Noises of city have always been an annoyance

January 09, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

Noise. It is such a fact of life today. Each decade seems to bring more -- gunshots, exotic wails from emergency vehicles, crime-searching helicopters and amplifiers everywhere.

The decibels we've grown accustomed to were not there once. There were, however, other noises.

Just how quiet, and rackety, Baltimore was can be judged by the January 1913 Bulletin of the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland.

The entire magazine was dedicated to the anti-noise question.

The faculty's president, Dr. William Topping Watson, penned a lengthy article about Baltimore's auditory nuisances: ". . . night noises which keep people from going to sleep: barking dogs, yowling cats, young men street singers and corner loafers, Graphophones and player pianos in houses [I wonder what Dr. Watson would do with a boom box], loud talking and laughing at streetcar transfer points by parties returning from theaters and suburban resorts (like Mount Washington and Mount Holly), loud talking by apartment dwellers returning late, noisy garages and noisy people in alleys."

He went on to catalog other annoying night noises: "The Street Cleaning Department wagons with the men shouting at their horses and to each other, the puffing and whistling of steam locomotives in their yards, bread and milk wagons with their shouting drivers, the cries of men driving hogs and cattle through the streets, the crowing of roosters, squawking of geese, the carts and wagons (some equipped with bells on the harnesses) on their way to work with shouting and cursing drivers, the early morning electric streetcars, often with flat wheels, screechy brakes and clanging gongs, the church and convent bells, then the chorus of steam whistles at 7 a.m."

His list went on and on.

For daytime noises, he nominated auto tracks and car noises, to wit: noisy running gear, flat wheels, gongs and screechy brakes.

Ditto milk gongs, scissors grinders, huckster cries, roller skates on sidewalks, steam whistles at noon and street pianos.

As an addendum, he came up with extra church bells, yelling newspaper boys (a.m. and p.m.), street evangelists and Saturday night drunks returning at 1 and 2 a.m.

Dr. Watson, a specialist in nervous disorders, himself appears to have been quite evangelistic about the subject of noise.

He was a native of Nova Scotia and was successful in getting a city noise ordinance passed that designated quiet zones around city hospitals.

He died in 1926 at Church Home and Infirmary of an infection caused by a pimple on his nose.

The entire report he issued shows what an intimate city Baltimore must have been in 1912.

It also points out a few practices that have gone the way of fresh whipping cream on top of a quart of milk:

"The retail milk business has entirely changed in character in recent years. . . Instead of ringing the gong [a hand-held loud bronze bell] for the housewife to come with her pitcher for loose milk, the milk bottle is set in the vestibule or on the back fence. On the second delivery the doorbell is rung," so that the woman may order future supplies.

"It is on this second delivery that the gong is rung to get the door answered more quickly. It is that gong that awakens babies and annoys the sick," Dr. Watson wrote.

Train yards were particularly ear-splitting places in the days of steam-powered switching engines.

Clarissa M. Mabbett, of 2022 Mount Royal Terrace, contacted the good doctor about her plight: "The neighborhood rejoiced when the Mount Vernon shops [nearly on the site of today's Central Light Rail car barn] were moved away. Our satisfaction was short-lived for in their stead we now have a shunting yard. Added to the smoke nuisance we now have a smoke nuisance.

"There are the bells, steam whistles, the poof, poof, poof, slow and measured, then faster and faster, then the unearthly shrieks of the whistle, which awakening one from sleep, gives the impression that the engine has determined to come into the room and take possession."

There were ungodly complaints about church bells.

Dr. Watson's list of noisy strikers included the House of the Good Shepherd (Union Square) "The bell begins ringing at 5 a.m. and tolls 160 times in succession. It rings every 15 minutes thereafter until 8:30 p.m. It is a harsh sounding bell and rings unmercifully at noon and 6 p.m."

The old German Reformed Church, once in the 800 block of N. Calvert St., was the bane of sleepers in the Mount Vernon neighborhood.

"To hear some crippled chimes struggle with 'Onward Christian Soldiers' excites no religious emotion," said one disgruntled householder.


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