Tag: archeology

Highlighting a famous flagmaker and a little-known collection

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.

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

Meet archeologists and experience hands-on archeology in Patterson Park and Herring Run

This spring weather is perfect for picnics, bike rides, and, of course, archeology! Next week, you can find Baltimore Heritage in Patterson Park for Archeologists and Artifactsa pop-up exhibit showcasing archeological collections from Carroll Park, Patterson Park, Herring Run Park, and the forgotten town of Texas, Maryland.

If you came out for a site tour during our Hampstead Hill dig last spring, please join us to see the artifacts we recovered from the Battle of Baltimore, the Civil War and beyond. If you volunteered on our 2014 dig and can’t wait to get your hands dirty again, this informal social is the perfect opportunity to meet local archeologists and learn more about projects where volunteers can get involved.

Photograph by Eli Pousson, November 2014.
Photograph by Eli Pousson, November 2014.

Next month, we are continuing our archeological investigation in Herring Run Park in partnership with the Northeast Baltimore History Roundtable, Friends of Herring Run Parks and the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks. Initial research last fall uncovered some exciting finds that help reveal the early history of Eutaw Farm – better known today as the area of Hall Springs. A generous grant from Preservation Maryland’s Heritage Fund program is supporting our return to the park in May for a week-long investigation led by local archeologists Jason Shellenhamer and Lisa Kraus.

Read our last update about the Herring Run Park projectsign up to volunteer and save the date of May 16 and May 17 for our open house weekend at the dig.

Looking for Archeology in Herring Run Park? Ask big questions to find tiny artifacts

We’re glad to share this post from local archeologist Lisa Kraus about a new project we’ve been working on this fall: archeology in Herring Run Park! Lisa and her husband, Jason Shellenhamer, along with volunteers from the Northeast Baltimore History Roundtable have made some exciting finds in just the past few weeks. Read on for Lisa’s reflections on our progress and learn more about archeology in Baltimore.

My husband Jason and I moved to Northeast Baltimore in 2012, and were immediately intrigued by the tantalizing little glimpses of history we saw all over our neighborhood. We spotted a few 19th-century farmhouses sitting a little askew on the predominantly 20th-century landscape. We heard stories about an old pickle factory that once sold pickles for a nickel, right down the street from our house. We spotted a one-room schoolhouse that had been expanded into a social club, and an old stone mill building built into a hillside. We walked through the 19th-century German Lutheran cemetery nestled in the center of Montebello Park. While walking our dogs, we found Hall’s Spring and the shell of the old Eutaw Methodist Church in Herring Run Park, and wondered about the vanished communities those facilities once served.

Photograph by Bryson Dudley, 10 October 2011. Courtesy Monument City Blog.
Photograph by Bryson Dudley, 10 October 2011. Courtesy Monument City Blog.

Since we’re both archeologists and share a persistent curiosity about the past, we started looking at historical maps of Baltimore and trying to reconcile them with the modern landscape. We spent weekends at the archives doing research. It became clear that our neighborhood had a deep history, with European- and African-American settlements dating back to the 1600s and 1700s, and the possibility of prehistoric occupation stretching back thousands of years. To our surprise, we found that very little archaeology has been done in our neighborhood and we started thinking about how we could change that.

Photo by Lisa Kraus, November 2014.
Jason head-deep in a shovel test-pit. Photo by Lisa Kraus, November 2014.

Through some sort of cosmic serendipity, right about the time Jason and I started talking about starting an archaeology program in our neighborhood, the Northeast Baltimore History Roundtable approached Baltimore Heritage about starting a public archaeology project in Herring Run Park. After meeting with both groups and coordinating with the Friends of Herring Run Parks and the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, we set out for the park to see what we could find.

We were searching for sites that could tell us something new, something we couldn’t learn from books, maps or other records. After all, written history often reflects the interests and concerns of a limited group of people. Many wealthy and influential people called Baltimore home over the years, but most of the city’s former residents left few written records behind. Archeology is one of the best ways to learn more about the lives of the poor, the working classes, immigrants, women, children, free and enslaved African Americans, and Native Americans.

Photograph by Lisa Kraus, November 2014.
Photograph by Lisa Kraus, November 2014.

Very little is known about early residents of Northeast Baltimore. Who worked at the mills, the hotels and taverns, the farms that existed here in the 1800s? Who were the earliest immigrant settlers in the area, and where did they live? Were there Native American settlements and camps here? What were the lives of all these early residents like, and how did they influence the area that eventually became Greater Lauraville? How has the neighborhood changed over time, and what has stayed the same?

Over the last few months, we’ve discovered sites in Herring Run Park that could answer many of these questions, and raise many more. We’re looking forward to working with our partners, neighbors, students and volunteers as we make more discoveries, and we hope you’ll join us!

Thank you to Lisa for her commitment to the Herring Run Park Archeology project. Don’t forget to check out Jason’s research on the early history of Eutaw Farm in Herring Run Park with historic maps and images. Stay tuned for more updates (including volunteer opportunities) in the next few months!

[We Dig Hampstead Hill] Join Dr. John Bedell for a presentation on the archeology of Patterson Park

Bicentennial Celebration at the Patterson Park Pagoda
Photograph by Friends of Patterson Park, September 14, 2014.

Last month, the We Dig Hampstead Hill project team joined in the celebration of the bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore. Over 200 visitors stopped by our table in Patterson Park to take a close look at selected artifacts and ask questions from the archeologists. This Saturday, we are hosting archeologist Dr. John Bedell for a lecture and discussion at the Southeast Anchor Branch Library where local residents, volunteers, and others can learn more about the archeology of the site.

Dr. John Bedell, lead archaeologist on the project, will discuss the Battle of Baltimore and its importance for the city’s history, describe the findings of the archeological study, and discuss the role of archeology in public history, historic preservation, and community memory. We also want to listen your thoughts on what how we can continue to protect the archeological resources in the park and continue our successful heritage education programs with local schools next spring.

Please let us know if you are interested in hosting a talk on the War of 1812 in Patterson Park at an upcoming community meeting! Local historians, students and scholars interested in the War of 1812 may also want to join our Battle of Baltimore Wikipedia Workshop & Edit-a-thon earlier in the afternoon on October 25.

Photograph by Friends of Patterson Park, September 14, 2014.
Photograph by Friends of Patterson Park, September 14, 2014.

[We Dig Hampstead Hill] Volunteers process artifacts from Patterson Park at the Maryland Historical Trust lab in Crownsville

Any archeologist will tell you: the most important part of a dig is not what we find, it is what we find out! Processing artifacts is an essential step to learning more about an archeological site and the stories it may hold. Thanks to support from the Maryland Historical Trust Archeology Lab in Crownsville, project archeologists from Louis Berger, and a great group of fourteen volunteers, we just completed the laboratory processing for the artifacts recovered from Patterson Park this past spring.

Between July 29 and August 27, our volunteers (including seven people who helped out during the dig this spring) washed and labeled artifacts then recorded detailed description in a catalog for the collection. The artifacts included a War of 1812 musket ball, a Civil War belt buckle, and a half-plate made of ironstone. The oldest artifact is the Piscataway point created over 2,000 years ago. We didn’t realize in the field that we had found huge number of pieces of kiln furniture (the protective vessels that held pipes as they were fired in the kiln) or “muffles.” The large number of pieces raises the question of whether a kiln was located at the site or whether they were just brought in as dirt fill.

In the next few weeks, Louis Berger will send the artifacts to Kansas City to be photographed at their own laboratory. They’ll be back in Baltimore in time for the bicentennial celebrations on September 14. In October, we will send the collection to its permanent home at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, at Jefferson Park and Museum in St. Leonard, Maryland. You can look forward to seeing a selection of artifacts back in Baltimore this spring as part of a new exhibit we are planning at the Patterson Park Pagoda with the Friends of Patterson Park.

Photograph by Greg Katz, September 02, 2014.
Photograph by Greg Katz, September 02, 2014.

Learn more about We Dig Hampstead Hill! Searching for the War of 1812 in Patterson Park from our earlier updates or on our project page.