Of Ghosts, Boots, Stuff and Canvas Bags
I’m afraid of ghosts but I like to think that if I was a ghost, I would not be afraid of boots. This a picture of a boot that a coworker of mine found in her wall during a renovation here in Portland. Apparently, there is an old superstition (18th, 19th century, maybe older) that if you put footwear in your wall, it will ward off evil spirits. This begs the question of how evil a spirit can really be if they’re afraid of shoes? Demon or not, I almost feel sorry for that poor chump.
But this isn’t a post about demons or boots in general. That is a specific boot. That is a Portland boot.
It might have been made here:
There is a strange looking building on Milk Street in Portland (look at that smoke stack – think it’s warm in there?) that is, in fact, the boiler room for a 19th century boot factory that used to sit on this spot. It sits next to this interesting-looking building with variegated brick (been through a fire or two), currently housing the Crooked Mile Coffee Shop.
This building, back in the day, was an old candy factory that took up an entire city block. From boots to candy, it’s kind of mind boggling to think of all the different types of manufacturing going on in Portland, Maine at the turn of the 20th century. We were making candy and boots and rum and sugar. We were making ships and bicycles, manhole covers, and the finest locomotive steam engines in the world. We were canning vegetables and fish and lobster and sardines. We were shipping ice and lumber and salt cod and massive amounts of Canadian grain all around the world. In 1900, we’re an industrial center, an exporting behemoth, a manufacturing powerhouse, and the fourth biggest port in America in 1900.
Get some boots, fill them with candy, and go right down the road to this building (on the right with the gold brick in Boothby Square), the infamous 19th century brothel of Kitty Kintuck.
But this isn’t a post about a typical Saturday night in 1855 in Portland, Maine either. This is a post about toting stuff, like that candy in those boots.
Back in the day, Portland, Maine had a lot of stuff, and we needed to be good at making containers in which to put that stuff. Enter the E. Swasey Company of Portland, Maine.
They made crockery, glassware, stoneware, jugs, bean pots, oyster jars and even teapots at 272 Commercial Street (above). They also made liquor bottles for Portland rum distilleries, and other distilleries as far away as Europe. Crockery is the cardboard box of its age. If you wander up India Street and peek in the window of Old Port Specialty tiles, you’ll see some of E. Swasey’s company’s beautiful work.
Today, we continue to excel at making stuff in which to put other stuff. Here, for example, is the current factory store for Seabags on Customs House Wharf on Portland’s waterfront.
Seabags make quality indestructible canvas bags from the sails of ships that are worn out. They are a sensation now with 40 stores across New England, including one on Commercial Street here, but this little factory store on the waterfront is where it all started and continues today. Canvas bags, as any New Englander will tell you, are the very best things there are for toting all manner of stuff.
And if you want a different kind of bag, there’s always the ubiquitous LL Bean bag made just up the road from Portland in Freeport.
How does anybody manage their life, go to the beach, go camping, get married, divorced, travel, or fetch their groceries without multiple “Bean” bags (preferably monogramed). New Englanders don’t understand that.
Hey, we’re just like you. We have stuff. We need things in which to put our stuff.
Explore and learn more about Portland Maine’s rich history and culinary scene with our expert-guided walking tours. Uncover must-see landmarks, local stories, and hidden gems on an unforgettable cultural experience. Book your tour today!
Written by Ross – Portland History Tour Guide
Referred to by his family as a “fuzzy foreigner”, Ross grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada, fell in love with a woman from Boston, and has been in Maine raising his family for over 20 years now. He loves Maine and loves his job as a tour guide, both for the interaction with new people it affords him (don’t be surprised to get as many questions as you ask) and the constant exploration he is always making of the many intricate and fascinating links between his adopted state and his homeland.