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Radical Mainers

The Making of Maine’s Working Class: The Charitable Mechanic Association

by | May 17, 2021

On a brisk October day in 1841, hundreds of working men paraded through the streets of Portland in a powerful display of solidarity. The procession included carpenters, masons, brick-makers, plasterers, stonecutters, blacksmiths, cabinetmakers, chair-makers, organ-builders, coopers, tailors, hatters, shoemakers, watchmakers, shipbuilders, caulkers, joiners, machinists, mast- and rope-makers, riggers, saddlers, harness-makers, carriage-builders, printers, bookbinders, butchers, bakers and members of several dozen other trades.

The masters and journeymen of the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association proudly marched to promote civic virtue, independence, and the value of their crafts to the community. They carried colorful silk banners displaying witty slogans and images of the tools of their trades.

“Strike while the Iron is hot,” proclaimed the blacksmiths’ banner. On the other side were the words “To This are All Indebted,” alongside the image of a raised arm holding a hammer (an emblem originated by the medieval guilds of London; also the graphic atop this column). The house wrights’ linen banner had a block plane, a hacksaw and a broad ax, with the slogan: “Our Labour & Skill are Indispensable for the Advancement of Civilization.” The boot- and shoemakers’ message read, “He that will not pay the Shoe-Maker is not worthy of a Sole.” The shipyard workers reminded Portlanders that it wasn’t the wealthy merchants who brought prosperity to the bustling seaport city, but the workers who “lay the foundations of commercial enterprise.”

When the parade arrived at the First Parish Church on Congress Street, an ode was read and a hymn written for the occasion was sung by a choir. After a prayer and a speech, the men reassembled according to their trades and were joined by their wives, friends and families. The procession then headed to Exchange Hall for a feast, more speeches and many toasts.

“With strong arms and stout hearts, may they in every good work, strike while the iron is hot, and so temper their minds as never to become the tools of others, or forge any chains for themselves, but those of brotherly love,” the blacksmiths proclaimed.

Maine Charitable Mechanic Association President Oliver Gerrish remarked, “The old adage, ‘Two of a trade can never agree,’ should be obliterated from our memories, and let us by our actions show to the world that fellow craftsmen can agree, and, guided by the Golden Rule, do to our brethren as we would they should do to us.”

Houswrights banner by William Capen,. Jr., 1841.

The celebration of these workers was part of a broader artisan movement that swept through the coastal cities of the Northeast during the American Revolution and the early decades of the 19th century. Founded in 1815 by a group of 60 men representing various trades, the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association promoted the interests of workingmen and sought to maintain high standards in their trades through apprenticeships and other activities. They held classes on subjects like architecture, math and drawing, and hosted academic lectures and debates, because they believed knowledge was essential to becoming civically engaged and should not be the privilege of elites.

The Mechanics, as the association’s members were called, presented exhibitions and held fairs to demonstrate their craftsmanship. They established a library of trade-educational materials and provided loans to young craftsmen starting businesses. Long before there was any kind of social safety net for workers, the Mechanics established an aid fund to provide death benefits to widows and support members who became sick or unemployed.

Although the founding of the association was one of the first expressions of collective consciousness among Maine workers, it was, in many respects, a fundamentally conservative institution. Notably, women were not allowed to join until 1990. The Mechanics’ emphasis on self-improvement served to promote both personal responsibility and conventional morality.

One side of the blacksmiths’ banner by Joseph Hodgkins, 1841.

As historian Richard Babcock explained, the Mechanics’ ideology “blended traditional craft ideals of virtue, independence, and equality with a core of patriotic values associated with the founding of the new republic.” After all, the Sons of Liberty, the underground resistance group active in the years preceding the American Revolution, were laborers, artisans and shopkeepers.

The aims of the Mechanic Association also differed from those of the labor unions established later in the 19th century. Rather than conceiving of labor relations as a class struggle between employee and employer, the Mechanics’ view reflected the dominant ideology among artisans at the time: producerism.

Other side of the blacksmiths’ banner by Joseph Hodgkins, 1841.

As writer and activist Mike Davis explained, producerism “mapped class relations along an axis of ‘producers’ versus ‘parasitic money power’ and conflated all strata of workers and most capitalists into a single ‘industrial’ bloc.”

The Mechanics saw themselves as the true producers of wealth, the “bones and sinews” of society, the bedrock of civilization, yet also felt their status was threatened by parasitic elements occupying social strata above and below. The producerist ideology still echoes today in right-wing efforts to cast blue-collar workers and small-business owners as allies aligned against government bureaucrats and white-collar professionals (oppressing them from above), while hordes of undocumented “aliens” and social-justice activists apply pressure from below.

Of course, the Mechanic Association’s character was shaped by the social conditions that prevailed when it was founded. In the early 19th century, Maine was predominantly a rural, agricultural area, and the vast majority of the populace were farmers and small landholders. In 1815, only four towns had populations of more than 3,000 inhabitants.

Butchers, tanners, curriers, soap-makers, and tallow-chandlers banner by William Capen, Jr., 1841.

In addition to farming, most Mainers cobbled together a living from other money-making pursuits, like commercial fishing, shipbuilding, cutting lumber, or going to sea aboard the many merchant vessels constantly departing and returning to the state’s ports. Water powered the 726 sawmills and 524 gristmills operating in Maine that year. And though textile mills were built in Biddeford, Saco and Lewiston toward the middle of the century, their early output was a fraction of that of the approximately 16,000 looms being used by women to manufacture cloth in their homes.

As Portland developed into a busy port city, independent artisans and mechanics began producing furniture, clothing, jewelry, liquor, gunpowder, rope, sails, candles, soaps, carriages, tools, and countless other goods. After the War of 1812, shipbuilding grew to become such an enormous industry in Portland that a vessel was being launched every 10 days, Babcock estimated. The merchant trade spawned and supported a vast network of jobs, from from sailmakers and riggers to the distillers who refined molasses imported from the West Indies into rum in buildings near the docks.

Historian Bruce Laurie observed that before wide-scale industrialization, masters and journeymen controlled the pace of their work and were very task-oriented. That meant that, between tasks, they made time for other activities. Laurie wrote:

No early-nineteenth-century craftsman … needed the excuse of slow business to interrupt his work routine. His day was a blend of work, fellowship, and plain fun. New York caulkers and ship carpenters had a kind of coffee break at 8:30 a.m. when building sites were inundated with young women darting here and there with wicker baskets laden with sweets and pastries. They broke again at 11 a.m. for a dram of beer or sugared rum, and balanced the day with two additional breaks, one for lunch and one in late afternoon for sweets.

Within the “productive” sector, sharp divisions between wage workers and owners were slow to open at first, and upward mobility was still possible. A young man apprenticed to a master craftsman could reasonably expect that he too would become a journeyman and then a master craftsman operating his own shop someday.

Meanwhile, an upper class of merchants, bankers and lawyers also emerged in Portland. Many lived in mansions on the western side of the peninsula. The “‘cocked hat, bush wig, and red cloak’ they wore signaled to artisans the loftiest social rank,” Babcock noted. Still, the artisans could plausibly be said to have some common interests with this young aristocracy.

But changes were already underway that would undermine the traditional relations of craft production. A rapidly expanding and increasingly competitive economy threatened the autonomy of the artisans and farmers. Railways and canals expanded markets, forcing local growers and craftsmen to compete with cheaper imported goods. As mercantile capitalists began investing in the first mechanized factories, some workers could foresee the changes to come and feared becoming wage slaves.

In their view, wage slavery was a new form of serfdom and an affront to the values they fought to defend during the Revolution — specifically, the principles of Jeffersonian Democracy, which, at least on paper, favored equal economic opportunity and individual freedom over aristocratic privilege and social control. Expressing this sentiment, Belfast’s Republican Journal warned on July 4, 1835, “The farmers and mechanics of Waldo must appreciate their rights, and suffer not a sentence of the Constitution to become a dead letter, by building up monopolies and privileged orders.”

Between the founding of the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association in 1815 and the labor parade in Portland in 1841, the transformation of independent artisans into wage laborers had significantly progressed. While the Maine Mechanics loudly declared their solidarity during the 1841 celebration, “in truth the banners so carried aloft obscured a widening gap between groups,” Babcock wrote. The group that owned the means of production and the group doing the actual producing were becoming distinct and antagonistic.

Maine workers of this period fiercely resisted the changes being forced upon them by industrialization and merchant capitalism. The first waves of strikes hit the shipyards and textile mills. Labor parties formed to fight for shorter work days, equal and universal public education, fair taxation and other causes. By 1841, the labor movement had arrived in Maine, and it was here to stay.

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