First Friday Art Walk in Portland featured something not seen on the streets of the city in more than a century.

No, not the guy with the gold hula hoops, spinning for spare change. It was a group of people carrying banners promoting trades – among them coopers, who make barrels, and luthiers, who make violins, cellos and other stringed instruments.

The banners hearken back to the 1840s, when craftspeople would carry banners promoting their trade, such as shoemaking or butchering, in civic parades. The re-created banners and parade on Friday were sponsored by the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association, a two-century-old organization that was originally set up to look after the interests of craftspeople and “promote an educated and stable workforce,” said Tom Blackburn, vice president of the Portland-based group, which is now devoted to encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship.

Interest in the banners was sparked in the 1990s, when Robert Babcock, a history professor at the University of Maine, wrote about the practice of guildspeople participating in parades in the 1840s to 1860s. It turned out the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association had a bunch of those original banners, in remarkably good shape, stored in a closet at the association’s hall on Congress Street. Strapped for cash, the association put the banners, considered premium examples of early American folk art, up for auction and managed to get $125,000 from a consortium led by the Maine Historical Society and Portland Museum of Art, Blackburn said.

To mark the occasion of the banners’ return, the historical society put two on display this month, including a brightly colored banner for shoemakers, which proclaimed, “He who does not pay the shoemaker is not worthy of a sole.” The other is for the guild representing a broad assortment of trades: butchers, tanners, curriers, soap boilers and tallowchandlers.

Ellen Babcock, an artist and daughter of the University of Maine history professor, helped oversee production of the new banners, which honored people in traditional crafts, such as coopers, and those in newer pursuits, such as part-time faculty at the University of Southern Maine and a group of caregivers.

Led by a lively drummer, the group marched down the sidewalk from the association’s hall – careful to skirt around a tree in front of the Wadsworth-Longfellow House – to Monument Square and back again.

Ellen Babcock breathed a sigh of relief that strong winds were absent and there were no collisions between cars and banner carriers.

“I had a vision of a pile of sticks on the ground,” she said.

Ellen Babcock noted that the original banners often included a bad play on words – like the one for the shoemakers – to capture attention, so the 21st-century banners replicated that effort. The coopers’ banner, carried by Ed Lutjens, owner of the Portland Barrel Co., said his craft’s wares “stave off stale spirits,” while the luthiers’ banner pictured trees on front and the words “in the forests, we silently stood,” and finished violins on the back with the words “in death, we sweetly sing.”

The unusual display drew a lot of attention.

Nate Hansford, visiting from Atlanta, was intrigued by Jeff Dieumegard, who wore one of Lutjens’ barrels although, unlike the way they are often portrayed in cartoons, Dieumegard was fully clothed as he marched with the barrel around his midsection.

“It’s a bit nippy tonight,” Dieumegard said.


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