Throwback Thursday: 142 Free Street and John Calvin Stevens

Today’s Throwback Thursday post is going to throw you way, way back. Today, we’re taking a look not at the goings on inside but the outside of the museum.

Did you know that the Museum & Theatre’s current residence is an historic building? Believe it or not, this building is 185 years old! And it’s more tied into other structures in Portland than you may know.

142 Free Street was originally the home to a theatre, erected in 1830. Six years later, the building became the Free Street Baptist Church, and remained a church for nearly a century before being renovated in 1926 by local architect John Calvin Stevens.

Stevens worked primarily in the Shingle style and Colonial Revival style, and designed hundreds of homes, churches, libraries and other buildings throughout Maine.  Stevens and his son and building partner, John Howard Stevens, restored the building in 1926 in the Greek Revival style when it became the Portland Chamber of Commerce. When you walk by our building, you’re sure to notice the ancient Greek-inspired ionic columns, symmetrical facade, and aligned multi-paned windows around the central front door, indicative of the Greek Revival style. In the early 1990s, the Chamber of Commerce building became our home, and opened as the Children’s Museum of Maine in 1993.

If you take a walk through Portland, chances are you’ve passed a building that Stevens either designed or altered without even knowing it, such as the L.D.M. Sweat Memorial Galleries belonging to our neighbors, the Portland Museum of Art, or the Gothic tower on the State Street church. Stevens’ own 1884 home is still standing in the West End.

The front of our building from Free Street: check out those columns!
The front of our building from Free Street: check out those columns!

Several great local artists and artisans have left their mark on this building… we’ve talked about some of them, but others will be highlighted in other TBT posts soon! Next time you visit, take a look at our giant windows, and look through the Camera Obscura at the streets around us – there’s history on all sides of us, and it’s nice to be a part of it!

Throwback Thursday: We Are Maine Opening 2006

We’ve seen lots of changes to our We Are Maine exhibit since its opening in May of 2006. Today we’re flashing back to 2005, when we were first awarded grants to begin work on the big second floor exhibit, which highlights children and families from myriad cultural backgrounds. New Mainers and those who have had family in the area for years alike all have stories to tell, and we’re always looking forward to telling new ones as We Are Maine ages and evolves!

The concept was brand new in 2006: we hadn’t yet merged with the Children’s Theatre, and We Are Maine was hailed as the “most technologically sophisticated exhibit that the Museum has produced to date,” as written in our Kitetails newsletter (remember the days of those purple-inked newsletters by post, anyone?). Video stories of children in Maine and their families – connecting roots to countries as far away as Greece, Iran, Ireland, and Japan – can still be viewed in the exhibit today, but let’s take a look at how some things have changed.

Previous spotlights in the exhibit have included dinner tables and dance instruction, plus the large Hmong History Stitched installation from 2013-14, created with help from consultant Kue John Lor and our culture scholars. We Are Maine has grown a new component yet again this year with Rhythm Play, an enclosed woodsy space where you can find a drum with multiple sound qualities in the shape of a tree stump!

The stump drum isn’t all there is to Rhythm Play: spotlights will continue through 2015 with special guests teaching visitors various percussive arts from around the globe. You can still check out our Brazilian Capoeira component, and starting in January, learn all about the Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam!

We Are Maine has, since its inception, been a unique space for telling stories, celebrating the heritage of Maine’s diverse communities, and reaching out to connect us to the globe.


Ginger has been used in many ways for thousands of years, from ancient Greek and Chinese recipes and medicines to spices of the Middle Ages to the Christmas tradition of cookies and, of course, gingerbread houses. But how did the gingerbread we know today come to be, and when did it become so popular at Christmas?

Ginger itself is a knobby root that hails from Asia, from the Middle East to China. Ginger made its way to Europe in the 1st century AD, and gingerbread variations through France, Germany, Scandinavia and England began rising in popularity around the 1400s. Ginger is mixed with honey and molasses to give gingerbread its trademark sweet spongy, cake-like quality. Each country has its own spin on gingerbread, with many delicacies being referred to as “pepper cake” or “pepper bread.” Many countries in the Middle Ages had Gingerbread Markets!

Making shaped gingerbread (like gingerbread men) was a 16th century spin on the confection. Queen Elizabeth I of England (who reigned from 1588 to 1603) popularized shaping and decorating gingerbread people when she decorated cookies with the likenesses of other kings and queens of Europe! Gingerbread was so popular in England during this time that it even made it into a line of William Shakespeare’s 1597 play Love’s Labour’s Lost. Many European bakeries still craft gingerbread hearts, and it was once a symbol of affection to give gingerbread to another person.

Like many Christmas traditions celebrated in America today, gingerbread came to our country with early German settlers in the 1600s. In Germany, the art of baking and crafting ginger sweets goes back nearly 600 years, and gingerbread is such a delicacy that the occupation of gingerbread baker is not only in high regard, it’s in a league and class all of its own!

The gingerbread capital of the world is indisputably Nuremberg, Germany, where a gingerbread baker’s league was established in the 1640s. Only certified bakers of Lebkuchen (gingerbread) were allowed to craft gingerbread creations for many, many years… with the exception of Christmas and Easter, when it was declared acceptable for any household to make their own gingerbread cookies. Lebkuchen bakers fashioned kings, hearts, animals, and other beautiful shapes out of gingerbread, purchased at high prices and crafted exclusively by hand until the later 19th century, when mass production techniques made a major impact on European industries.

The gingerbread house itself has a history dating back to the early 1800s – it’s hard to say whether the practice of making gingerbread houses inspired the Brothers Grimm or if it was the other way around, but after the publishing of the Grimms’ still famous fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, gingerbread houses became quite the rage. Though the practice of decorating cookies with colored icing was already an established tradition, a house was a new undertaking. Icing or chocolate holds flat pieces of gingerbread together, while bright candies trim windows and roofs, chimneys and doors. Much like the house that Hansel and Gretel stumble upon in the woods, these houses are fully edible works of art, irresistible to children and marvels of artistry to adults.

The tradition of constructing gingerbread houses also made its way to America (and specifically, to the Museum & Theatre). Many real Victorian homes that appear to have “icing” around the roofs and windows are referred to colloquially as “gingerbread homes.”

Other gingerbread treats through the years have included gingerbread nuts – which evolved into what we know as ginger snaps, Swedish Papparkakor, and animal crackers.

Beatrix Potter’s Christmas: Traditions, Games and More from Victorian England

The holidays are here, and we are delighted to share our new production of Beatrix Potter’s Christmas: a look back at the childhood of children’s book author Beatrix Potter and the animals that inspired her illustrations and stories. In the show, Beatrix longs for a festive Christmas celebration… but exactly what kind of Christmas would a little girl in the Victorian era be celebrating?

The Victorian era is so named for Queen Victoria, who ruled the United Kingdom from 1837 to 1901. Beatrix Potter was born in 1866, and was growing up in a time when many Christmas traditions we know today were becoming popular throughout England and America.

Christmas Cards:

Do you send Christmas cards to your friends and family? This is one tradition begun by the Victorians. The first department stores in London, like Harrods and Bainbridge’s, date back to the 1830s and were thriving businesses by the late 19th century when Beatrix was young, and carried mass-produced illustrated cards that bore Christmas and New Year greetings – they rapidly grew in popularity during this time and the tradition continued into the 20th century.

Beatrix and her younger brother Bertram designed, printed and sold their own Christmas cards in the 1890s, featuring fantastical animals like the mice and rabbits she is seen sketching in our holiday show.

A Christmas greeting card designed by Beatrix Potter.


Christmas Trees, Ornaments, and Presents

O, Christmas Tree, O, Christmas Tree – do you  know the song? Maybe even the German version, O Tannenbaum? The Tannenbaum, or Christmas tree, was a German tradition beginning as early as the 1500s, but was adopted into English Christmas tradition in the 1840s and 50s after Queen Victoria’s husband Albert, who was from Germany, brought the tradition to the palace! Queen Victoria was known for making many things fashionable, from clothes to decor, and by the 1870s Christmas ornaments were being mass produced and sold in department stores. Families would decorate their own Christmas trees with nuts and candy, ribbons, candles, ornaments, and tinsel. We’ve switched to electric lights instead of candles these days, but many of us still put stars or angels on the tops of our trees, just like people did in Beatrix Potter’s time.

Christmas presents were made and purchased, wrapped with care, and hung from the tree or placed beneath it. Presents were symbols of well-wishing, and the most cherished were those made by hand, like a crocheted or knitted scarf – something one of the animals in our play gives to another!


Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's Christmas Tree at Windsor Palace.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle.


Games and Toys

Children and adults alike enjoyed playing games during Christmas. Beatrix’s housekeeper, Jane, mentions playing snapdragon, an English and American traditional game of quickly eating raisins out of hot Christmas pudding. (The game faded out during the early 20th century – the raisins were just too hot!) Children also played guessing games – such as what we know as “I Spy” with decorations on the tree – and played a game of trimming (decorating) the tree while blindfolded.

And everyone loved Christmas crackers. These aren’t the crackers we eat with slices of cheese… these are toys wrapped up bonbon style that pop when you pull them open! They contain small toys, paper crowns, and notes or riddles, but like “blind box” toys, you never know what color or style you’re going to get till you pop open the cracker. The tradition is not very widely practiced in America today, but is still popular in England.

A Victorian advertisement for Tom Smith’s Surprise Crackers – Tom Smith was a sweetmaker who created and began selling crackers in the 1840s, and the Tom Smith company still makes Christmas crackers today!


Caroling and Parties

How many Christmas carols do you know? Carols are mostly sprightly, festive tunes (though some are slower and more somber) that ring in the joy of the season. Many of the songs we still sing today, like Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls!, The Twelve Days of Christmas, and Joy to the World were all popular during the Victorian era, and this was also the heyday of caroling door to door.

Beatrix looks out her window on festive Christmas carolers in a few scenes in our play (there are some animal carolers, too!), trying to hear the music. Carolers traveled in groups, playing instruments, singing, and selling sheet music. Having parlor instruments was becoming more and more commonplace among the middle class, not just the upper class, and people were playing pianos, violins, harps, and other instruments at home to liven up the house for the holidays or for entertaining at parties, so buying sheet music from a caroler on the street was a pretty great idea! Carolers went door to door and through the streets, livening up an evening for shoppers and partygoers.


Victorian Christmas carolers.
Victorian Christmas carolers, with sheet music for The Wassail Song.

Beatrix’s parents, Rupert and Helen, were well-to-do and attended several Christmas parties as part of their social station. This was an expectation of them as it was for many upper-class Londoners, so while some families enjoyed presents and games, the Potters may have heard a carol or two, but their parties were more about seeing and being seen in high society. But it’s the sprightly carols, decorations and games that Beatrix wants in her seasonal celebrations.


To see exactly how Beatrix, her brother Bertram, and all the animal friends of their real life and imaginations celebrate Christmas, join us for Beatrix Potter’s Christmas, beginning on December 11th and running through December 22nd!

Cool member perk: explore Maine museums for free on May 14!

Saturday, May 14 is the first ever Maine Member Day. Twelve museums throughout the state (including this one) will be offering free reciprocal admission all day. If you’re a member of any participating museum, everyone included in your membership will be admitted for FREE to any other participating museum!

A restoration project at the Owls Head Transportation Museum.

Margaret Hoffman at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens came up with this idea and I think it’s terrific in two ways: we’ll see a lot of new faces here, which is always exciting; AND our members get to be “members for a day” at someplace new!

I’ve listed all the participating museums here. Don’t forget to bring your membership card with you, and check their hours in advance since everyone’s are a little different. Now enjoy your adventure!

Abbe Museum, Bar Harbor

Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine, Portland (that’s us!)

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, Boothbay

Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland

Maine Discovery Museum, Bangor

Maine Historical Society, Portland

Maine Maritime Museum, Bath

Maine State Museum, Augusta

Owls Head Transportation Museum, Owls Head

Portland Museum of Art, Portland

Victoria Mansion, Portland

Wendell Gilley Museum, Southwest Harbor