Old documents, photos are treasures at the Baltimore Museum of Industry

April 12, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

At first glance, they might look like nothing more than the old papers Granddad stuck up in the attic, the dusty boxes about his business that no one ever took the trouble to throw out. But to the people at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, they look like treasures.

For, along with the tools and machines and boats and planes that make up the visible parts of this museum's collection, has come an assortment of archival material that reveals volumes about the business and labor of this city.

The collection ranges from photographs of Stieff silversmiths to drawings of Baron Von Esskay advertising that company's hot dogs; from canceled checks and stamped time cards to industrial catalogs, and from 19th century ledgers to labels of vegetable cans that were once filled in myriad Baltimore canneries.

"We are lucky because the people here at the museum starting collecting this stuff right from the start, when they were organizing the place in the late '70s," said Nancy Perlman, the museum's archivist. "Still, a lot of stuff was just thrown away."

For the past year and a half, Ms. Perlman has been organizing the 74 different collections held by the museum on Key Highway.

They are stored in a cluttered upstairs storeroom, 17,000 climate-controlled cubic feet dominated by shelves holding scores of boxes, each containing 1,000 pieces of paper or some of the 56,000 photographs and other images the museum holds.

On the floor are large cans filled with rolled-up blueprints.

Down one aisle are big framed photographs of buildings constructed by an engineering firm, down another a collection of industrial movies from various sources.

Stacked along one wall are the huge, leather-bound, handwritten ledgers used to record business transactions in the 19th century.

"Sometimes we don't even know where these things came from," Ms. Perlman said. "Other times, we'll get in touch with someone with a particular request and they will get excited about what we're doing down here and make a big donation."

Despite the seeming chaos, Ms. Perlman has managed to create order.

A reception at the museum last night officially opened the archives as a research center for students, teachers and whoever else might be interested in the history of Baltimore industry.

Ms. Perlman, who has organized archives for a variety of other groups and organizations, explained that the key to such work is in establishing "finding aids," reference points on the material that allow researchers to pinpoint what they are looking for.

It's all cross-referenced on a computer data base that will tell the museum staff exactly what box contains a certain document and where it is located on the shelves.

"We've already had several classes from Johns Hopkins and the University of Baltimore come by to use this, and that was before we were even open," Ms. Perlman said.

"Just look at this," she said, pointing to one of the cases prepared for an exhibit on the opening of the archives, her excitement illustrating how stories can spring forth from old documents. "This is a record book from Scarlett Seed Co. They shipped seeds all over the world.

"We have cables they sent and received before World War I. You know we think that it is only recently that we have learned to do business internationally with ease, but you read those cables and realize that, with the telegraph, a very sophisticated network was set up a long time ago. It's an interesting commentary on how business was done.

jTC "The house organs are great," she said of the museum's collection of internal publications put out by the management of various industries. "Of course they're not going to have anything about the workers in there that management didn't want, but you can learn a lot from them, sometimes by reading between the lines, things that management didn't intend."

On the exhibit floor of the museum, Ms. Perlman pointed to a practical application of the collection.

"One of our staff was putting together this machine and got to the point where he couldn't figure out what to do next," she said. "We found the catalog advertising the machine, and he followed that to get it in working order."

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