In 1841, the tradespeople of Portland marched through downtown carrying artfully designed and decorated banners that trumpeted the virtues of their skills with whimsical images, beautiful lettering and often a touch of good-natured humor.

“He that will not pay the shoe-maker is not worthy of a sole,” proclaimed the cobblers.

“Saddle us not with bad debts,” said the saddlemakers, and “harness us not with evil habits.”

Their parade, organized by the still-in-existence Maine Charitable Mechanic Association, came at a time when the industrial revolution threatened the livelihood of Maine’s skilled craftspeople, who made things by hand. The promise of mass production made the shoemakers, saddlemakers and their peers – the city’s butchers, bakers and shipbuilders – uneasy. They carried the banners high and with pride as they paraded downtown, each group following their respective banner. The city’s printers paraded a printing press, drawn by a team of horses.

The colorful, boisterous parade was meant to remind people in Portland of the importance of the creative workforce to city, its character and economy.

All Hands On Banner Project from Eric Theise on Vimeo.

For the first time since that parade in 1841, 17 of the banners are on view this fall at Maine Historical Society on Congress Street. The exhibition, “Creative Maine: Trade Banners and the Crafts that Built Maine,” tells the story of the banners and their creation, as well as their recent conservation and rescue by a consortium of Maine museums.

Curator Kate McBrien extends the exhibition into the contemporary by including modern examples of the trades represented in the banners. In addition, she’s also showing new trade banners, created by artist Ellen Babcock and her students, who paraded them in the streets of Portland as part of the city’s Labor Day celebration in 2016.

By including the contemporary angle, McBrien draws parallels between the craft-based and handmade trades being practiced in Maine today and those from the lead-up to the industrial revolution, connecting the lineage among generations of Maine’s creative workforce. “It’s not all that different today,” McBrien said. “I think it’s very important for people to recognize that we have amazingly talented people throughout our state, making beautiful products by hand. We are still making sails in Maine, still making soap, still making shoes, and those contemporary makers are vital to Maine’s economy. They have changed in scale, but they are still present.”

Economy and culture aside, the banners are beautiful as art objects. Measuring 3 by 4 feet, they are made of varnished linen and hand-painted on both sides with pictures of ships, shoes and tools of the trades. The lettering is gilded and full of flourish, reflecting the spirit and energy of the people who made them, McBrien said.

“They were obviously very proud of their work, and that’s evident in the way they made their banners,” she said.

In 2010, 16 Maine museums raised $125,000 to buy the banners at auction. The Maine Charitable Mechanic Association made the difficult decision to sell the banners to raise money to maintain its building at 519 Congress St. After the parade in 1841, the banners came out only occasionally and had been mostly forgotten until a janitor discovered them in storage in the early 1980s.

Fearful the banners would go a private collector or leave the state, the museums and other donors worked together to keep them in Portland, purchasing the 17 collectively. Maine Historical owns the banners and led the effort to purchase them. The historical society also conserved the banners, hiring a textile conservator in New York to clean and prepare them for display, although McBrien said the banners were generally in pretty good shape when the historical society acquired them.

McBrien worked at the Maine State Museum at the time and was involved as a member of the larger group of museum directors and curators who advocated for the purchase. The effort of Maine museums to keep the banners in the state drew national attention in the museum community and stands as an example of the benefit of working cooperatively, she said. “People are always telling me how well Maine museums work together and support each other. It’s not something we see in other states,” she said.

Babcock, who lives in New Mexico, became familiar with the banners in the 1980s when her father, Robert Babcock, a University of Maine historian, began researching them after their discovery by the janitor. Robert Babcock specialized in the labor movement, and was interested in the banners from the perspective of organized labor.

Ellen Babcock was a student at what was then Portland School of Art in the 1980s when her father did his research and was attracted to the banners for their artfulness as well as their role in the history of Portland labor. Both of her grandfathers were labor organizers, and Babcock has performed industrial work over the years.

Sympathetic to labor and concerned about the fragility of history amid widespread development and societal changes, she returned to Portland as an artist in residence and began working with art students at the University of Southern Maine to create new banners in the tradition of the old ones. Her work in Portland dovetailed with her work in Albuquerque, where she founded the nonprofit organization Friends of the Orphan Signs. It pairs artists with empty street signs along Route 66 and surrounding communities to create works of art, connecting regional history and culture with contemporary art.

The new labor banners that she and her students made follow in the tradition of the old ones, with large, finely detailed and expertly executed illustrations that extol the value of Maine’s trades new and old — luthiers, coopers and blacksmiths, as well as Portland’s IT workers, caregivers and language translators.

She tried to create the same convivial spirit in the new banners that she found attractive in the old ones, as well as the same purity and pride. They’re fun and playful, but serious in message.

“These banners were points of community rally for people who had pride in their profession and their craft. They were not to sell a product, but to display an expertise and commonality shared by these groups of artisans,” Babcock said.

One of the things that Babcock loves about the old banners is their lack of perfection. The primary painter of the banners, William Capen Jr., sometimes had to adjust his letters to make everything fit, “and you can see traces of the changes if you look closely. I just like hand painting and the carefulness that is part of it. These are beautiful paintings, with great skill involved, but they would never be considered fine art.”

The act of creating the new banners allowed Babcock to explore the tradition of painting signs by hand. Most of today’s signs are made from vinyl and other materials, but the craft of hand-painted signs is experiencing a national revival, she said.

She made the new banners with linen and designed them to be slightly larger than the old ones. She wanted to avoid horizontal displays because they are sometimes associated with political protests. She was interested in fostering a sense of celebration, and designed the new banners to be held vertically aloft 12 feet to stand out in Portland’s architecture.

Among the contemporary artisans whose work is included in “Creative Maine” is Natasha Durham, founder and creative director of Rough and Tumble, which makes leather handbags out of its offices and productive space at Fort Andross Mill in Brunswick. One of Durham’s bags is included in the exhibition, as an example of leatherwork being done in Maine today.

A former restaurateur, Durham began Rough and Tumble in 2008 and was its sole designer and maker until four years ago, when she hired someone to assist her. She now employs 30 full-time people and produces luxury Italian leather handbags that are entirely handmade in Maine.

A few years ago, when her business began expanding faster than she could keep pace, she explored hiring a manufacturer in Maine to help her, but found none. “There was absolutely nothing. If I wanted to manufacture bags, Connecticut was where I needed to go,” she said.

Instead, she stayed in Maine. She bought an industrial sewing machine and taught herself how to use it. Eventually, as the company grew, she taught others as well. Rough and Tumble has a boutique in Portland, but does most of its business elsewhere.

“We have more bags in Tokyo than we do in Maine, but we are looking to change that,” Durham said. “We are doubling business every year. I feel like Rough and Tumble is a landing place for highly skilled artisans who do not always have the opportunity to be compensated for their skills, because those jobs do not exist in Maine anymore. We are bringing them back because we have to.”

So far, she has resisted moving away from handmade bags. She could easily add computer-assisted design and manufacturing to her operation, but doing so would diminish the appeal of offering something handmade from Maine, she said.

“Maine still has that made-in-Maine cache,” Durham said. “I still cut leather every day. I still work with the product, because that’s what we do. It’s a respectable artistic choice. I like pushing leather around on the table and doing it the old-fashioned way.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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