Baltimore's 'Blue Book,' a relic of 19th-century elite, persists today

Baltimore's 'Blue Book' still indexes society's elite, with debutantes, prep schools, exclusive social clubs.

With her 18th birthday approaching, it was nearly time for Margaret Van der Spiegel Penniman to make her debut in the adult world. Her mother went to the stationery store on Charles Street to register her debutante reception at the Engineers Club in the Baltimore Society Visiting List book.

"It was so people wouldn't plan a party and then discover that three other people had planned parties for the exact same day," said Penniman, 70, who lives in the Poplar Hill area of North Baltimore. "It was an organizational help to register the date."

When she made her debut in 1963, the Blue Book — so named for its dark blue cover — doubled as a directory for the city's upper class. For members of the elite, it listed their addresses, phone numbers, children's names, alma maters (often prep school and Ivy League) and exclusive social clubs.

Fifty-three years later, Penniman still subscribes to the book out of sentiment.

"I don't actually use it as a practical source of information that much anymore," she said. "But my parents got it, and I still have the year that has all the parties when I made my debut."

Since its founding in 1888, the Blue Book has documented the whereabouts and lineages of many blue bloods of the area, who have included sons of Francis Scott Key, relatives of Edgar Allan Poe and the family of John Waters.

But for some, who is and who is not included remains an implicit reminder of the region's divide between an affluent, mostly white elite and everyone else. In the age of the Internet and social media, users' dependence on the book has dwindled. Nonetheless, the tradition continues.

When Baltimore's Blue Book launched, it followed in the footsteps of Boston, New York and Philadelphia, which had books identifying their "upper crust" as a way to stay connected, according to Francis O'Neill, a senior reference librarian at the Maryland Historical Society, where many Blue Book editions are held. The book put Maryland on the social map.

"Everybody who was anybody in the eyes of the editors" was included, along with listings of social clubs, business ads and society marriages, creating a resource of elite lineage, O'Neill said.

Children were listed under their parents' names until they were married. In the 1964 edition, the names of eligible young men, at least 74 debutantes and more than 150 scheduled debutante events — brunches, cocktail and tea parties, crab feasts and swimming sessions — were showcased.

Yet the "everybody who was anybody" largely shut out the Jewish and black communities. They launched, respectively, the Elite Hebrew Directory around 1899 and The First Colored Professional, Clerical, Skilled and Business Directory of Baltimore City in 1913, which over time included black notables like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a native Baltimorean, O'Neill said.

Societal and technological shifts prompted changes to the book. After World War II, as Americans became more mobile, publishers listed some non-native Baltimoreans. Phone numbers and, eventually, email addresses were added.

Today, the Blue Book has a website, with posts about art galleries, restaurants and social events. Its social media following is small — 73 Facebook likes; since launching in April 2014, its Twitter account features a mere 31 tweets, with no retweets.

The debutante listing has dwindled to 25 young women in the 2016 edition, with just four events. An estimated 12,000 names appeared in the book nearly 55 years ago; about 2,400 families were listed in 2002, according to a Baltimore Sun article at the time that featured former editor Jennifer Roebuck.

Contacted by The Sun, Blue Book editor William Macsherry declined to comment unless he got approval from publisher Hugh Monaghan. Monaghan did not respond to multiple inquiries over several months for this story.

Paige Glotzer, a Harvard University postdoctoral fellow in economics, history and politics, said the Blue Book has been a guide to unveil a legacy of discrimination in the city.

While preparing her doctoral dissertation at the Johns Hopkins University on housing segregation in Baltimore, she found that old habits die hard.

"One thing that it's doing is still reflecting patterns of racial discrimination that came with the rise of suburban housing in the early 20th century," Glotzer said.

Through research and a glimpse at a color-coded demographic map on the Blue Book's website, which features categories like "private schools," "upscale retail," "home is paid off," "advanced degrees," "well-traveled," and "'Soccer Mom' + Kids," Glotzer noticed that the map featured boundaries geographically similar to those seen at the height of segregation in the early 1900s.

Glotzer said areas like Roland Park, Guilford and Homeland were historically white, and the Blue Book registry was often used to ensure those listed married within the same area and income bracket "to keep money in the right type of families."

The Blue Book's demographic maps seemed to be doing the same thing, she said.

"It was so strange to me," said Glotzer, who spoke with residents who owned Blue Books.

"Blue Book is one more way you can see [the legacy of segregation]. It's not in any way talking about race itself, and yet you look at the map on the website, and you see that it has a lot to do with those boundaries," Glotzer said.

Still, the Historical Society's O'Neill said the Blue Book "doesn't have quite the same rigid hierarchy that it did in the old days."

The 2016 edition features long-established families but omits many notable politicians, philanthropists, organization chiefs and celebrities, including Ben Carson, Carla Hayden, Rebecca Hoffberger, Joseph Meyerhoff II and Cal Ripken Jr.

Some residents say a nomination is still required. Only those who are included in the book can purchase a copy ($75 hardcover, $50 softbound, according to the website).

Kate Powell of Guilford joined the visiting list last year after her mother-in-law nominated her.

"She felt it was important that we were in there," said Powell. The family provided information such as names, schools and social clubs for the guide.

"I have never used it," she added.

Medfield artist Nancy Van Meter, 59, has been advertising her dog portraits in the Blue Book for the past two years and praised it for its history of connecting people before the digital age.

"It was their own internet," she said, noting that the Blue Book went beyond just addresses.

"I really respect the whole history behind it," Van Meter said, noting that the book included people's appropriate "Mr.," "Mrs." and "Miss" titles. "When we didn't have technology, it taught people how to address people."

Now, she said, with Monaghan as publisher, the Blue Book's purpose has expanded, connecting small businesses and the arts community with residents. She hasn't gained any new clients from the book, but she cites it as a way to provide assurance to existing customers that she's in it for the long haul.

Plus, she added, "A book has a long shelf life. It stays around for a long time. Someone could pick this up 50 years [from now] and know that I was here in Baltimore doing dog portraits."

Similar listings still exist. The New York-based Social Register, founded in 1886, has combined with smaller registers and branched out to include members from the West Coast and Europe.

Roger Beahm, executive director of the Center for Retail Innovation at Wake Forest University, said social registries could be valuable from a business and professional standpoint, but they are not nearly as useful as they once were. Organizations can use the books to determine a listee's charitable interests. Individuals can keep track of business prospects, potential employers and fellow alumni, he said.

"Being published makes you a prospect for certain businesses and industries and nonprofits. You generate awareness about yourself, and an interest in your successes," Beahm said.

But with the internet, business journals and business-oriented social media network LinkedIn, Beahm said, there is much greater access to the same people.

When asked about the Blue Book's exclusivity, Penniman, an honorary blue blood thanks to her "old-timey Baltimorean" father, noted that its formal name — "Society Visiting List" — "gives you an idea of how [Blue Book society] sees itself." Penniman said she still looks back on it with nostalgia — for its practicality and the party listings that bring back memories.

"It's certainly a piece of history about a certain part of Baltimore that is basically in the past," she said. But Penniman said she would likely keep her subscription.

"As long as you keep on subscribing to it, they keep sending."

And according to a June 30 post on the Blue Book's Facebook page, "Blue Book 2017 is underway."

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