Public works of a bygone era are on display

February 01, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Baltimore has a museum that honors the wash board, the slop bucket and the chamber pot.

Located at one of the fanciest addresses in the Inner Harbor, the Museum of Public Works is all about plumbing, asphalt, cobblestones and tunnels.

Annually, some 15,000 people come to the museum at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Falls Avenue to get an overview of the city's infrastructure at the old, orange brick pump house, located due south of the Christopher Columbus statue and the Scarlett Place apartments.

"One man wanted his money back because there wasn't enough machinery," said Carol Runion, the one-person curatorial staff. "There's plenty to see here."

She had to chuckle over the dissatisfied customer. The pumping station actually houses huge electric pumps that are used to flush raw sewage from the parts of the city that are at sea level to an underground pipe near Broadway and Fayette Street. From there, the sewage flows by gravity to the Back River Treatment Plant.

The museum's newest exhibit is entitled, "Before Indoor Plumbing . . . ." It consists of commodes, water dippers, chamber pots, packages of Octagon soap, galvanized metal wash tubs, hand ringers, wash stands and water pitchers and basins. There are large photographic enlargements of women at backyard pumps, dish pails and backyard laundry tubs. The pre-Maytag era looks like one long Monday full of miserable, back-breaking, time-consuming work.

"There's a lot we take for granted today," Runion said. "Just let the weather get cold and have a water line freeze and people find out what life was like a little bit before indoor plumbing. This is sort of a topical exhibit. We didn't plan it that way. It just worked out."

The display includes vintage copper and tin wash boilers, the deep metal tanks that you occasionally see today shined and lacquered in antique shops for use as magazine holders or for wood for the fireplace.

"When filled, they were heavy and hard to lift," Runion explained. "But that is how people got hot water before there were hot-water heaters. People heated their water on kitchen ranges."

They also scrubbed their dirty garments on ribbed wash boards. One such wooden device that Runion located on a museum shopping trip in southern Pennsylvania was handmade. "Look how it's worn down. Someone really worked that over," she said.

She attends auctions and antique sales in search of early household artifacts that dovetail into parts of daily life that are hidden under streets and alleys and behind walls.

For example, Runion has quite possibly the oldest drain pipe in Baltimore, a wooden trough unearthed in the mid-1980s when the foundation for the Gallery at Harborplace was being dug. The trough probably dates from the 1780s and was designed to train water off a merchants' warehouse.

"I'm still looking for lots of things. I'd love to have a tin bathtub that was portable and people would have used on Saturday night for a bath before going to church the next day," she said.

Runion prepares a small, give-away poster to accompany her shows. Earlier posters have been on the history of the Roland Park Water Tower, the Baltimore Pike (the National Road), the RTC Carrollton Viaduct, the Jones Falls, the city's storm drain system and the engineering feats of Charles Hazlehurt Latrobe. Her latest is the "History of the Bathroom." It's proved popular. Museum visitors pick up a free copy, frame it and make it part of their bathroom's decor, she said.

"Before indoor plumbing, water had to be pumped and carried to its place of use," Runion said. "It was quite a backbreaking chore to carry 10 or 20 gallons of water to the stove to be heated, then transfer the warmed water to the tub. Father was usually first, followed by the children, going from the cleanest to the dirtiest. Each was scrubbed down harsh, with homemade soap, and rinsed with an additional bucket of water. Mother was last, if she lasted that long. Finally, the water had to be discarded, bucket by bucket, by tossing it out through the back door. Keeping clean was hard work," the copy on the poster notes.

Museum patrons can also patronize the museum's gift shop. The best seller is what might be described as the ultimate piece of bathroom reading, author Ronald S. Barlow's "The Vanishing American Outhouse."

"We have trouble keeping it in stock," Runion said.

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