Recalling America's tin can capital

May 02, 1994

When commercial shuttle boats extend their regular service to the Baltimore Museum of Industry this summer, this institution near Locust Point becomes part of the Inner Harbor's attractions. It is about time. In the past 17 years, the museum has grown from a desk at City Hall to a most intriguing collection of Baltimore nostalgia.

"We have one of the largest educational programs of any museum in Baltimore," Dennis Zembala, the museum's director, remarked recently as a dozen school children were hard at work in a play cannery, shucking oysters and trying to relive a typical Baltimore industrial experience of some hundred years ago.

A total of 40,000 pupils are expected to visit the Key Highway museum this year. Most of them will come from the city and Baltimore County. The third largest group, however, will come all the way from Montgomery County.

The play cannery is just one of seven working industrial exhibits at the museum, which is in the midst of a fund-raising drive to generate $4 million. With $1.2 million already received through state and federal contributions, the museum is expanding its exhibits on Baltimore's industrial development. "We are an urban history museum," Dr. Zembala explained. "We are in a position to show how industry and science are related to this city."

Whether it is the development of printing, machine shop work, the port, garment manufacturing, the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. (now BGE) or radio and television broadcasting, the Museum of Industry has hands-on exhibits to tell the story.

With 49 canneries in the 187O, "we were the canning center of America," Dr. Zembala said, adding that one-tenth of the city's population got their livelihood from jobs connected with canning. Even in the 1940s, Baltimore plants still produced more tin cans than any other city in the world. In fact, the tin can itself was invented in Baltimore in the late 1830s by an English immigrant.

The pace of change has been so fast in recent times that the whole economic character of the city has changed. With a vast library of photographs and movies, the Museum of Industry is an important repository of the city's past. (It also retains collections of 100 defunct corporations; some 700 boxes contain records of the Canton Co. alone.)

The current expansion and the redesign of Key Highway will ensure that the Museum of Industry acquires a higher profile. It is a place of discovery that will not disappoint a visitor of any age.

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