It was 1844, the year rubber bands were patented and Chopin wrote his Sonata in B minor. It was the year the Baltimore City Council repealed ordinances that had permitted hogs to be run on city streets.
That year, 20 Baltimore gents secured a state charter to establish a men's club with something of a philanthropic slant. Sons of Maryland's founding fathers, they launched the Maryland Historical Society in an old post office building downtown. They pledged to "collect, preserve and diffuse information relative to the civil nature and literary history of the state of Maryland, and American history and biography generally."
Collect, they did. It began with a gavel carved from the keel of an explorer's ship. Some stuffed birds. Seashells. During the next 150 years, the society would evolve, gaining a broader constituency and a narrower focus -- and lots more items. Although the society recently announced plans to put less emphasis on the collecting of decorative items, this year, as it celebrates its sesquicentennial anniversary with festivities and exhibits, it is home to the baubles of Baltimore greats, the portraits and letters of Maryland's elite, the trifles of its heroes and the products and tools of the working classes.
The collection has just short of 5 million relics spanning four centuries, most of them acquired as bequests or gifts. Entire estates have been donated.
"Anything made or used in Maryland falls within our collecting policy. We can tell virtually any story with our objects," said Jennifer Goldsborough, the museum's curator.
And the story's the thing. The historical society doesn't want visitors to view its inventory as simply a collection of precious artifacts, Ms. Goldsborough said. See instead what the objects tell us about ourselves as people, as communities, as Marylanders. The items, therefore, don't have to fit anyone's conventional idea of what's "historical."
With the anniversary in mind, Sun Magazine asked the society's staff to identify some of the unconventional objects that are tucked away in storage, waiting for their stories to be told.
?3 MOLLY RATH is a free-lance writer in Baltimore.
The Maryland Historical Society, at 201 W. Monument St., will end its 150th anniversary celebration with a "Greatest Hits" show next spring, featuring items that aren't usually on display. For more information, call (410) 685-3750.
RIGHTING A WRONG
In 1815, construction began on Baltimore's monument to George Washington. Its design included inscriptions of significant dates in Washington's career.
The 178-foot monument was completed in 1829, but it was some time later that a passer-by, listed in historical society records as F. W. Schultz, noticed an error.
There, in brass, on the side of the monument's column, thBattle of Trenton was inaccurately dated December 25, 1776.
Schultz reported the mistake to authorities, who arranged to have the date corrected -- to December 26. Schultz obtained the 5, mounted it on a plaque and in 1897 donated it to the historical society.
Batons and sequin-studded parasols were the props of Eubie Blake's professional life, the tools of trade for the ragtime composer, pianist and producer of Broadway's early black musical hit, "Shuffle Along."
These help tell the story of his life on the stage, the story most of his fans know. Other items offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the man and his passions: His fountain pen speaks volumes. On the road all but a few days each year, Baltimore-born Eubie Blake cultivated some of his closest liaisons via the post.
For 22 years he corresponded with Cole Porter. For 40, he wrote to Milton Reddie. With lyricist Ernie Ford, Eubie maintained 27 years of letters. In letters exchanged with his first wife, Avis, he squabbled over money; his second wife, Marion, wooed him by mail with lines such as "you are sweeping me off my feet."
His later years were filled with birthday cards from presidents, fan mail from Louis Armstrong and letters from Pearl Bailey, spanning many years. After meeting him for the first time in California in 1964, Bailey penned Blake a letter brimming with admiration and awe. She wrote to him from her various ports of call when she went on tour, including Israel, where she sang "Memories of You," which he had written with lyricist Andy Razaf in 1930. In 1982, she sent him a telegram at Long Island College Hospital saying, "Marion would want you to eat, so do I. I love you."
Eubie Blake lived to be 100; he died in 1983. In 1985, his letters and belongings were given to the historical society. On Thursday, March 7, 1844, the "Cabinet" (as Historical Society members called their curio club) recorded its first artifact. A gift of member Brantz Mayer, it was a teakwood gavel carved from the keel of the Endeavour, the vessel sailed by explorer Capt. James Cook during his South Pacific voyage of discovery from August 1768 to June 1771. The gavel was to be used to keep late-hour meetings in order.