Tagging 19th-Century Style: Maryland State House Acorn


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Figure 1. Charles Willson Peale, A Front View of the State-House &c. at Annapolis the Capital of Maryland, ca. 1789.   This illustration was made soon after the completion of the dome.  The acorn is barely visible above the dome.  Maryland State Archives.

Graffiti has been around since the dawn of humanity, it seems.  Considered in the right light, some people might deem Neolithic cave art as a form of graffiti. Archaeologists working at Pompeii uncovered many examples of graffiti, much of it x-rated. In my childhood, a popular youthful pastime was to paint the town’s water tower; today tagging boxcars and the sides of buildings with names is commonplace. So it should not be surprising that some residents of 19th-century Annapolis found a similar way to immortalize themselves at the Maryland State House.

In 1694, the capital of the Maryland colony was moved from St. Mary’s City to Anne Arundel Town, which was renamed Annapolis the following year.  Perhaps one of the most iconic landmarks in Annapolis is the State House, whose cornerstone was laid on March 28, 1772 (Brugger 1988).  Completed in 1779, it today is the oldest state house still in legislative use (MSA 2007).

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Figure 2. The acorn atop the State House dome.  https://hiveminer.com/Tags/office,state.

When the original roof of the State House began leaking and was replaced with a dome in 1788, a wooden acorn covered with sheets of lead and copper alloy was constructed around the building’s lightning rod.  Weighing in at around 800 pounds, the acorn was painted gold and green to enhance its visibility.  A common architectural embellishment in the late 18th century, acorns represented wisdom and soundness – an appropriate symbol for the legislative seat of the state.  The acorn also served the very practical function of stabilizing the 28 foot lightning rod (MSA 2007).

In 1996, after 208 years of adorning the State House, Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend announced that gamma ray testing revealed significant areas of dry rot inside the acorn (Dresser 1996).  Repair was not feasible, so the original acorn was removed from the building later that year and replaced with an exact replica in 2011 (MSA 2007).  The lightning rod was kept in place and reinforced with a steel sheath.

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Figure 3.  Conservator at the MAC Lab stabilizing the acorn.  Photo courtesy of the MAC Lab.

When the acorn was brought to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard for stabilization and curation, one of the first steps in treatment was to x-ray the entire object.  Upon developing the x-rays, the lab’s conservators immediately noticed that the soft metals used to sheath the acorn had been scored with dozens of names, dates and initials.  It is believed that workers who periodically repainted the acorn were the main graffiti artists, but it is also possible that tagging the State House acorn was something done on a dare or as a popular night time activity for the town’s youth.  For example, the name “James Sands” is shown twice in Figure 4.  Is it possible that these inscriptions were made by James H. Sands, born in Annapolis in 1810?   Is “W. Clayton” William B. Clayton, born in Annapolis in the mid-19th century to Philip and Catharine Clayton?  These mysteries may never be solved, but the presence of these names on the acorn does show that the human desire to leave behind some tangible trace has persisted through the ages.

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Figure 4.  X-ray of the acorn pedestal base shows some of the names carved into the soft lead used to sheath the wood.   Photo courtesy of the MAC Lab.

Today, the acorn can be seen during tours of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.  For more information about tours, email patricia.samford@maryland.gov.

 

References

Brugger, Robert J. Maryland; A Middle Temperament, 1634-1980.  Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Dresser, Michael.  1996  State House Acorn to be Replaced; Dry Rot Ends 208 Years of Service. The Baltimore Sun.  July 30, 1996.

Maryland State Archives (MSA).  2007  The Maryland State House.  About the State House. Website accessed June 4, 2018 at https://msa.maryland.gov/msa/mdstatehouse/html/about.html.

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