State of Mind: Becoming Maine

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Becoming Maine

Mainers were eager to brand their independence from Massachusetts. Benjamin Vaughan was a commissioner in the negotiations between Britain and the United States at the drafting of the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolutionary War. Vaughn moved to Hallowell in 1797 from London, and was supportive of Maine Statehood, although he was a member of Federalist Party, which had opposed it. He took the lead in designing a new state seal for Maine.

The official Maine State Seal

The official Maine State Seal

Vaughn wrote a manifesto to decode the elements he proposed for the state seal. According to legend, Vaughn’s young daughter sketched the state seal shown here at his direction.

Vaughn’s reasoning for the following symbols of the Maine State seal, quoted below, included:

The North Star: We are the most Northern State in the Union…What is an ordinary star for all other states becomes the North Star for us.

Aurora Borealis: Below the North Star, a bow will be seen…this is a luminous bow such as one occasionally sees as a portion of the Aurora Borealis. When the convention for forming the Constitution of Maine was sitting in Portland in October last, the appearance of the Aurora were brilliant and frequent.

White pine: Another of the peculiar marks of Maine, which continues to abound so as to figure in commerce…hence this pine fills nearly the whole shield…and stands as the representation of all forest trees.

Moose: The moose deer, lying at the foot of the pine denotes the abundance of our wild lands; and therefore our future…the moose, it will be observed, can only exist at a distance from inhabitants.

Farmer: The cutter of the soil… [with] his scythe denoting that after his pasturage is spent, he has a reserve of winter fodder.

Mariner: Our extent of sea-coast and fondness for navigation is denoted by a mariner resting on an anchor, which is the anchor of hope.

Vaughn suggested a motto of “northern lights” reflecting his fondness for the Aurora Borealis, but Maine's state motto became Dirigo meaning “I direct” or “I lead” in Latin. Maine’s first meeting of the legislature. adopted the state seal and motto on June 9, 1820.

Maine Flags

The Maine State Militia featured potent symbols of Maine from the state seal—the white pine tree, a moose, and the North Star—on flags from 1822 to 1861.

After separating from Massachusetts in 1820, Maine Adjutant General Samuel Cony was tasked with supplying flags for Maine's approximately 100 militia companies, because the articles of separation required Maine to return all of Massachusetts’s militia flags. Needing a thrifty solution, Cony had this design engraved onto a copper plate and printed onto silk, the first known mass production of a militia flag.

The official Maine State flag adopted in 1820 featured the state seal centered on a field of blue. States and countries often sanction multiple flag options, and in 1901, the Maine Legislature adopted an updated and simplified flag. The flag includes two elements of the State seal, the white pine tree and the North Star.

Maine Militia Flag, ca. 1828

Maine Militia Flag, ca. 1828

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

State of Maine flag design, 1901

State of Maine flag design, 1901

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Uses of the Maine State Seal

While the doctrine of Manifest Destiny is most often associated with expansion in the American West in the late 1800s, President Monroe invoked it in 1823. Manifest Destiny is the American expression of the Doctrine of Discovery—the idea that the United States was ordained through Christianity to expand and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent. This philosophy was used to justify the forced removal of Native people from their Homelands and to exploit their land as a resource.

The allegory, Scenes from the State of Maine places the Maine State seal in the center of "progress"—the felling of a trees and harvesting of timber. On the right, or east side of the image are visual passages of "civilization," including a tidy log cabin, settlers plowing a field, and a city visible in the distance. To the left, or west are Wabanaki people wearing snowshoes and traditional dress of a century earlier. They are hunting a moose with bows and arrows in the winter, an attempt to show them as outdated.

Scenes in the State of Maine, 1855

Scenes in the State of Maine, 1855

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

"American Progress" 1872 by John Gast

"American Progress" 1872 by John Gast

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Native people relegated to the left side of artworks and being pushed metaphorically westward became a popular propaganda image for the colonization of America, infamously depicted in John Gast’s American Progress from 1872.

Despite over 400 years of colonization, Wabanaki people continue to occupy their unceded Homeland, including what is now known as the state of Maine.


Sally Holmes, an icon of fashion at Statehood

Sarah Brooks Holmes (1773-1835), known as Sally, lived in Alfred. Her husband, John Holmes, was instrumental in Maine's separation from Massachusetts and was one of Maine's first senators after Statehood. The creation of the state of Maine in 1820 wasn't very relevant to women like Sally Holmes, since under both Maine and Massachusetts law, they had no ability to vote, and a married woman's property, contracts, and labor belonged to her husband.

Sally Holmes, Alfred, 1820

Sally Holmes, Alfred, 1820

Item Contributed by
Parsons Memorial Library

John Holmes, Alfred, ca. 1823

John Holmes, Alfred, ca. 1823

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Sally Holmes was regarded as an excellent mother and charming person by her daughter, Sarah Ann Goodenow, who wrote of her mother's parenting skills in 1827,
…if I cannot inherit all her excellent qualities, I consider an opportunity of improving from the instruction and admonitions of so superior a parent a blessing, much to be prized—and with which but few children are favored.

In addition to matronly duties, Sarah noted Sally Holmes's keen intellect,
Mama's task, in the performance of her numerous duties this winter, has been more than commonly arduous—she has not only found it necessary to dictate all the letters written during the season—but to argue in political debate with all the zeal of a skillful politician.

Sally and Sarah Holmes spent "the season" in Washington DC during John Holmes's tenure as Senator for Maine. Fashion was on the mind of 18-year-old Sarah Ann Holmes, who wrote in 1823, "high life and fashion are such a thief of time" and described the bi-monthly "levees" at the White House that she attended with her mother. She told of first lady Elizabeth Monroe's attire at one such party, suggesting that fashion was a reflection of character saying,
At the first levee, she was dressed in a magnificent gold brocade with deep flounces of the same, a turban of the same, with a gold flower and tassels—Spencer sleeves and ruff ornamented with gold—a splendid necklace of cornelian, a cross, and bracelets of the same richly set in gold. And indeed these decorations all combined to set off her charms at the best advantage possible.

Sally Holmes's evening gown, ca. 1824

Sally Holmes's evening gown, ca. 1824

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Sally Holmes's silk satin evening gown, Alfred, ca. 1825

Sally Holmes's silk satin evening gown, Alfred, ca. 1825

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

According to an 1820 edition of La Belle Assemblée, popular sleeves for evening dresses at the beginning of the year were "short and full" along with flounces or borders of lace, ribbons, and flowers on the neckline and hem. A popular short-waisted jacket with long sleeves worn over dresses was referred to as, “Spencer sleeves."

What did life look like in 1820 when Maine became a state?

In 1820, James Monroe was President of the United States, and the Missouri Compromise became law, admitting Maine into the Union as the 23rd state. Maine’s economy revolved around timber, merchant shipping, and agriculture. America’s population was on the rise, and waistlines of women’s clothing began to drop.

The American Empire style, based on French Napoleonic-era furniture and decorative arts was just reaching popularity in 1820, characterized by deep carving, animal-paw feet, gilt-painting, and decorative inlays. Candles, oil lamps, and fireplaces provided light in Maine homes in 1820, until electricity was introduced in the 1880s. Plastic and synthetic materials didn’t exist, so containers, toys, and decorative items were constructed of natural woods, cottons, silks, and even corn husks.

This gallery brings together selected items, providing an intimate glimpse of life in Maine in 1820.