From odd 'corners and cubbyholes'

October 30, 1994|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun Staff Writer

There was a time when many of the objects on display at a new exhibition of Maryland history at the Maryland Historical Society would have been discarded as trash.

And the title is a mouthful, too: "Celebrating a Collection: The Library of Maryland History 1844-1994." The show is further billed: "Odds and ends picked up from remote corners and cubbyholes."

This 150th anniversary celebration of mainly paper objects -- from the society's library, not its museum -- is not an easy exhibition to take in. You have to read and study the materials. They are not uniformly beautiful. Some of the documents are so arcane only a person with a very bookish sensibility would find much interest in them. If you want history in the style of Walt Disney, this is not the place to be.

The exhibit is honest. What has been dug out of the files is thoroughly representative of the deep and impressive holdings of a society founded 150 years ago to preserve the history of Maryland.

It is a show wherein seemingly innocent objects have a way of popping out and speaking. Their voice is sometimes strident, sometimes sweet and occasionally out-of-tune.

Consider a chart of 1935 Baltimore that speaks frankly about the social and ethnic mix of the city. It was produced by the Baltimore Distributing Co., a firm whose employees went door-to-door delivering circulars in 25 sections.

Each one of these geographic zones was assigned a classification: "working class, colored and Jewish, Polish, Italian, colored better class, wealthy, Jewish white collar class, bonton, America white collar class and downtown business district." As your eye scans the city, it is apparent that there were far more blue-collar parts of Baltimore than the bonton zones of Guilford, Homeland and Roland Park.

If you trench deep enough into any collection, you are sure to find some controversy. Racial issues have long simmered in Baltimore, but few were as much discussed in middle-class white circles as the desegregation of the tearoom in the old Hochschild-Kohn department store at Howard and Lexington streets in the spring of 1960. The society has a collection of letters that address this subject.

Fred H. Ohrenshall, who still lives on Tuscany Road in North Baltimore, wrote Louis Kohn, a store executive: "Congratulations your courageous decision to open your restaurant facilities to all people without regard to race."

Eleanor H. Brainard of Providence Road, Towson, also wrote to praise the store's action, but noted that she had "bought relatively little there because of living so near [retailing rival] Hutzler's Towson." This letter tells as much about the middle-class flight from Baltimore as it does about race relations.

Accompanying these letters: a pair of unsigned notes from customers annoyed at the desegregation policy. The writers claim they will be taking their business elsewhere.

The society has voluminous photographic files. Some of the most charming are the family albums. Let's hope that family video tapes of Ocean City in the summer of 1994 survive as well as the black-and-white photos of that beach in July 1898. There is also a short home movie of the 1933 hurricane that swept through the resort and cut through the inlet.

Of the thousands of professionally taken photos, one records the opening years of 19th-century Baltimore's hesitant experiment with mass transit, the Guilford Avenue Elevated. It's a magnificent photo, one that has escaped publication in any of the standard streetcar history books.

Could the June 1941 picture of the Spanish Villa night club on the roof of the old Southern Hotel have been made for a sales brochure or postcard? Too bad there are no dancers or martini drinkers.

The Emerson Hotel (Calvert and Baltimore streets) cocktail lounge in 1943 looks like something out of a Warner Brothers B-movie. The scene includes two barmaids, art deco decor and little signs for Gunther's and National Premium beers.

So many of the remnants of history get tossed away. But not in this permanent attic for such paper scraps as a ticket on the Baltimore-Tolchester steamship line; a card from Harry the Tailor, 3101 St. Paul St.; a label from Golden Crown table syrup; a ticket from the July 10, 1940, world premiere of "Maryland" (Walter Brennan, Fay Bainter and John Payne) at the old Centre Theatre on North Avenue; and a Sept. 17, 1950, program of the Colts vs. the Redskins.

By no means is the exhibit a nostalgic ramble through the state. Slavery, war, politics, geography and religion each has its memento.


pTC What: "Celebrating a Collection: The Library of Maryland History 1844-1944"

Where: Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; through March 16

Admission: $3.50 adults, $2.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 5 to 18, free Saturday 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Call: (410) 685-3750

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