Pack-rat treasure of 'Marylandiana' Accumulation: A decision decades ago by Enoch Pratt Free Library to start keeping what some consider to be wastebasket material has resulted in a new display.

July 21, 1998|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Decades ago, the Enoch Pratt Free Library started keeping what some would routinely toss in the wastepaper basket -- gaudy junk mail, inky grocery store circulars and scribbled receipts for nights on the town. But they didn't just take in anybody's garbage.

Much of this thicket of brittle paper -- a chunk of it put aside by H. L. Mencken -- is stashed in the downtown Baltimore library's stuffy attic stacks, crammed in cartons and wood fruit crates. Some people call this random accumulation "Marylandiana." Others ephemera. Whatever names are tossed out, a new display culled from this pulpy archive proves that being a pack rat can lead to real treasures for public consumption.

Beginning in April, two librarians started sifting through the cartons and literally struck pay dirt. Aided by a computer, they've imposed discipline on this sooty snapshot of Baltimore's past.

"The sorting hasn't been too bad; I don't mind getting dirty," said Mendy Gunter, the Pratt's Maryland Department librarian who helped unravel the secrets of an eccentric collection that's never been seen publicly.

She and fellow librarian Sondra Guttman insist they've just touched on the outer layer (six boxes of about 100) in this random accumulation. But that's enough to fill a half-dozen showcases on the second-floor hall with political handbills, streetcar transfers and gas station promotional giveaways.

Named "Baltimore through the Decades," the miscellanea are explained more fully through accompanying photographs and maps. The show, slated to run through Labor Day, was designed by longtime Pratt design artist Bill Bond.

While the exhibit spotlights several hundred items, the computer and its database help untangle the quirky collection's pleasant chaos.

A few days ago, a library patron inquired how long it took to get from Baltimore to New York and St. Louis by train -- at the turn of the century. Gunter touched a computer mouse, which soon brought to light a 98-year-old Pennsylvania Railroad timetable housed in a gray cardboard box near a file cabinet of old opera and theater programs.

The patron's question went unanswered, because the fold-out paper schedule was for a 1900 steam train on the Baltimore-Washington run only. (Incidentally, it took an hour to go between the two cities, with stops in Bowie and Odenton, about the same time it takes a MARC commuter train today.) He went off to the B&O Museum, but the incident showed how the clutter could be used.

Much of the material (only a portion is ready for computer retrieval) is the ordinary stuff of daily life. The cache of unearthed materials has yielded dozens of grocery store fliers from the 1930s and 1940s, as well of dozens of circulars from long-gone Baltimore neighborhood department stores, such as: the Oriole at Baltimore and Poppleton streets; and Four Besche Brothers Light Street in South Baltimore. Also in the files are fliers for Mayer's store, as well as its successor, Epstein's, another Light Street selling institution until its 1990 demise.

"This is a rare glimpse into the cultural life of the times," said Edward C. Papenfuse, the state's archivist, who suggested the collection ideally would be served if it were imaged and placed on the Internet.

"It's very commendable they are making this material available. One of the most popular exhibitions the Smithsonian [Institution in Washington] ever put together was called 'The Nation's Attic.' "

The Pratt exhibition includes 1840s handbills about the Whig political party and sheets about persecution of Jews in the 1930s. A 1930s amateur music program lists Parren Mitchell, who went on to serve in the House of Representatives, as a young dancer.

The old Rennert Hotel, Saratoga and Liberty streets, was renowned for its regional dishes. A Feb. 24, 1927, menu describes: shad roe, chicken pot pie, oyster pattie Baltimore, chicken pot pie Rennert style, pigs' feet and potato salad, old Maryland ham and early York cabbage, three styles of hominy -- a boiled version, another served in a chafing-dish and a third in cake form. For dessert, the menu listed green apple pie and apricot pudding.

At the Oasis, a cabaret on Baltimore Street, a bar tab from the 1930s enumerates a Martini, two Balantine's, a Teacher's, Canadian Club, a Johnnie Walker and a rum and Coke. The bill was $4.85.

Also included are numerous 18th and 19th century examples.

One of the ephemera collection's early donors was a notable Baltimore saver -- Mencken. His save-it habit was so pronounced that he rated an entry in "Ripley's Believe It or Not," the syndicated cartoon strip: "Critic and author H. L. Mencken has a convenient way of clearing his desk. He often bundles up everything in sight -- from a dinner menu to a coal bill -- & sends it to Baltimore's Pratt Library to be filed under 'Marylandiana.' "

Mencken sent about 10 cartons to the library.

"Baltimore Through the Decades" is on the second floor of the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. The library is open Monday to Wednesday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Thursdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Fridays and Sundays.

Pub Date: 7/21/98

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