Padlocks bearing messages of love began to be placed on a Commercial Street fence on Feb. 13, and by Friday numbered 47. The practice appears to have started in Europe.
The "love padlocks" are strung along a chain-link fence on Portland's waterfront, names and proclamations of adoration scrawled on them: "Becky and Clint." "I (heart) Kate + she (heart) me." "Dick + Nez." "Greg + Cabo."
They started showing up Feb. 13, when an alcohol-assisted discussion at Gritty McDuff's among three women led to a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy padlocks at Maine Hardware and attach them to the fence on Commercial Street.
"We planted a little seed in the name of fun -- and love -- but we don't feel we should take credit for what it's grown into," said Kristel Hayes, a 40-year-old social media consultant.
That evening, the night before Valentine's Day, she wrote her name on the first lock, along with those of her husband, Scott, and the couple's two dogs, Capa and Dora, and secured it to the fence.
Although tradition calls for throwing the key into a nearby body of water or over a cliff, Hayes disposed of her key in the trash, an environmentally conscious gesture, although somewhat lacking in romantic flair.
With that, the "love padlocks" contagion that has spread across the world has finally reached Maine's shores. Like an invasive species, the padlocks in Portland are multiplying. Forty-seven of them were locked to the fence as of Friday.
In the past several years, outbreaks have popped up all over the planet, including fences and bridges in Paris and Tokyo, Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City and Mount Huang, China.
Nobody knows who started this or where, although it appears to have begun in Europe in the early 2000s.
Hayes said she and the two other women, who wanted to stay anonymous, contacted their friends, and about a dozen other people joined them at the fence with their own padlocks, she said.
The fence is situated along the sidewalk between the Portland Lobster Co. and Long Wharf -- a high-profile spot for the city's summer tourists, she said.
Some of the locks appear to be dedicated to the memory of a single individual, such as "Prince," "Miss you Sally," "Momma," and "to Little Annie 6-9-01."
At some point, someone installed a small sign, "Fences of Love." Hayes said she has no idea who put up the sign, but she's thrilled that the project has taken on a life of its own.
Even with the sign, though, the padlocks are easy to miss. Most pedestrians on the sidewalk are oblivious to them.
Erik Born, 25, a high school physics teacher from Virginia, said the display could use more "diversity" in terms of color and the type of padlocks. The display is dominated by steel gray Master locks.
Still, he appreciates the concept.
"It's cool. You walk down the street and see something out of the ordinary," he said.
In Vladivostok, Russia, where padlocks are secured to a railing on an overlook above the city's famous port, couples purchase special heart-shaped locks and write the dates of their marriages on them.
In Paris, where cast-iron locks called cadenas d'amour are given as wedding gifts, many of the locks are upscale, including antique reproduction locks that require skeleton keys. Two bridges over the Seine River have been inundated with thousands of the love locks.
Make Love Locks, a company in Brooklyn, N.Y., produces custom-engraved anodized aluminum padlocks for $29.99 each.
The phenomenon is not universally loved, however.
In Paris, there have been complaints that they're ugly. And for some free-spirited Parisians who associate love with freedom, the padlocks imply that love is a prison.
Because of concerns over aesthetics and possible structural problems, local authorities in some cities have removed the love padlocks, including from the Humber Bridge in Toronto, Canada, and the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, Italy.
In Moscow, local officials addressed the issue by offering an alternative: Several iron trees on a bridge across the Vodootvodny Canal. The trees are now completely covered with padlocks.
So what will happen to the Fences of Love in Portland when the locks multiply to the point where people start complaining to City Hall?
Can a city that cracks down on obnoxious whistlers, Styrofoam cups and outdoor smokers put up with a bunch of rusted padlocks?
Steve Dimillo, whose family owns a nearby floating restaurant, gift shop and marina, said he believes the fence is owned by the Portland Water District to keep the public away from the equipment that controls a gated pipe carrying sewer and storm water during heavy storms.
He hasn't noticed the Fences of Love, but he worries that the padlock collection may become a rusted eyesore.
"I imagine that once the water district reads your article, they will go down and cut them off," he said.
But the Portland Water District doesn't have records indicating that it owns the fence, said the utility's spokeswoman, Michelle Clements.
Nicole Clegg, director of communications for the city of Portland, said the city owns the fence and encouraged the people who organized the effort to get in touch with the city.
She said the city will monitor it to ensure the weight of the padlocks does not interfere with it, but does not otherwise plan to stand in the way of love.
It would appear that for now, at least, love wins.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at
Sarah Rengold and her boyfriend Erik Born from Virginia read messages written on padlocks hung on a waterfront fence in Portland. Love locks also appear on bridges and fences in Paris, Moscow, New York City and elsewhere.
A padlock dedicated to “Momma” joins the dozens of other locks on the Commercial Street fence.
Newlyweds in Vladivostok, Russia, place heart-shaped locks, with the date of their wedding, on a railing on a hillside overlooking the city’s harbor.