A Journey Through Time To An 1840 Kitchen

November 25, 1990|By Lynn Williams

What a difference 150 years makes.

Pigs and chickens no longer scratch in the doorways outside the cluster of buildings that now comprise Baltimore's City Life Museums. In fact, subway construction is under way right down the block. Neighbors no longer include the likes of Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, although they do include folks from the row houses of Little Italy and the penthouses of Scarlett Place. The neighborhood is, in short, a piece of thoroughly modern Baltimore, poised between inner-city struggle and renaissance gloss.

But the houses of Museum Row have plenty in common with their 19th century selves, and nowhere is Baltimore's past more in evidence than at the 1840 House. Like the nearby Carroll Mansion, the house is part of the museum complex, but it does not merely pay tribute to the past by housing its art and artifacts. This "living history" museum is devoted to re-creating the middle-class lifestyles of a century and a half ago.

Built in the 1790s and largely rebuilt in the 1980s, it is furnished with the same kinds of object listed in the household inventory of owner Joseph Hutchinson, a wheelwright who died in 1840. While the house boasts some antiques, many of the items are reproductions, so that both staff and visitors can use and enjoy them without worrying about damaging something precious.

Modern Baltimoreans are invited to drop in to spend an afternoon with the Hutchinsons, their relatives and servants (as portrayed by actor-interpreters) or, though a new program called Journeys Through Time, to imagine themselves guests at an 1840 soiree.

Visitors will, museum personnel promise, "immerse themselves in the sights, sounds and scents of a century past." Another sense is probably even more important to the visitors, though: taste. Nineteenth century foods, prepared at the open hearth using the tools and techniques of the period, are at the heart of a Journeys Through Time experience.

Fourteen members of the Pilot Club of Baltimore, a women's service organization, met recently at the 1840 House for a total-immersion evening that included an introductory lecture, a tour, parlor games and storytelling, and a period-style meal, which the women helped prepare.

A century and a half ago, the brick-floored subterranean kitchen was the domain of Mary Ann Hutchinson and her free black servant Sarah. On this particular evening in 1990, said kitchen was claimed by Judy Smythe, a Philadelphia-area homemaker who commutes to Baltimore periodically to whip up the same kind of hearty stews enjoyed by the Hutchinson household.

When the group descended to the candle-lit kitchen they found their hostess, dressed in a brown print frock, apron and white cap, tending to bowls of salad greens. Stew was simmering in a covered kettle over the fire, and a Dutch oven sat ready for corn bread. Gingerbread and sugar cookies were set aside to cool.

One wall of the original stone foundation is lined with shelves, stocked with cooking tools, jugs, flatirons and other household implements, and such staples as bottles of homemade herb vinegar. Freshly dried herbs hang from a cord stretched above the hearth. At the back of the room are a couple of large buckets, and the yoke that a servant would have worn to fetch water from a public pump several blocks away. A few of the women donned the yoke and tried hefting the buckets -- and gained new appreciation for their handy faucets at home.

Next to the toasty kitchen is the dark, cheerless scullery, a storeroom where Mrs. Hutchinson kept supplies for both the household and the drygoods store she operated (and where Sarah slept, on a pallet stuffed with corn husks). Casks sit in a corner, and a (real) salted ham hangs from the ceiling.

Alan Gephardt, a historical interpreter and tour guide, plucked an odd, cone-shaped object from the top of the scullery pie safe.

"You've heard the expression 'eat my hat?' This is a hat of sugar," explained Mr. Gephardt, who runs a Baltimore County senior center in 1990, but is dressed for 1840 in an elegant vest and stock tie. "When you needed the sugar you just tore the wrapper open and broke off what you needed."

While wealthier neighbors, such as the Carrolls, had iceboxes, the Hutchinsons had no means of refrigeration at all, and had to buy food daily.

"There was a big market where Chi-Chi's used to be [in the Brokerage area]," Mrs. Smythe said. "You could get pretty much everything there. And you could go down to the waterfront and buy seafood. Farmers would also come into town with milk and cheese products, but not much milk was consumed, because it went bad. They didn't drink much water, either. They drank a lot of ale, even the children."

(The brewery, she points out, was right across the street, where Brewer's Park and the Baltimore Brewing Company now stand.)

The meat of choice for 1840 Baltimoreans was the plentiful pork.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.