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A Celebration of Skilled Artisans

Text by William David Barry
and Earle G. Shettleworth Jr.

Images from Maine Historical Society

On October 8, 1841, the artisans who made up Portland's Maine Charitable Mechanic association held what proved to be the most lavish parade in their history.

It was applauded by onlookers, chronicled in the press, and soon forgotten as a historical footnote. It has returned to center stage with 17 painted linen banners used in the march. The banners offer vivid insights into the affairs of an early 19th century labor society, tastes in ornamental painting, and, in particular, the work of the decorative painter William Capen Jr., who was responsible for 15 of the banners.

The Mechanic Association was founded in Portland in 1815 as a public forum for skilled craftsmen and to counterbalance the domination of local society by merchants.

Soon after the American Revolution, a class of ship-owning merchants and allied capitalists, known contemptuously as "nabobs," gained control of economic, social, religious, military, and political affairs in the growing port.

Emergent at the same time was a middle class, largely composed of skilled laborers known as mechanics. Dismissed by the wealthy as "Tag-rag and Bob-tail," these men lacked both credit and clout, particularly in time of economic adversity, and many spent periods of time in debtors' prison.

Politically, the mechanics tended to oppose the Federalist merchants through the Democratic Republican party of Jefferson and, later, the Jacksonian Democrats. Beginning with the unpopular War of 1812, the balance of power shifted toward the common people, through whose efforts Maine became a state in 1820.

The Charitable Mechanics stated purpose was, "to relieve the distresses of unfortunate Mechanics and their families, to promote inventions and improvements in the Mechanic Arts, by granting premiums for said inventions and improvements, and to assist young mechanics with loans of money."

The group moved quickly into the cultural limelight of the city. In 1820, its members established a substantial lending library, aimed primarily at apprentices. They also offered lectures on the issues of the day as well as Maine's first "exhibitions and fairs" of arts and crafts, held in 1826, 1838, 1854, and 1859. The first exhibition featured the work of apprentices only.

Through the early exertions of the critic John Neal (1793-1876), each exhibition included a "fine arts department" that organized displays of works by such artists as Gilbert Stuart, Alvan Fisher, Thomas Doughty, Fitz Hugh Lane, William Hart, Samuel Colman, Eastman Johnson, Charles Codman, John Rollin Tilton, Harrison Bird Brown, Charles D. Cole, Maria à Becket, John Bradley Hudson Jr., and Benjamin Paul Akers.

In 1841, the Charitable Mechanic Association held a Triennial Festival. The panic of 1837 had caused an economic depression that endured until the opening of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad from Portland to Montreal in 1853. The prevailing mood was embodied in a toast by a member of the group's shipbuilders, ship joiners, boat builders, and caulkers section:

Our City -- Though rather disabled by the Storms , so prevalent in the sea of speculation, and consequently now on the stocks to be repaired ; may she soon be launched on the Ocean of prosperity, and under her present commander bring good freights to Port -land.

The Triennial Festival was intended to promote municipal self-esteem and local solidarity, but the parade was carefully designed to reflect credit on the group and its various departments.

The parade formed at City Hall, moved through the major streets, and stopped at First Parish Church for speeches by the Rev. Ichabod Nichols, the Rev. Ephraim Wiley, and Daniel Winslow.

The group then marched back to City Hall for a feast attended by 700 people.

The Eastern Argus reported that the town had seldom:

"seen a more pleasing sight than this procession -- composed generally of able, well proportioned and healthy men ... Each class was preceeded by a beautiful Banner, very tastefully arranged. The Banners added much to the beauty of the procession, and reflect much credit upon the taste of those who designed them, and also upon their Painters.

Most of them were painted by Mr. Wm. Capen. That for the Blacksmiths, &c., was prepared by Mssers A. Shirley and S.C. Colesworthy. all the gentlemen named, are members of the Association.

The Banners were covered with appropriate Mottos and Sentiments -- and most of their staffs surmounted with the tools or emblems of their trades. The Butchers with Knife & Steel -- the Machinists with a miniature Steam Engine -- the Painters with a Brush -- the Housewrights with a Hammer, &c. &c. The Printers had a Lever Printing Press in the procession, drawn by two horses -- on which was occasionally worked and scattered among the crowd, the Order of Exercise. This attracted much attention."

Banners provide some of the most colorful local examples of early decorative art in Maine. After the Revolution, nearly every town between the Piscataqua and the St. Croix rivers fielded a militia unit whose flag became a point of pride.

Prior to statehood, the banner trade in Maine seems to have been virtually sewn up by painters from Massachusetts. A new era began in 1822 with the arrival in Portland of Charles Codman (ca. 1800-1842). thereafter, although Codman gradually moved into the field of landscape painting, he and other local painters received most of the commissions for fancy work.

Printer Arthur Shirley and bookbinder Samuel H. Colesworthy, who painted the printers' banner, were talented amateur painters. Shirley was a founding member of the Mechanic Association and Colesworthy just joined when they collaborated on the banner.

Professional painter Joseph E. Hodgkins, who painted the blacksmiths' banner, first appeared in the 1837 Portland directory as a "chaise painter" and was then listed as a "carriage painter and manufacturer" through 1856. He joined the Mechanic Association in 1841.

William Capen Jr., who painted 15 of the banners, is listed in the first Portland directory in 1823 as a "chair maker" at the head of Titcomb's Wharf, and it is for painted chairs that he is best known. He joined the Mechanic Association in 1826 and the next year issued the following notice:

Paints & Painting
The Subscriber informs his friends and the public that he has relinquished one branch of his business (Chair Making) and intends to devote his whole attention to Painting, in its various branches. Mixed Paint, of all colours Oil, Copal Varnish Japan Spts. turpentine, &c. &c. constantly for Sale, at any hour of the day. Old Chair Painted as usual. On hand a small assortment of Chairs, at a very reduced price, likewise a few Carriages for Children.

By the 1830s Capen had become one of the best-known sign and banner painters in town with a shop on Exchange Street. He was in partnership with John Carr Jr., probably from about 1835 to 1851. From 1851 to 1856, the directories list Capen as an "inspector of customs," after which he is again designated as a painter.

He died on March 22, 1863. His obituary read:

Mr. William Capen, long known as a sign painter in this city, died on Sunday last in the sixty second year of his age. For many years Mr. Capen has been deprived of the use of his legs by the disease known as painter's colic.

In subsequent years, Capen's reputation faded along with the memory of the early importance of the Mechanic Association.

William David Barry is a writer and researcher and works as reference assistant at the Brown Research Library at Maine Historical Society. Earle G. Shettleworth Jr. is the Maine State Historian and Director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. A version of this article was first published in The Magazine Antiques in September 1984.