Portland as it Was by William Willis

The advantages which in early days our new country held out for employment, encouraged immigration, and the population was almost wholly made up by accessions from the more thickly peopled parts of Massachusetts. To the county of Essex particularly, in the early as well as more recent period of our history, the town is indebted for large portions of its population. Middlesex, Suffolk and the Old Colony, were not without their contributions. But the people did not come from such widely different sources as to produce any difficulty of amalgamation, or any striking diversity of manners. They formed one people and brought with them the steady habits and good principles of those from whom they had separated. There were some accessions before the revolution made to our population from the other side of the Atlantic; the emigrants readily incorporated themselves with our people and form a substantial part of the population. Within twenty years, the numbers by immigration have increased more rapidly, especially from Ireland, but not sufficiently to destroy the uniformity which characterises our population, nor to disturb the harmony of our community.

It cannot have escaped observation that one of the principal sources of our wealth has been the lumber trade. We have seen on the revival of the town in the early part of the last century, how intimately the progress of the town was connected with operations in timber. Before the revolution our commerce was sustained almost wholly by the large ships from England which loaded here with masts, spars, and boards for the mother country, and by ship building. The West India business was then comparatively small, employing but few vessels of inferior size. After the revolution our trade had to form new channels, and the employment of our own navigation was to give new activity to all the springs of industry and wealth. We find therefore that the enterprise of the people arose to the emergency, and in a few years our ships were floating on every ocean, becoming the carriers of southern as well as northern produce, and bringing back the money and commodities of other countries. The trade to the West Indies, supported by our lumber, increased vastly, and direct voyages were made in larger vessels than had before been employed, which received in exchange for the growth of our forests and our seas, sugar, molasses and rum, the triple products of the cane. This trade has contributed mainly to the advancement and prosperity of the town, has nourished a hardy race of seamen, and formed a people among the most active and enterprising of any in the United States.

The great changes which have taken place in the customs and manners of society since the revolution, must deeply impress the mind of a reflecting observer. These have extended not only to the outward forms of things, but to the habits of thought and to the very principles of character. The moral revolution has been as signal and striking as the political one; it upturned the old land marks of antiquated and hereditary customs and the obedience to mere authority, and established in their stead a more simple and just rule of action; it set up reason and common sense, and a true equality in the place of a factitious and conventional state of society which unrelentingly required a submission to its stern dictates; which made an unnatural distinction in moral power, and elevated the rich knave or fool to the station that humble and despised merit would have better graced.

These peculiarities have been destroyed by the silent and gradual operation of public opinion; the spirit which arose in the new world is spreading with the same effect over the old. Freedom of opinion is asserting a just sway, and it is only now to be feared that the principle will be carried too far, that authority will lose all its influence and that reason and a just estimate of human rights will not be sufficient restraints upon the passions of men. The experiment is going on, and unless education, an early and sound moral education go on with it, which will enlighten and strengthen the public mind, it will fail of success. The feelings and passions must be placed under the charge of moral principle, or we may expect an age of licentiousness to succeed one of authority and rigid discipline. We may be said now to be in the transition state of society.

Distinctions of rank among different classes of the community, a part of the old system, prevailed very much before the revolution and were preserved in the dress as well as in the forms of society. But the deference attached to robes of office and the formality of official station have all fled before the genius of our republican institutions; we look now upon the man and not upon his garments nor upon the post to which chance may have elevated him. In the circle of our little town, the lines were drawn with much strictness. The higher classes were called the quality, and were composed of persons not engaged in mechanic employments. We now occasionally find some old persons whose memory recurs with longing delight to the days in which these formal distinctions held uncontrolled sway.

The fashionable color of clothes among this class was drab; the coats were made with large cuffs reaching to the elbows, and low collars. All classes wore breeches which had not the advantage of being kept up as in modern times by suspenders; the dandies of that day wore embroidered silk vests with long pocket flaps and ruffles over their hands. Most of those above mentioned were engaged in trade, and the means of none were sufficiently ample to enable them to live without engaging in some employment. Still the pride of their cast was maintained, and although the cloak and perhaps the wig may have been laid aside in the dust and hurry of business, they were scrupulously retained when abroad.

There were many other expensive customs in that day to which the spirit of the age required implicit obedience; these demanded costly presents to be made and large expenses to be incurred at the three most important events in the history of man, his birth, marriage and death. In the latter it became particularly onerous and extended the influence of its example to the poorest classes of people, who in their show of grief, imitated, though at an immeasurable distance, the customs of the rich.

The leaders of the people in the early part of the revolution, with a view to check importations from Britain, aimed a blow at these expensive customs, from which they never recovered. The example commenced in the highest places, of an entire abandonment of all the outward trappings of grief which had been wont to be displayed, and of all luxury in dress, which extended over the whole community. In the later stages of the revolution however, an extravagant and luxurious style of living and dress was revived, encouraged by the large amount both of specie and paper money in circulation, and the great quantity of foreign articles of luxury brought into the country by numerous captures.

The evils here noticed did not exist in this part of the country in any considerable degree, especially after the revolution; the people were too poor to indulge in an expensive style of living. They were literally a working people, property had not descended upon them from a rich ancestry, but whatever they had accumulated had been the result of their own industry and economy. Our ladies too at that period had not forgotten the use of the distaff, and occasionally employed that antiquated instrument of domestic labor for the benefit of others as well as of themselves. The following notice of a spinning bee at Mrs. Deane's on the first of May 1788, is a flattering memorial of the industry and skill of the females of our town at that period.

"On the first instant, assembled at the house of the Rev. Samuel Deane of this town, more than one hundred of the fair sex, married and single ladies, most of whom were skilled in the important art of spinning. An emulous industry was never more apparent than in this beautiful assembly. The majority of fair hands gave motion to not less than sixty wheels. Many were occupied in preparing the materials, besides those who attended to the entertainment of the rest, provision for which was mostly presented by the guests themselves, or sent in by other generous promoters of the exhibition, as were also the materials for the work. Near the close of the day, Mrs. Deane was presented by the company with two hundred and thirty-six seven knotted skeins of excellent cotton and linen yarn, the work of the day, excepting about a dozen skeins which some of the company brought in ready spun. Some had spun six, and many not less than five skeins apiece. To conclude and crown the day, a numerous band of the best singers attended in the evening, and performed an agreeable variety of excellent pieces in psalmody."

Some of the ante-revolutionary customs "more honored in the breach than in the observance"—have been continued quite to our day, although not precisely in the same manner, nor in equal degree. One was the practise of helping forward every undertaking by a deluge of ardent spirit in some of its multifarious mistifications. Nothing could be done from the burial of a friend or the quiet sessions of a town committee; to the raising of the frame of a barn or a meeting-house, but the men must be goaded on by the stimulus of rum. Flip and punch were then the indispensable accompaniments of every social meeting and of every enterprise.

It is not a great while since similar customs have extensively prevailed not perhaps in precisely the instances or degree above mentioned, but in junkettings, and other meetings which have substituted whiskey punch, toddy, &c. for the soothing but pernicious compounds of our fathers. Thanks however to the genius of temperance, a redeeming spirit is abroad, which it is hoped will save the country from the destruction that seemed to threaten it from this source.

The amusements of our people in early days had nothing particular to distinguish them. The winter was generally a merry season, and the snow was always improved for sleighing parties out of town. In summer the badness of the roads prevented all riding for pleasure; in that season the inhabitants indulged themselves in water parties, fishing and visiting the islands, a recreation that has lost none of its relish at this day.

Dancing does not seem to have met with much favor, for we find upon record in 1766, that Theophilus Bradbury and wife, Nathaniel Deering and wife, John Waite and wife, and several other of the most respectable people in town were indicted for dancing at Joshua Freeman's tavern in December 1765. Mr. Bradbury brought himself and friends off by pleading that the room in which the dance took place, having been hired by private individuals for the season, was no longer to be considered as a public place of resort, but a private apartment, and that the persons there assembled had a right to meet in their own room and to dance there. The court sustained the plea. David Wyer was king's attorney at this time.

It was common for clubs and social parties to meet at the tavern in those days, and Mrs. Greele's in Backstreet was a place of most fashionable resort both for old and young wags, before as well as after the revolution. It was the Eastcheap of Portland, and was as famous for baked beans as the "Boar's head" was for sack, although we would by no means compare honest Dame Greele, with the more celebrated, though less deserving hostess of Falstaff and Poins. Many persons are now living on whose heads the frosts of age have extinguished the fires of youth, who love to recur to the amusing scenes and incidents associated with that house.

When we look back a space of just two hundred years and compare our present situation, surrounded by all the beauty of civilization and intelligence, with the cheerless prospect which awaited the European settler, whose voice first startled the stillness of the forest; or if we look back but one hundred years to the humble beginnings of the second race of settlers, who undertook the task of reviving the waste places of this wilderness, and suffered all the privations and hardships which the pioneers in the march of civilization are called upon to endure; or if we take a nearer point for comparison, and view the blackened ruin of our village at the close of the revolutionary war, and estimate the proud pre-eminence over all those periods which we now enjoy, in our civil relations and in the means of social happiness, our hearts should swell with gratitude to the Author of all good that these high privileges are granted to us; and we should resolve that we will individually and as a community sustain the purity and moral tone of our institutions, and leave them unimpaired to posterity.