It was 1844, the year rubber bands were patented and Chopin wrote his Sonata in B minor. It was the year the Baltimore City Council repealed ordinances that had permitted hogs to be run on city streets.
That year, 20 Baltimore gents secured a state charter to establish a men's club with something of a philanthropic slant. Sons of Maryland's founding fathers, they launched the Maryland Historical Society in an old post office building downtown. They pledged to "collect, preserve and diffuse information relative to the civil nature and literary history of the state of Maryland, and American history and biography generally."
Collect, they did. It began with a gavel carved from the keel of an explorer's ship. Some stuffed birds. Seashells. During the next 150 years, the society would evolve, gaining a broader constituency and a narrower focus -- and lots more items. Although the society recently announced plans to put less emphasis on the collecting of decorative items, this year, as it celebrates its sesquicentennial anniversary with festivities and exhibits, it is home to the baubles of Baltimore greats, the portraits and letters of Maryland's elite, the trifles of its heroes and the products and tools of the working classes.
The collection has just short of 5 million relics spanning four centuries, most of them acquired as bequests or gifts. Entire estates have been donated.
"Anything made or used in Maryland falls within our collecting policy. We can tell virtually any story with our objects," said Jennifer Goldsborough, the museum's curator.
And the story's the thing. The historical society doesn't want visitors to view its inventory as simply a collection of precious artifacts, Ms. Goldsborough said. See instead what the objects tell us about ourselves as people, as communities, as Marylanders. The items, therefore, don't have to fit anyone's conventional idea of what's "historical."
With the anniversary in mind, Sun Magazine asked the society's staff to identify some of the unconventional objects that are tucked away in storage, waiting for their stories to be told.
?3 MOLLY RATH is a free-lance writer in Baltimore.
The Maryland Historical Society, at 201 W. Monument St., will end its 150th anniversary celebration with a "Greatest Hits" show next spring, featuring items that aren't usually on display. For more information, call (410) 685-3750.
RIGHTING A WRONG
In 1815, construction began on Baltimore's monument to George Washington. Its design included inscriptions of significant dates in Washington's career.
The 178-foot monument was completed in 1829, but it was some time later that a passer-by, listed in historical society records as F. W. Schultz, noticed an error.
There, in brass, on the side of the monument's column, thBattle of Trenton was inaccurately dated December 25, 1776.
Schultz reported the mistake to authorities, who arranged to have the date corrected -- to December 26. Schultz obtained the 5, mounted it on a plaque and in 1897 donated it to the historical society.
Batons and sequin-studded parasols were the props of Eubie Blake's professional life, the tools of trade for the ragtime composer, pianist and producer of Broadway's early black musical hit, "Shuffle Along."
These help tell the story of his life on the stage, the story most of his fans know. Other items offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the man and his passions: His fountain pen speaks volumes. On the road all but a few days each year, Baltimore-born Eubie Blake cultivated some of his closest liaisons via the post.
For 22 years he corresponded with Cole Porter. For 40, he wrote to Milton Reddie. With lyricist Ernie Ford, Eubie maintained 27 years of letters. In letters exchanged with his first wife, Avis, he squabbled over money; his second wife, Marion, wooed him by mail with lines such as "you are sweeping me off my feet."
His later years were filled with birthday cards from presidents, fan mail from Louis Armstrong and letters from Pearl Bailey, spanning many years. After meeting him for the first time in California in 1964, Bailey penned Blake a letter brimming with admiration and awe. She wrote to him from her various ports of call when she went on tour, including Israel, where she sang "Memories of You," which he had written with lyricist Andy Razaf in 1930. In 1982, she sent him a telegram at Long Island College Hospital saying, "Marion would want you to eat, so do I. I love you."
Eubie Blake lived to be 100; he died in 1983. In 1985, his letters and belongings were given to the historical society. On Thursday, March 7, 1844, the "Cabinet" (as Historical Society members called their curio club) recorded its first artifact. A gift of member Brantz Mayer, it was a teakwood gavel carved from the keel of the Endeavour, the vessel sailed by explorer Capt. James Cook during his South Pacific voyage of discovery from August 1768 to June 1771. The gavel was to be used to keep late-hour meetings in order.
The Hutzler brothers, founders of the Baltimore department store bearing their name, introduced one retail innovation after another.
The firm started in the late 1850s and specialized in dry goods. In those days, customers haggled over prices and often won discounts. That system of doing business endured until 1868, when the Hutzlers rigged a sign over their door: "One Price House." The price you saw was the price you paid.
In 1874, the Hutzlers started one of Baltimore's first delivery services, with a horse-drawn wagon. A replica of that delivery cart, complete with stuffed horses, was used in a window display until 1888, when the store moved to its Palace building on Howard Street between Lexington and Saratoga streets.
Hutzler's closed in 1990, but not before donating a vast collection of company papers, tea-room recipes and display items, including the delivery cart replica, to the historical society.
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (1785-1879) was for a brief time the wife of Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte's baby brother.
The Baltimore-born daughter of a millionaire, she was as fastidious about her health and hygiene as she was flamboyant about her dress. (Her cleavage-baring gowns were the subject of many whispers.)
Her diaries and purchase records show she made her own makeup, cold cream and eau de toilette. Remedial recipes flank her account books, showing mustard oil as her choice cure for rheumatism, tartaric acid for corns. She restored her hair with lead sulfur, castor oil and "spirits of wine," and her nerves with a homemade sedative of liquid ammonia, camphorated alcohol and brine.
To enhance her comfort on treks between Maryland and Europe, she toted a portable bidet for personal hygiene. Crafted from mahogany in neoclassical, Louis XVI style, it had a silver basin inscribed by Napoleon's personal silversmith.
She also had a bourdaloue, which ladies of the day took along on long carriage rides. Hers was made in about 1805 of Paris porcelain. Its lines are very graceful, which explains why early museum curators didn't recognize it as a take-along chamber pot.
"At one point, after coming to the historical society, the bourdaloue served as a sauce boat in a period dining room, until it was suggested that its function hardly was appropriate for the dinner table," wrote J. Jefferson Miller, former director of the society and an authority on porcelain.
Many of Betsy Bonaparte's belongings, including the bidet and bourdaloue, were given to the museum by the widow of prominent lawyer Charles Joseph Bonaparte in 1921. He was Betsy Bonaparte's grandson.
Catastrophe works in mysterious ways.
In early 1904, a downtown dry-goods shop caught fire and within 48 hours, flames had scorched the heart of Baltimore. While 2,500 businesses burned, no one died and few went homeless. And from the molten mess rose a renewed spirit among the masses, what one local historian would later call "a remarkable example of civic cooperation." City residents, though split by politics and class, rallied to rebuild.
A few forward-thinkers secured mementos of the conflagration. Bessie Higger was among them. She salvaged a brown stoneware jug that was coated with buckles, button hooks, picks and clamps in varying degrees of meltdown; a thimble, cross, acorn and screw; a blue doll's eye and a compass.
Was she a history buff? Did she display the jug on a window sill as a simple objet d'art? The historical society doesn't know. Nor can its curators say with certainty that all of the items were affixed to the jug by the fire, although most certainly were. But some look, well, too bright. Too new. It's possible that Higgeror someone else added personal touches between the date she found the jug and the date in 1965 when she gave it to the society.
Leonora Jackson was born in Boston in February 1878. By age 8, she was practicing violin nearly two hours a day and music teachers were calling her a wonder child.
As a little girl, she played violin with Mark Twain's daughter Clara Clemens. As a teen-ager, she studied under Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, and visited poet Oliver Wendell Holmes and composer Johannes Brahms. She played for England's Queen Victoria and Sweden's King Oscar.
At the turn of the century, her performing career was hailed as the most distinguished ever achieved by an American woman violinist.
During one seven-year tour, she received dozens of bracelets, brooches and charms from admirers. In June 1898 in Germany, a professor named Carl Markees gave Leonora a trinket, probably her second most valuable violin of all. It was a tiny, golden brooch, encrusted with diamonds, rubies and pearls.
As a young woman, Leonora stunned the music world by setting aside her $10,000 Stradivarius. Restless from a childhood of "railroad journeys, hotel rooms and concert halls," she said, she gave up performing in 1911 and became a music teacher. In 1915, she married Dr. William Duncan McKim, great nephew of one of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad founders, Isaac McKim. The younger McKim was an esteemed Baltimore physician and aspiring philosopher.
She gave the trophies from her performing days to the historical society in 1969.
In 1928, architect Henry Powell Hopkins invited a dozen Eastern Shore socialites to his Roland Park home for a feast of Maryland epicurean delights. His terrapin stew quickly became the subject of banter in Baltimore.
During the 30 years to follow, he would be the host of more than 200 such fetes, and would help found the Wine and Food Society of Maryland with Frederick Stieff.
Each Hopkins dinner had a geo-ethnic theme, and each guest received a hand-painted menu depicting scenes from the countries represented in the menu. Inside the menus, no matter the theme of the dinner, were tucked black-and-white snapshots of Maryland's State House, the restoration of which is now considered among Hopkins' legacies.
Hopkins never skimped when it came to his culinary events. At an Orient-themed feast in 1958, he doled out foot-long opium pipes as party favors. In 1959, he gave one to the historical society. Baltimore lawyer Zelig Robinson was attending a meeting at Washington's Omni Shoreham Hotel in 1970 when, too bored to stay, he slipped downstairs to the piano bar to hear satirist Mark Russell play.
Mr. Russell delivered a one-liner that brought the house down and set Mr. Robinson rolling on an entrepreneurial mission.
"Mickey Mouse wears a Spiro Agnew watch," Mr. Russell said, and the words moved Mr. Robinson to pay a visit to cartoonist Richard Q. Yardley at The Sun. Yardley sketched a little Agnew. Mr. Robinson had it painted and then fitted on a Timex watch; he filed for a copyright and patent.
Soon, his secretary saw Ethel Kennedy wearing an Agnew watch on television -- but not his. Some other guy had also heard Mr. Russell and was pursuing the same idea.
And Mr. Agnew, perhaps feeling the need to prove he had a sense of humor, called a news conference to issue a universal license of his persona. Mr. Robinson's prototype watch was presented to Mr. Agnew at the news conference. A manufacturer agreed to mass-produce the design as clocks and watches.
But the manufacturer went bankrupt within the year. Mr. Robinson never got a nickel, he said recently from his office at the downtown law firm of Gordon Feinblatt. He did, however, save some of the clocks and watches, and in 1986 presented this one to the historical society.
"It was a hula hoop of its time, a real Nehru jacket," he said. They're "Marylandia" in the way that a Barbie is "Americana."