Portsmouth: Portsmouth Marine Society, 1983.http://libcat.cityofportsmouth.com:80/record=b1078357~S11

Other Collections containing Adams’ holdings:

UNH Special Collection holdings:https://www.library.unh.edu/find/archives/collections/adams-family-papers-1731-1964

The Durham Historic Association Museum is open by appointment only and to date has not digitized its holdings. Contact information can be found at https://www.ci.durham.nh.us/community/come-visit-us-our-air-conditioned-museum

Information and Index of the Historic American Merchant Marine Survey Records ca. 1936-1937 at the Smithsonian Institute:http://amhistory.si.edu/archives/AC0240.pdf


[i] Candee, Richard M. Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection . Portsmouth: Portsouth Marine Society, 2011.

[ii] Winslow III, Richard E. The Pscataqua Gundalow: Workhorse for a Tidal Basin Empire. Portsmouth: Portsmouth Marine Society, 1983.

[iii] Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History. “Works Progress Administration: Historic American Merchant Marine Survey Records, 1936-1937.” Smithonian Institution Research Information System. 2012. http://siris-archives.si.edu/ipac20/ipac.jsp?uri=full=3100001~!140285!0 (accessed 2015).

Archival Standards and Examples:

Most Current National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Standards:http://www.archives.gov/digitization/strategy.html

Jointed turtle - Adams Collection
Jointed turtle – Adams Collection







Jessica Ross, Special Collections Assistant, has an MA in Public History. For questions regarding this post or recommendations for a future one, she can be reached at jjross@cityofportsmouth.com.

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