Portland women’s history gets its own app

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PORTLAND — A digital guide that takes users on a meandering path to more than 100 women’s historic sites around the city is now available as a free app for smart phones.

Eileen Eagan, an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Maine for nearly 30 years, constructed the web-based Portland Women’s History Trail with her Women’s History class students.

The project was funded by a $10,000 grant from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund.

Creation of the digital trail was an inter-departmental effort through the university’s digital humanities interdisciplinary initiative, also known as Digital Maine. The project also had assistance from professors in several departments, including English, Art, Computer Science, Digital Humanities and Archeology. The project also included help from the Maine Historical Society and Maine College of Art.

Eagan helped draft pamphlets outlining locations on a women’s history walking trail about 20 years ago. But sharing the information with a large audience was difficult.

By digitizing the locations into a website and an app available on iOS and Android operating systems, accessibility to women’s roles in Portland’s history now knows no bounds, she said.

The app, designed by Stephen Houser of USM’s Digital Humanities Department, divides historic sites by neighborhoods and streets, including Munjoy Hill, State Street, the West End and Gorham’s Corner. Each site includes historical blurbs, pictures, maps, and the estimated time it takes to reach on foot.

“We wanted to make it more accessible and hope to reach people outside of Maine,” Eagan said. “We hope it can relate to cultural tourism.”

In determining which places to include, Eagan and her students sought input from older working-class women about what aspects of women’s history in the city are worth noting.

“You want it to be a people’s history, not just academic history,” she said.

The trail depicts a diverse female population from a range of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. And while it’s likely that many of the women didn’t mingle with each other socially, they are bonded by association and by hardships from being unequal in the eyes of men.

Many of the sites on the trail include residences where women were employed by wealthy families as housekeepers or tutors, including the Frederick Cobb family home that sits atop Munjoy Hill.

Cobb, a prolific railroad engineer, employed young Sarah Jane Foster as a housekeeper of sorts around the time of the Civil War, according to the app. Foster was a writer of poetry and prose, and later a teacher of freed slaves in the south, before she died in her 40s.

Other parts of the trail include sites of former factories that primarily employed women, some of which are still standing. The building that now houses Hub Furniture, at 291 Fore St., was once Curtis & Son’s Chewing Gum factory.

The factory operated for more than 50 years starting in the mid 19th century. Using spruce gum extracted from Maine trees, women packaged and flavored peppermint, pepsin and spruce-flavored gum for a national market, according to the app.

The majority of workers were women, yet men were paid at least twice as much for the same work.

“At the factory’s peak in 1907, between 90 and 115 young women earned between $3.50 and $6 a week for a workday that began at 7 a.m. and ended at 5:45 p.m.,” according to the app.

In the summer months, when women often left for jobs in seaside and mountain resorts, the factory provided an additional $1 as incentive to stay in Portland.

More modern sites on the trail include the Casco Bay Bridge, where more than 60 women worked on its construction in the mid 1990s.

At the time, the Maine Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration tried to increase the number of women working on the project by making it “woman friendly,” the app explains.

These efforts included “on-site child care, paid by a payroll deduction of 15 percent of wages for the first child and 7 1/2 percent for the second.” Women worked as welders, truck drivers, carpenters, operating engineers, heavy equipment mechanics and quality control technicians.

There’s also quite a bit of history about African American women.

The Alice Fisher family home still stands at 39 Lafayette St. Fisher and her extended family were prominent African American residents with Maine roots dating back seven generations. Fisher was a cook and lived in the house with her husband Joseph, and their 12 children.

Eagan said the hope is to continue adding to the trail, possibly including audio descriptions and links to primary documents affiliated with sites. There could also be a wider swath of history, including crime and punishment, and harbor life.

Eventually, Eagan said, she would like to see a digitized network of historical sites across southern Maine, and perhaps the entire state. An organized digital database of that size could be fitting for teachers to use in their classrooms, she noted.

For now, she’s just hoping at least some people find it interesting enough to download.

It’s incredible how many more people the trail can reach by making it an app, she said: “Oh, the wonderful world of digital.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

Eileen Eagan, associate professor at the University of Southern Maine, outside 6 Eastern Promenade in Portland, one of the stops on the Portland Women’s History Trail.

The free Portland Women’s History Trail app can be accessed through devices with iOS and Android operating systems.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.