Telegraphy and Morse Code – A Breakthrough in Rapid Communication

Inkhorn-frontviewAn-bottomviewThis carved ivory object, recovered from a Baltimore privy filled in the mid-19th century, is an inkhorn and once formed part of a traveling writing kit known as a penner. In the age before the instant communication of telephone and email, the best way to reach out to people who were far away was to write and post a letter. This mode of communication, while effective, had some drawbacks.  It required an ability to read and write (or a friend willing to pen your letter) and the delivery took time.  These missives could take days, weeks or even months to reach their intended audience.

Rapid communication took an enormous leap forward in the year 1844, when Samuel F. B. Morse sent the first long distance telegraph message from Washington DC to the Mount Clare Railway Station in Baltimore. The year prior, Congress had allocated a sum of $30,000 for Morse to construct an electric telegraph line stretching forty miles between these two cities, after he successfully demonstrated the system between the Senate and House wings of the US Capitol (Chamber 2016).  Upon its completion in May of 1844, Morse and his partner, Alfred Vail, sent the first official  telegraphic transmission.  They used a quote from the book of Numbers (23:23) in the Bible:  “What hath God wrought?”  That same day, messages sent from the Democratic convention in Baltimore let members of Congress know that James K. Polk had received the Democratic presidential nomination.  Baltimore newspapers became the first in the nation to include news stories sent by telegraph. Continue reading

Elkton – Marriage Capitol of Maryland


Figure 1.   This small copper alloy band may have once graced the finger of a bride at the King’s Reach Site (18CV83), a late 17th-century tobacco plantation along the Patuxent River in Calvert County.

Love and Valentine’s Day are in the air, and this topic, although popular, seemed timely.  In the early 20th century, the Cecil County town of Elkton became known as the East Coast’s version of England’s Gretna Green.  For all you Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice fans, Gretna Green is where Elizabeth Bennett believed her careless sister Lydia was headed for a quickie wedding with the ne‘er-do-well Colonel Wickham. That trip did not turn out so well for Lydia Bennett, but Elkton was likely the birthplace of many a happy marriage during its quarter century heyday as the wedding capitol of Maryland.

Location and timing played key roles in Elkton becoming an elopement epicenter.  In 1913, Delaware passed mandatory waiting and public notification laws for marriage. Maryland had no such laws in place and Elkton’s location in the northeastern portion of the state made it the county seat closest to a number of major urban areas, like New York and Philadelphia, whose states also had waiting periods. The new Delaware law began twenty-five years of couples arriving by train or streaming south along Route 1 to take advantage of Maryland’s no-wait laws. Continue reading

Order in the Court — “Okay, I’ll Take an Ale” Charles County Courthouse (18CH777)



Figure 1.  Fragments from a Nottingham-type stoneware mug discovered during the excavation of the courthouse.

Quenching one’s thirst with a mug of ale or hard cider was a fitting end to a long day in court in the colonial period.  Taverns and ordinaries, often located near courthouses, were the scenes of celebrations as well sadder occasions for individuals drowning their sorrows after an unwanted legal outcome.  A fragment from a Nottingham-type English stoneware mug, recovered from the site of the first courthouse in Charles County, Maryland, was probably witness to many such revelries or disappointing endings.

plat map cut down

Figure 2.  1697 Plat map of the Charles County Courthouse and Ordinary.  Maryland State Archives.

A beautifully detailed plat map prepared in 1697 depicts the first Charles County courthouse.  Standing in a cluster of buildings, including an ordinary, several outbuildings, a fenced orchard and a set of stocks, this timber-framed structure was graced with a porch tower and glass windows.  It served as the courthouse from 1674 until its abandonment in 1727, when the location of the county court was moved to nearby Port Tobacco.  The courthouse was demolished for salvage in 1731 (King et al. 2008b) and over time, as the other buildings disappeared and people’s memories of them faded, the location of this first courthouse was lost. Continue reading

One Sweet Tale: Sugar Molds from the Shutt and Tool Sugar Refinery

The supermoon of August 2014 competes with the Domino sign on the waterfront in Baltimore.  Photograph by Jerry Jackson of the Baltimore Sun.     supermoon-seen-around-the-world/#1

The supermoon of August 2014 competes with the Domino sign on the waterfront in Baltimore. Photograph Jerry Jackson of the Baltimore Sun.

Domino Sugar, with its iconic neon sign, has been a Baltimore institution for over 90 years.  The plant was built in 1922, but Baltimore’s sugar history extends back to the late eighteenth century.  After becoming a major port of entry for raw sugar during the Revolutionary War, Baltimore took its place as a regional center for sugar production, with eleven refineries in operation by around 1825 (Williams et al. 2000; Magid 2005).  Similar refineries in Washington D.C. and Alexandria, Virginia were all established in the early nineteenth century in reaction to international trade restrictions imposed by the Napoleonic Wars (Williams et al. 2000:279).

Among the archaeological collections curated at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab is an assemblage from the sugar processing plant owned by Augustus Shutt and John Tool, in operation between 1804 and 1829 on Green (now Exeter) Street in Baltimore (Magid 2005). Continue reading

The Maryland Jockey Club and the Introduction of Organized Thoroughbred Racing in North America

Iron stirrup recovered from the stable (1711-1730 context) at the Smith St. Leonard site (18CV91).

Iron stirrup recovered from the stable (1711-1730 context) at the Smith St. Leonard site (18CV91).

May and June bring the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes—and Maryland is proud to claim the Preakness as its own.

Horse racing has a long and storied history in Maryland and this stirrup from the Smith St. Leonard Site (18CV91), a 1711-1754 tobacco plantation in Calvert County, is representative of the state’s long history with horses. This site contains remains of the only known eighteenth-century stable (c. 1711-1730) in Maryland, from which this stirrup was recovered. Estate details from the inventory, taken at the time of plantation owner Richard Smith Jr.’s death in 1715, reveal that he was breeding horses for sale.  The value of the individual horses however indicates they were work, rather than racing, animals (Cohen, personal communication 2010).

This conclusion is perhaps not surprising, since Thoroughbred breeding and racing did not really get underway in Maryland until the mid-eighteenth century; indeed the first Thoroughbred horse in the American Colonies was imported to Virginia in 1730 (Robertson 1964:16). Continue reading

Baltimore and the Washingtonian Total Abstinence Society

Figure 1.  Temperance Movement cup found in the fill of the privy.

Figure 1. Temperance Movement cup found in the fill of the privy.

Alcoholics Anonymous, the highly successful organization that helps individuals fight alcohol addiction, was founded in Akron, Ohio in 1935 (Anonymous 2015). The organization (commonly known as “AA”) remained small before the 1939 publication of the group’s philosophy and methods of practice. The “Big Book”, as it came to be known, set out the all-important Twelve Steps of Recovery and contained personal stories from group members—another critical component of the organization.  Alcoholics Anonymous has become an international organization; in 2012, AA Census estimated that there were 114,642 groups and 2,131,549 members (S., Arthur, 2014).

This English-made ceramic teacup (Figure 1), dating to the second quarter of the nineteenth century and found in a Baltimore privy (Basalik and Payne 1982), is a tangible reminder that overuse of alcohol is not just a modern-day problem.  The cup contains a printed design of a man and woman flanking a shield-shaped motif from which sprouts an oak tree. A banner above the heads of the figures proclaims “Firm as an Oak”, while banners beneath their feet state “Be Thou Faithful Unto Death”.  The male and female each appear to be holding flags, although these portions of the cup are missing. Complete vessels suggest that the flags would have read “Sobriety” (male) and “Domestic Comfort (female).

The cup’s motif, sometimes referred to as “The Teetotal Coat of Arms”, symbolizes the moral reform movement that supported abstinence from alcoholic beverages. This crusade, aimed at the working class, was popular in both Britain and the United States in the nineteenth century (Smith 1993).    Continue reading

Benjamin Banneker – Renaissance Man

Note from the author:  I would like to thank Justine Schaeffer, Naturalist/Director at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum for reading a draft of this blog and correcting several errors.

Figure 1.  Ground glass lens and slate pencil fragments recovered during excavations of the Banneker homestead.  Photograph courtesy of Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.

Figure 1. Ground glass lens and slate pencil fragments recovered during excavations of the Banneker homestead. Photograph courtesy of Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.

Sometimes artifacts that aren’t all that impressive in appearance turn out to have really interesting histories.  The circular fragment of glass in Figure 1 is a ground lens from a telescope or similar optical instrument.  The objects surrounding the lens are slate pencils, used for marking on slate tablets.  What makes these artifacts notable is that they were excavated from the eighteenth-century home of Benjamin Banneker (Hurry 2002).  A self-taught astronomer and mathematician, Banneker is known as America’s first African-American man of science.  He was born in 1731 to free parents in Baltimore County, Maryland and grew up on a small farm in present-day Oella (18BA282).

Taught to read and write by his grandmother, an English woman who married a former slave, Banneker later attended a small Quaker school (Bedini 1972:39).   As an adult, Banneker became friends with George Ellicott, son of a nearby land and mill owner.  The Ellicotts were Quakers who contracted with the Banneker family to provide their mill workers with produce.  Although twenty-nine years Banneker’s junior, George Ellicott shared many of Banneker’s   interests.  Continue reading