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Author: Auni Gelles

Auni Gelles is a graduate student in public history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She works for the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, one of Maryland’s 13 certified Heritage Areas covering portions of Carroll, Frederick, and Washington counties. A graduate of Goucher College, she previously served as a graduate assistant with the Center for Digital History and Education and the Special Collections at UMBC, as a New Media intern at the National Museum of American History, and a program assistant at the Maryland Humanities Council.

Digitized directories speed search for forgotten landmarks of 1814-era Baltimore Identifying sites and scouring primary sources

For our new Battle of Baltimore project, Auni Gelles is digging into the digital archives to trace the history of early 1800s Baltimore. You can start with Auni’s first post on the history of Defender’s Day, her interview with the director of the Flag House or read on for the latest in our behind-the-scenes look at historical research and commemoration in the 21st century.

A few weeks into my work with the Battle of Baltimore project, I’ve selected around fifteen sites that I plan to research and write short stories about. I started with a list of over 200 sites compiled from early 19th century accounts of Baltimore such as Poppleton’s Plan of the City of Baltimore and Kearney’s Map of Baltimore’s Defenses. While some of these places are still familiar to 21st century Baltimoreans (Lexington Market, the Battle Monument), others are mostly forgotten (Harrison’s Marsh, Sugar House, Tobacco Inspection Warehouse).

Poppleton Plan, 1822. Library of Congress, g3844b ct001133>/a>.
Poppleton Plan, 1822. Library of Congress, g3844b ct001133

To gauge which sites would be most fruitful for this project, I tried to get a general sense of the story behind each site before diving too deep into research. For example, I wanted to include a school to discuss the state of education in the early 19th century. The master list included seven such institutions: Male Public School No. 1, Public School No. 3, McKim’s Free School, the Baltimore Free School, the Female Free School, the Methodist Free School, and the Oliver Hibernian Free School. I spent a few minutes on Google to determine which might have the most compelling 1814 story to tell.

Illustration of McKim's Free School from J.H.B. Latrobe's Picture of Baltimore. JScholarship.
Illustration of McKim’s Free School from J.H.B. Latrobe’s Picture of Baltimore. JScholarship.

While the Oliver Hibernian Free School sounded fascinating, I found out it wasn’t established until 1824—and thus, may not be the best fit for this project. This preliminary search is not always straightforward, as there are variations on many place names. In the education example, there is a contemporary organization called the “Baltimore Free School,” which further complicates matters.

Once I focused in on a site, I turned to the wealth of primary resources now available online to understand how a building or institution was described around the Battle of Baltimore. I’ve found that it’s easiest to scour these sources for information about multiple sites rather than to focus only on one site at a time. City registers, including the 1814-1815 and 1816 City Registers, were invaluable in this step. The main function of the register was to provide a directory of Baltimore’s residents and businesses. A simple list of names, professions, and addresses offers many insights into early 19th century Baltimore.

For example, when researching Mary Pickersgill’s Jonestown house (now known as the Flag House), city registers provided information about the flagmaker’s neighbors and therefore, clues about her social and economic status. The 1814 directory showed that her Albemarle Street neighbors included the first clerk of the Bank of Maryland, a sea captain, a lumber merchant, an attorney, a merchant, and a physician—as well as craftsmen such as a cooper, a sailmaker, a weaver, a carver, and a distiller.

An advertisement in the 1814 directory offers services no longer rendered by dentists: cupping and bleeding with leeches.
An advertisement in the 1814 directory offers services no longer rendered by dentists: cupping and bleeding with leeches. Courtesy Maryland State Archives.

Registers also include information about street names, elected officials, and, of course, advertisements. I’ve particularly enjoyed reading some of the positions appointed by the Mayor and City Council. These appointments include the inspector of butter, lard, and flaxseed; inspectors and gaugers of liquors, molasses, and oil; weigher of hay for the Lexington Hay Scale; keepers of the city springs; superintendent of the powder magazine—clearly an important task in September of 1814! I’ve also rediscovered the joy of reading historic advertisements. An ad for J.C. Petherbridge, “Dentist and Bleeder,” reminds me just how far medicine has come in the past two centuries: Mr. Petherbridge offered his services in Old Town “where cupping or bleeding with leeches is required.” While Mr. Petherbridge likely won’t be making an appearance in the Battle of Baltimore site, his advertisement has helped me get a better sense of everyday life in Baltimore at this time.

As the project progresses I hope to round out the online research with archival research at the Maryland Department at the Enoch Pratt Free Library as well as the Baltimore City Archives and other local institutions.

Join Auni in the search by checking out our collection of Digital Sources for Local History Research that includes a link to a list of digitized Baltimore City directories from 1816 to 1923.

Highlighting a famous flagmaker and a little-known collection Interview with the director of the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House

Read on for the second post in a new series from local preservationist Auni Gelles as she works on our new Battle of Baltimore website and soon-to-be-launched app. Auni interviewed Amanda Shores Davis, the Executive Director of the Flag House, about this museum’s unique and little-known collections.

If you have an interest in the Battle of Baltimore, you’ve no doubt visited the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House on Pratt Street. (And if you haven’t, now is a great time to check it out!) The 1793 brick house became the home and business of flagmaker Mary Pickersgill in 1806, seven years before she was commissioned to sew the enormous flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. The house’s proximity to the busy harbor helped to make her business creating ships’ colors and signal flags quite stable. Mary stitched the soon-to-be-famous Star Spangled Banner and a smaller storm flag in seven weeks over the summer of 1813 with the help of her mother (and fellow flagmaker) Rebecca Young, daughter Caroline, nieces Eliza and Margaret Young, and Grace Wisher, an African American indentured servant.

The city of Baltimore purchased the house in 1927 and it has served as a museum for the past 88 years. A new permanent exhibit at the Flag House entitled “Family of Flagmakers: The Women Who Created the Star-Spangled Banner” explores the lives of these women.

In addition to the historic house, a contemporary museum building, and landscaped grounds, the Flag House is home to a collection of archival materials related to the Battle of Baltimore and the Star-Spangled Banner. Amanda Shores Davis, the Executive Director of the Flag House, took some time to answer my questions about this little-known but valuable collection.

Auni: Some Baltimoreans may be aware of the historic house and museum building but not the collections at the Star-Spangled Flag House. What types of materials are held here? How large is the collection?

Amanda: The Flag House holds a collection of 19th century decorative arts (the majority are from the early part of the century, 1800-1820), memorabilia from celebrations in recognition of the Star-Spangled Banner, Old Defenders, and Baltimore anniversaries, and War of 1812 military items. There are also small holdings of primary source documents (city directories, letters, periodicals) and WWI and WWII posters. We have roughly 1,000 items in the collection. This does not include the archaeological materials found in 1996 and 1998.

Auni: How did these objects/documents end up at the Flag House? Were they donated by descendants, purchased/donated by individuals, or acquired by the city?

This photo of Mary Pickersgill was taken some 40 years after the Battle of Baltimore. Courtesy of the museum.
This photo of Mary Pickersgill was taken some 40 years after the Battle of Baltimore.

Amanda: Collections items have come to the Flag House in a variety of ways. The one of the first administrators, the Ruth Bibbins, who purchased or collected many of the furnishings for the house. Some items have been gifted over the years and some items have come to us as permanent loans from institutions that are no longer operational. Very few items have been donated by descendants of Mary Pickersgill. Her daughter Caroline Pickersgill Purdy was childless so few things have come to us by the descendents of Mary’s sister Hannah.

Auni: Is the collection accessible to researchers?

Amanda: We are currently undergoing reorganization of the collection, cataloging, and status reports so for now the collection is not open to researchers—although that is the end goal, and to add our online catalog to the website.

Auni: What artifact or document is most surprising, in your opinion?

The living room at the Flag House, courtesy of the museum.
The living room at the Flag House.

Amanda: The most surprising item in the collection is the receipt for the Star-Spangled Banner for the fact that it even exists. There is little to no documentation of the flag making business aside from advertisements in city directories. We have two key documents that sort of create bookends to Mary’s career as a flag maker: the first is the [flag] receipt from 1813, six years after the establishment of the business in 1807 and obviously her most famous commission. The second is an 1815 receipt for what we consider to be one of the last flags made by Mary. The receipt is for an American ensign 15 x 24.5 feet, for $120, commissioned in February 1815. It dates to the period in which Mary stops making flags before the marriage of her daughter, Caroline, to iron merchant, John Purdy.

Auni: Are there any objects/documents related to Grace Wisher in the collection?

Amanda: There are no objects related to Grace Wisher, the only evidence I believe anyone has been able to locate about Grace is her indenture contract, which is not part of our collection.

Auni: I know there was some archaeological work conducted at the Flag House a number of years ago. What were some of the most interesting finds of those digs?

Amanda: This is probably my favorite part of the collection. There is one box of objects from the dig under the kitchen floor conducted in 1996. Everything from beer bottles to a lady’s hair comb. The 1998 dig conducted by the Baltimore Center for Urban Archaeology uncovered over 15,000 unique items. The majority of the items were preserved and mostly intact due to the use of the privy and beehive oven being used as trash disposal areas. I specifically included a case in our new exhibit to showcase some of these items to tell the history of the house itself and because there was so much cool stuff!

For me as a decorative arts historian some of the best items are intact utilitarian objects like yellow ware bowls and a decorative candy dish because they were so well-preserved and are great educational tools to talk about material culture and life in the 19th century. A close second would be the remnants of a thimble and pair of scissors that the archeologist located in the old foundation of the oven and date to the period when Mary lived in the house. If you asked kids who visit what the coolest item is, they might say the blue glass doll eyes.

Auni: Thank you, Amanda, for taking time to share the collection with us!

200 years after the original Defender’s Day, we continue to remember the Battle of Baltimore Exploring the War of 1812 in the Monumental City

Today we are sharing the first in a new series of posts from local preservationist Auni Gelles as she works on our new Battle of Baltimore website and soon-to-be-launched app. Auni tells the story of the city’s first Defender’s Day celebration and shares how we are carrying on this legacy of commemoration and education two centuries later.

Since 1815, Baltimoreans have celebrated the bravery of those “Old Defenders” who guarded against the British at sea (at Fort McHenry) as well as on land (at North Point) during the September 1814 Battle of Baltimore. This battle, near the end of the War of 1812, had implications for defense, trade, and perhaps most significantly, the identity of our city and country. The Americans’ success in Baltimore inspired Maryland attorney Francis Scott Key to write “The Defence of Fort M’Henry”—which we know today as our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. Key’s lines, which gained near-instant popularity, transformed the flag from a straightforward military sign into a symbol of American patriotism. The event quickly became an integral part of the city’s understanding of itself in the new republic.

Photograph of the Old Defenders by W. Ashman, Druid Hill Park, c. 1876-1880. Maryland Historical Society, GPVF.
Photograph of the Old Defenders by W. Ashman, Druid Hill Park, c. 1876-1880. Maryland Historical Society, GPVF.

This September will mark 201st anniversary of the Battle and the the 200th anniversary of the city’s the first Defenders’ Day commemorations. Baltimore marked first anniversary of the battle with a ceremony that laid the cornerstone for the Battle Monument—a symbol has appeared on the city seal since its completion in 1825. Anniversaries of this major Battle presented an opportunity for Baltimoreans to recall their city’s moment of national importance. 19th century Baltimoreans celebrated Defenders’ Day annually with parades, artillery salutes, fireworks, speeches, banquets, performances, and, until the last veteran passed away in 1894, reunions of the Old Defenders. President Benjamin Harrison was in attendance for the 75th anniversary in 1889 and witnessed a 15,000-person parade, battle reenactments, and a rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner performed by a 415-piece band and a chorus 500 voices strong. The week-long centennial celebration in 1914 featured an “auto parade,” a carnival of electric lights, a military ball, an outdoor concert, fireworks over Fort McHenry, a display of visiting ships in the harbor, and schoolchildren forming form a human flag (sound familiar?).

A crowd gathers at the Battle Monument as part of the Star-Spangled Spectacular, the bicentennial commemoration of the defense of Baltimore, in 2014.
A crowd gathers at the Battle Monument as part of the Star-Spangled Spectacular, the bicentennial commemoration of the defense of Baltimore, in 2014.

The team at Baltimore Heritage is developing a new platform for exploring the Battle of Baltimore and its legacy, thanks to a grant from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority. A new website and smart phone app will share short place-based stories related to the battle and its revered place in the city’s history. Like Explore Baltimore Heritage, the Battle of Baltimore website will use the Curatescape platform to plot these sites on a map and integrate individual stories into thematic tours. Some of the buildings integral to city life in and around 1814 are no longer extant, but we will seek to tell those stories with period illustrations and excerpts from 19th century publications.

As a graduate student in public history at UMBC, I will assisting with researching, writing, editing/formatting and publishing these stories for my thesis. I will also create blog posts as well as activities for engagement with this content, such as quizzes, lists, and shareable graphics.

Do you have questions about the project? Suggestions for sites to highlight? We’d love to hear your feedback!

Be sure to check out Auni’s 2014 post for the National Museum of American History with the story behind a modest piece of charred timber set on fire by British troops in 1814. You can also follow Auni on Twitter @aunigelles and share your comments on this post in the Bmore Historic Facebook group.