It might seem like a strange leap from a Chinese porcelain plate to a neighborhood in downtown Baltimore, but the distance is really not that great if you stretch your imagination a little. In August of 1785, seafarer John O’Donnell sailed his ship, the Pallas, into Baltimore harbor (Scharf 1874:238). Loaded with export goods like tea, porcelain and silk from China, this ship was the first to directly import Chinese products into Baltimore. In 1786, O’Donnell purchased eleven acres to the east of the city and named his plantation Canton, after the Chinese city that was the source of his wealth. Within ten years, O’Donnell had expanded the plantation landholdings to 1,941 acres.
This porcelain plate, in a style commonly known as Canton, was found along with three others just like it in a brick-lined privy discovered in 1980 during the construction of the Federal Reserve Bank on Sharp Street. The privy had once stood on a tavern property operated by Robert Williams from the turn of the nineteenth century until the 1840s (Basalik 1994:356). Tavern customers could enjoy their evening repast served on a plate that had traveled halfway around the world. Who knows, perhaps this very plate arrived on one of O’Donnell’s ships!
O’Donnell’s eldest son, Columbus, formed the Canton Company in 1828, with partners William Patterson and Peter Cooper. The aim of this endeavor was to improve the waterfront along the Patapsco River to the east of Fells Point. Canton became one of the oldest industrial centers in the nation, with the Canton Iron Works built in 1829 (Canton 1981). This area was already home to a popular racetrack and the shipyard where the U.S.S. Constellation was built in the last decade of the eighteenth century (U.S.S. Constellation 2012). Other companies located in Canton in the nineteenth century included brickyards, as well as canning, packing and fertilizing industries. The area became home to a number of immigrant from Wales, Ireland, Germany and Poland, who provided much of the labor force for these industries.
Today, the Canton neighborhood forms a historic district in East Baltimore just east of Fells Point (Canton 1981). With nearly 100 blocks of shoreline housing, interspersed with churches and businesses, Canton is one of the largest historic districts in Baltimore. It is comprised primarily of 19th– and early 20th-century Baltimore-style row houses, many of which have been restored.
Basalik, Kenneth. 1994 Urban Development in the Eastern United States: An Archaeological View from Baltimore, Maryland. PhD dissertation, Temple University. University Microfilms, Ann Arbor.
Canton. 1981 Canton Historic District. National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form. Available at https://mht.maryland.gov/secure/medusa/PDF/Baltimore%20City/B-3704.pdf
Scharf, Thomas. 1874 The Chronicles of Baltimore; Being a Complete History of Baltimore Town and Baltimore City from the Earliest Period to the Present Time. Turnbull Brothers, Baltimore.
U.S.S. Constellation. 2012 U.S.S. Constellation. Historic Ships of Baltimore. Website accessed June 30, 2017. http://www.historicships.org/constellation.html