Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of occasional articles inspired by readers’ curiosity. What do you wonder about the Baltimore area that you’d like us to investigate? Tell us at baltimoresun.com/ask.
Ask any one person to identify Baltimore’s nickname, and it’s likely you’ll get a different answer each time.
There are the “official” monikers, such as Charm City and the City That Reads. Then there are the ones that inevitably are co-opted by snark, a la Harm City and the City That Bleeds.
For better or worse, nicknames serve as a “battle cry” for a city, said Eric Swartz, president of the branding company Tagline Guru.
“It’s your municipal pitch to the world,” Swartz said. “It tells people who you are, what you do and why the world should care.”
For the latest installment in a series inspired by readers’ curiosity, we dug into the the history behind some of the city’s nicknames and slogans — and learned why there are so many.
How a nickname comes to be
Mary Rizzo, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University whose book about Baltimore culture is set to be published next year, said the city’s propensity for nicknames took off during Mayor William Donald Schaefer’s administration. The city was suffering from an economic crisis and a rising crime rate — creating a lack of enthusiasm about Baltimore.
To help restore excitement, Schaefer hired an advertising firm to help reframe the perception of the city. And thus Charm City was born.
“Schaefer’s terms as mayor was a turning point of how the city thought about a use of culture as an economic policy,” Rizzo said. “A slogan is a cultural representation, but the goal is all about tourism and prosperity. The city became something you could sell.”
The city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years with advertising agencies to create new mottos, slogans or nicknames. But some have cost the city nothing, like the latest — “Baltimore: Birthplace of The Star-Spangled Banner” — which the City Council adopted in 2015.
Some slogans and nicknames are born more organically, like a phrase from a speech that stuck.
Here’s a look at some of Baltimore’s most popular nicknames and slogans throughout the years:
Many people believe John Quincy Adams gave us the nickname “Monumental City" during a speech on a trip to Baltimore in 1827.
When Adams visited the city, he ended his trip by honoring the newly erected Washington Monument with a toast at a banquet hall. According to The Baltimore Sun archives, he said, “Baltimore — the monumental city — may the days of her safety be as prosperous and happy, as the days of her danger have been trying and triumphant.”
But turns out, a Washington, D.C., newspaper had actually used the phrase four years earlier, historian Lance Humphries wrote in a 2015 op-ed for The Sun. The Daily Intelligencer’s main editor, Joseph Gales Jr., felt that Baltimore wasn’t supportive enough about the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The editor took to the paper’s pages to show his disdain, sarcastically dubbing Baltimore the Monumental City because it was too good and important to support the canal’s construction.
Schaefer was desperate to promote the city in 1975, as some people were calling it a “loser’s town," according to The Sun archives
"Come up with something to promote the city. And do it now! I’m worried about this city’s poor image,” Schaefer barked at advertising executives, the 1995 article said.
Four executives gathered for a creative conference to brainstorm a series of ads.
Then, the article relayed, an executive named Bill Evans wrote the line that started it all: “‘Baltimore has more history and unspoiled charm tucked away in quiet corners than most American cities out in the spotlight.'"
Soon after, the four executives began calling it “Charm City.” And in ensuing advertisements, a charm bracelet graced the pages.
I adore Baltimore
When advertising professionals were tasked with promoting Baltimore’s convention center in December 1978, the city had already shuffled through “Balti-more than you know” and “Baltimore is best" as slogans, according to The Sun archives. But they felt like those weren’t marketable outside the city.
Allan Charles was sitting around with other members of his agency, Mathis, Burden and Charles, when his wife called.
“Maybe I shouldn’t mention this, but my wife Laura called to ask when I would be home. I mentioned we wanted something like ‘I love New York,” Charles told The Sun back then. “She called back a little later and suggested ‘I adore Baltimore.’ ”
“She was right — people here really do adore Baltimore.”
Charles had visions of stickers being plastered nationwide at airports, bus stops and train stations
“This should cause outsiders to be aware of, and think of Baltimore.”
The city that reads
Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke made improving Baltimore’s schools a key initiative of his administration.
During his inauguration speech in December 1988, Schmoke said he wanted the city to be known as “the city that reads.”
The mayor printed 50,000 bumper stickers and bookmarks for children with the slogan. It cost the city at least $3,500 to produce, according to a Sun article.
The greatest city in America
Former Mayor Martin O’Malley coined this phrase after using it to close several campaign speeches and his inaugural address.
O’Malley, who went on to be Maryland’s governor, said he was trying to raise expectations of Baltimore. So, he stenciled the phrase on benches across the city.
“I’m not going to gloss over the problems," he told The Sun in 2000. "I’ve been preaching about how we have the highest per-capita heroin use in the nation. But visuals are important when you are trying to mobilize a city.”
The Morning Sun
Not everyone agreed. At the time, the phrase caused some residents to suggest their own, more blunt slogans like “The City That Acts Like It Cares.”
The benches, also, had the propensity to draw ridicule — especially those in front of vacant houses or trash-strewn lots.
Rizzo called O’Malley’s slogan “ambitious,” but said it fit with the need to compete with other cities as the country’s wealth gap grew.
O’Malley went on to implement two more slogans during his tenure: “Believe" in 2002, aiming to combat the city’s reputation for drugs and crime; and “Baltimore — Get In On It,” a $500,000 marketing campaign four years later.
Baltimore: Birthplace of The Star-Spangled Banner
When the city was working on its latest slogan in 2015, former City Councilman James B. Kraft said he was approached by history buffs who suggested they look to Baltimore’s roots. Specifically, the battle at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words that later become the national anthem.
It got Kraft thinking.
“Somewhere in the world at any given minute ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is being sung. Yet many people don’t know it was written here,” Kraft told The Sun. “It should be something we promote.”