Mardi Gras season meant galas in the city in days of old

February 15, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Today is Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, the last day for a feast before Lent arrives.

Not so much is made of this day in Baltimore now. We are not a New Orleans in terms of carnival celebrations. But a glance at a newspaper of 100 years ago reveals a reverential tone toward Lent, as well as a healthy attitude toward the days preceding Ash Wednesday.

The arrival of Lent was major news here then. The word of James Cardinal Gibbons was the top local story on Ash Wednesday in 1894.

"It is allowed to take in the morning some warm liquid, such as tea, coffee or thin chocolate, made with water, and with this liquid a mouthful of bread," the prelate said in his remarks governing what observant Roman Catholics, over age 21, should have for breakfast.

In the 1890s, Baltimore's Mardi Gras season was a busy time of carnival and merrymaking.

Take, for example, the group of young Baltimoreans in the Chesapeake Bay Beefsteak Club. Their role was to enjoy each other's company and settle down to prodigious meals.

A few days before Lent's arrival in February 1896, the fellows rented a part of the old Lyceum Theatre, a famous gathering place just north of the corner of Charles and Chase streets. The Lyceum, also known as Albaugh's, was a bright light of the local entertainment circuit. It played host to many theatrical and social events and boasted some rows of "courting sofas" instead of traditional auditorium seats.

The Beefsteakers were an all-male organization but women were welcome at the Mardi Gras party. There was fine aged beef for this dinner, but the house rule for the night was that absolutely no cutlery -- no knives, forks or spoons -- would be allowed.

"At one end of the supper room were gas ranges attended by cooks dressed in big white aprons from neck to ankles. Everyone handled the food with their fingers," The Sun reported of the event.

Notable among the guests present were three of Baltimore's greatest baseball names of the 1890s: Oriole manager Ned Hanlon, Joe Kelley and John McGraw.

One of Baltimore's most brilliant Mardi Gras seasons was 1899, a February also known for an exceptionally heavy snowfall and cold spell. For ten days before Ash Wednesday, some group was all dolled up in funny clothes and masks.

Several of the city's German societies gathered at the Germania Maennechor Hall on Lombard Street near Paca for a masked ball full of costumes, plumage and music. A large orchestra played Johann Strauss, Reginald De Koven and Franz von Suppe as the couples danced away the evening.

That same night the town's social lions gathered at Windy Gates, the home of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Jenkins Jr. on Lake Avenue. (The home stands today. Subdivided, it is known as the Devon Hill condominium).

"All the girls wore dominoes of different colors and the men appeared in pink coats, Knickerbockers of black satin, black silk stockings and pumps. All wore masks," it was reported. The house was decorated with American Beauty roses and Japanese and Moorish lanterns.

The Union Square Methodist Church rented Hollins Hall above the Hollins Market on Carrollton Avenue for a well attended bazaar, oyster supper and costumed entertainment gala the next night.

The services of hair dresser Emil Caye were required for an elaborate Hunt Ball staged by the Elkridge Club at Lehmann's Hall on Howard Street. Caye and staff, all in full livery, attended to the gentlemen so that Baltimore's society swains could be at their best.

The next evening was the Bal Poudre held by Mr. and Mrs. Francis Jencks at their mansion at 1 W. Mount Vernon Place, today the Walters Art Gallery's Hackerman House.

Mrs. Jencks dressed as Marie Antoinette. Her husband greeted his guests as King Louis. "The large drawing rooms were used as a ballroom, their highly polished floors reflecting the soft glow of the shaded electric candelabra." The home's columns were festooned with wisteria, violets, lilies and smilax. A minuet opened the dancing at 10 p.m. A supper followed.

The entire Music Hall, known today as the Lyric, was rented for the Harmonie Singing Society's Grand Masked Ball.

Then, of course, it all quieted down and people got used to breakfasts of weak chocolate and small pieces of toast for the next 40 days.

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