Seamstress' oven unearthed in dig at Flag House site Museum to reconstruct long-vanished 'beehive'

September 17, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Reading the dirt for signs of Baltimore seamstress Mary Pickersgill's "beehive" brick oven yesterday, archaeologist Esther Doyle Read pointed to a mix of black and yellow soil and drew a very important line.

Tracing the long-vanished oven's outline was the discovery she and a six-member team had worked for during their 10-day excavation of part of the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House grounds. They reached the object of their quest on the seventh day: the foundation of the oven the Pickersgill household used when it lived in the two-story federal brick house on East Pratt Street from 1807 to 1857.

"This is the edge intact!" Read exclaims, gingerly touching two dusty 205-year-old bricks near the kitchen where Pickersgill -- the woman who in 1813 made the star-spangled banner that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen his poem in the crepuscular light -- cooked meals for her family.

Explaining the clues to her major find, she adds, "You look for a color change in the soil."

Colors of the soil mean all the difference -- in years, decades, centuries -- in her field of ancient artifacts. As Read, director of the Baltimore Center for Urban Archaeology at University of Baltimore, scanned the dirt, she also saw signs of the foundation's near-destruction.

"They missed hacking it out in 1953 by 3 inches," she said, indicating a sewer pipe installed 45 years ago by less historically inclined folks. "The beehive oven was not disturbed. We were very lucky."

In the 1950s, American urban archaeology hardly existed as a discipline. Now, solving puzzles from the past has become a passion for women such as Read, 40, and Marta Rottweiler, 32, a fellow digger who trained at University of Maryland, College Park.

With skilled hands and broken nails, they literally sifted through soil with a technique called "screening" to find personal, intimate items from the 18th and 19th centuries: a key for a watch or jewelry box, as small as a man's thumbnail; a children's lice comb; and, most significantly, a piece of hand-painted, expensive china that probably belonged to the Pickersgill family.

"It may have been part of a teacup or saucer," said Read. "Just like cars change styles, so did styles of dishes, so we can date this to the early 19th century."

Drinking tea from such china marked the all-female household as middle class. And, as Read said, "Tea was an extremely important social event, a sign of gentility."

The discovery will allow the museum to go forward with a reconstruction of the original brick oven, said Sally Johnston, director of the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and 1812 Museum.

Looking under the wood lintel of the kitchen fireplace, Johnston said, "We figure it's Mary Pickersgill's soot." She explained the way women measured the heat of a beehive oven: If they could keep their arm in the oven for a count of 10, the temperature was just right.

There are other echoes, such as bedroom quilts, of the 37-year-old woman who labored to make the flag day and night for Fort McHenry at the request of Col. George Armistead. Unearthed were signs of the "privy," which archaeologists consider time capsules of objects that yield clues to religion and diet.

"The privy was just extra," said Johnston. "A treat."

Johnston said it took Pickersgill, who lived to be 81, six weeks to make the massive 30- by 42-foot flag by hand. A self-supporting widow who lived comfortably with her daughter, Caroline, her mother, Rebecca Flower Young, three nieces and two female servants, Pickersgill was considered a daughter of the American Revolution: born in Philadelphia in 1776.

Her father died in the Revolutionary War, and her mother, also a seamstress, made flags to announce the new country's birth. Her mother and daughter, 74 and 13 when Pickersgill received the Armistead commission, helped her complete the task.

Remarking on Pickersgill's self-reliance, museum staffer Jeanne House said, "She was a lady of today."

Pub Date: 9/17/98

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