A Fish for All Times – Atlantic Menhaden’s Long History in the Chesapeake



Figure 1. Mid-nineteenth century barrel excavated at the Brown’s Wharf site (18BC59).  Photograph courtesy of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab.

During the Baltimore Center for Urban Archaeology’s 1987 excavation of the Brown’s Wharf site (18BC59), archaeologists uncovered an unusual find—a complete wooden barrel whose staves were held together with split tree branch bands (Figures 1 and 2).  Barrels like this one, which dated to the mid-nineteenth century, were used for storing virtually anything, including grain, salted meat, cider, whale oil and dried and pickled fish.  And indeed, removing the soil filling the interior of this barrel, revealed – among other items like a metal funnel, a shoe, rope and a broken champagne bottle—sixty menhaden (Figure 3), whose bodies had been preserved in a tarry substance (Stevens 1989).

The Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) is a native North American schooling fish in the herring family, ranging from Nova Scotia to Florida (Figure 4).  Small and oily, menhaden are not considered an appetizing meal for humans, but are prey for larger fish like weakfish, striped bass and bluefish. Menhaden’s primary food source is phytoplankton.

Figure 2. Unidentified archaeologist excavating the Brown’s Wharf barrel. Photo courtesy of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab.

Menhaden have had a long and important history for the Chesapeake Bay region. Although long used by Native Americans as fertilizer, perhaps the earliest written record of menhaden was penned by Captain John Smith, who described them as “lying so thick with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan.” (Smith 1624).  Although not favored as a human food, menhaden have been used in paint, as a bait fish, for fertilizer, as animal feed, in human dietary supplements and as lamp oil (Chesapeake Bay Foundation 2019).  Large numbers of processing plants sprang up along the Atlantic coast for converting menhaden into these valuable products.

Figure 3: BCUA curator Louis Akerson and archaeologist Scott Simmons examining the contents of the barrel. Reprinted from The Evening Sun, Perry E. Thorsvik.

Almost four hundred years later, a time-traveling John Smith would be disheartened at the menhaden population in the Chesapeake Bay.  Once menhaden oil began to replace whale oil for lighting and as an industrial lubricant in the late nineteenth century, menhaden populations began to decline (Franklin 2008; Chesapeake Bay Foundation 2019). These numbers continued to plummet as overharvesting went on throughout the twentieth century, with the menhaden fishery being the largest in the Atlantic.

Some conservationists refer to menhaden as “the most important fish in the sea”, since they form a vital part of the marine food web (Franklin 2008).  With menhaden numbers depleted, populations of phytoplankton, “a major cause of algae blooms and brown tides” (Carini 2017), explode, to the detriment of the coastal waters.  Studies by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) have shown the striped bass population suffering malnutrition because of the reduced menhaden population (Chesapeake Bay Foundation 2019).

Figure 4. The Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Brevoortia_tyrannus1.jpg, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1674101

In an attempt to curb population reduction, the ASMFC voted in 2012 to cap the harvest of menhaden at 20 percent less than the previous three year’s catch (Carini 2017).  A population study completed in 2017 showed that menhaden numbers are increasing, but still not at levels considered healthy for the ecology of the Atlantic coastal ecosystem (Chesapeake Bay Foundation 2019; Carini 2017). Since the Chesapeake Bay is the source of almost 87% of the menhaden harvested in the Atlantic (with Virginia fisherman allocated over 85% of the harvest), the population recovery has not been as successful in the Bay (Dunn 2017).  Although small in size, menhaden loom large in the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem and conservation measures need to continue.

References

Carini, Frank.  2017.  Menhaden:  The Most Important Fish at the Moment.  EcoRI News.  Website site accessed July 30, 2019 at https://www.ecori.org/aquaculture/2017/11/10/menhaden-the-most-important-fish-that-the-moment.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  2019.  Atlantic Menhaden; the Chesapeake’s Unsung Hero.  Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Website accessed July 30, 2019 at https://www.cbf.org/about-the-bay/more-than-just-the-bay/chesapeake-wildlife/menhaden/.

Dunn, Joel.  2017.  Bay’s History Depended on Menhaden; Its Future Will as Well.  The Bay Journal.  Website accessed July 30, 2019 at https://www.bayjournal.com/article/bays_history_depended_on_menhaden_its_future_will_as_well.

Franklin, H. Bruce.  2008. The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America.  Island Press, Washington, D. C.

Smith, Captain John.  1624. The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles. I.D and I. H. for Michael Sparkes, London.  Electronic version available at https://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/smith/smith.html.

Stevens, Kristen L.  1989.  An Investigation of the Archaeological Resources Associated with the Brown’s Wharf Site (18BC59) on Thames Street, Baltimore, Maryland.  Baltimore Center for Urban Archaeology Research Series No. 28.  On file at MHT.

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One Small Sewing Thimble, One Giant Sewing Job!


Archaeologists working on domestic sites are almost sure to find at least one example of that most humble of artifacts—the sewing thimble. Whether manufactured from brass, iron, aluminum or silver, most of these thimbles are the familiar closed-top variety. But a small percentage are open-topped thimble rings.  

Figure 1.  This thimble ring from Oxon Hill Manor (18PR175) in Prince George’s County was found in a layer of soil deposited sometime during the 1800s.

Like a closed-top thimble, these sewing rings—as they were also called—were used to help push a needle through fabric. Thimble rings, which protected the side, rather than the top of the finger, were often used by tailors or individuals sewing heavy cloth, like canvas sails or leather (Holmes 1985).

Thimble rings would have been an everyday tool in 18th– and 19th-century Baltimore, when the city was renowned as a center for shipbuilding.  By 1809, there were nine shipyards in the city, many of them located in the Fell’s Point neighborhood. Before the advent of steam engines, ships relied on the wind and sails for power.  And where shipbuilding flourished, so too did the production of canvas sails.  Eleven sail makers worked in Baltimore in 1809; a number that had increased to 29 in the 1822 city directory (Matchett 1822).

The size of sails made it expedient for sailmakers to work in large, open floor plan workrooms known as lofts. Although the bolts of canvas used for crafting sails were thirty-nine yards long, they were only two feet wide, necessitating the piecing together of long strips of fabric (Allan 2018).  Some of the largest sails could weigh in at over a ton (Allen 2018). Standardized rules governed the profession of sailmaking and numerous treatises were published in the 19th century with guidelines for constructing different types of sails (O’Regan 2014).  And sailmaking was not just a dry land activity; all sailing vessels needed the services of a sailmaker on board for at-sea repairs.

Figure 2.  The Sail Loft by Ralph Hedley.  1908. (c) Laing Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.

While flax linen imported from Europe had typically been used for making sails, the introduction of new spinning and weaving technology in the early 19th century brought about the transition to cotton (O’Regan 2014).  Cotton duck proved to be a strong, tightly woven fabric perfect for creating sails. Cotton grown in the American South was imported to cotton mills along Baltimore’s Jones Falls and these mills found a ready market among sailmakers (Nettles 2019).

Within three decades of the 1843 development of steam-powered ships, “virtually all merchant and military ships had converted to metal hulls and steam power” (Nettles 2019). While it might seem that the advent of steam-powered vessels would have been a death knell for sailmakers, this was not the case.  Mid-19th century technological advancements in food canning and preservation brought about a boom in the oyster industry, with an attendant need for sails to outfit Chesapeake oyster boats (Brewington 1970).  During the Civil War, sailmakers found employment making tents for soldiers. 

Figure 3. Early 19th-century English Provincial School oil painting of a sailing ship.

Today, the use of sailing vessels is more of a sport and recreational activity, rather than economic or military necessity.  Technological improvements in fabric manufacture have advanced the art of sailmaking well beyond heavy canvas into a range of lighter weight polyester blends. Although Baltimore was once a center for shipbuilding and sailmaking, today that honor seems to have shifted south to Annapolis, where a search of the yellow pages reveals a number of companies specializing in sail design and production.

References

Allan, Philip K.   2018  Sails and the Art of the Sailmaker.   Blog of Philip K. Allen, Author.  Post dated July 9, 2018 at https://www.philipkallan.com/single-post/2018/07/09/Sails-and-the-Vanishing-Art-of-the-Sailmaker.  Post accessed June 5, 2019.

Brewington, Marion V.   1970  Chesapeake Sailmaking.   Maryland Historical Magazine Volume 65, Issue 2.

Holmes, Edwin F.  1985  A History of Thimbles.  Cornwall Books, New York.

Matchett, R. J.  1822  C. Keenan’s Baltimore directory for 1822 & ’23 : together with the eastern and western precincts, never before included : a correct account of removals, new firms, and other useful information. R. J. Matchett, Baltimore.

Nettles, Dean 2019   Shipbuilding and the Rise and Fall of Sails. Baltimore Industry Tours. http://www.baltimoreindustrytours.com/shipbuilding.php

O’Regan, Deirdre  2014  New Sails for an Old Ship—Building Sails for the Charles W. MorganSea History 147.  Summer 2014. https://www.mysticseaport.org/voyage/restoration/new-sails-for-an-old-ship/ Website accessed June 5, 2019.

Several Centuries of Baltimore Bakeries


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Extract bottle found in a privy associated with early 19th -century Baltimore baker, Henry Dukehart.  Photo courtesy of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab.

Most of us probably pick up a loaf of bread from the supermarket when we purchase our other weekly grocery supplies.  But before large commercial bakeries began to appear in the late 19th century, most baked goods were produced and sold from small family-run bakery shops (what we would probably call “artisanal” bakeries in today’s parlance).  Because they were smaller operations producing baked goods at a neighborhood scale, there were many commercial bakers spread throughout large urban areas.  The City of Baltimore boasted 48 bakeries in its 1803 business directory, a number that had risen to 94 in mid 1830s.  By that date, Baltimore was the second largest city in the United States.

From around 1780 to 1807, Henry Dukehart operated a small bakery from a building at 13 Baltimore Street that served as both his home and his business.  The main baking operations occurred in the street-front rowhouse, but the building’s rear yard was also a workspace.  Archaeological excavations in this yard found evidence of a paved work surface containing an ash-filled brick pit that may have been part of a small oven.  While too small to serve as the primary bake oven, it could have been used for drying flour or in the final drying and crisping process for hard breads like biscuits or zwieback (Weaver 1990).  Another possibility is that the pit was associated with a still for making fruit brandies or flavored extracts. Continue reading

Gas Lighting in Baltimore, 19th-Century Style


gas fixture

Figure 1.  Gas lighting fixture from the Federal Reserve Site (18BC27).  Photo courtesy of the MAC Lab.

This unusual looking object was recovered by archaeologists excavating a Baltimore privy filled with garbage from a late 19th-century retirement home.  Historic lighting scholar Donald Linebaugh suggests that this copper alloy artifact once functioned as a gas pipe connection refitted for reuse with electricity (Linebaugh, personal communication 2017). Since the privy appeared to have been filled around 1910, when the facility moved to a new location, it is certainly feasible that the gas lighting had been converted to electricity during the forty years the facility was in operation.

While gas lighting gave way to electricity, it was once at the forefront of lighting technology. In the early 19th century, the world after sunset was a shadowy one, lit by candles and oil lamps.  But lighting with gas changed the way people lived after dark, since it burned brighter than oil and illuminated larger areas, making it effective as street lighting.  Continue reading

Avoiding the Spread of the “Wasting” Disease


funnel two

Figure 1: Refined white earthenware funnel for a spitting cup. This funnel was recovered from a privy that was filled in the second quarter of the 19th century.

This odd little funnel is a recent addition to the collections at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab (Figure 1).  It was discovered in the 1980s in a Baltimore privy (18BC66) filled in the second quarter of the 19th century.  The shape of the rim, measuring 4.00” in diameter, suggested that it was meant to fit over another vessel. I speculated that it might have been used in the kitchen for filling jars with foodstuffs like preserves.  But then I found a match for this vessel, paired with a mug, in a circa 1830s English pottery pattern book (Figure 2).  Since the funnel and mug were shown on the same page as a bedpan, I began to suspect the funnel had a different type of utilitarian function.  A quick call to English ceramic specialist George L. Miller suggested that it was a spitting cup.

machine adn potts

Figure 2.  Page from the Machin and Potts Waterloo Works pattern book that depicts a spitting cup.  The pattern book is undated, but probably dates to the second quarter of the 19th century.

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An Amelung Decanter?


Perhaps Maryland’s most famous glass product

18bc27 feat 30 decanter

Decanter discovered in a Baltimore privy filled  around the time of the Civil War.  Attribution to the Amelung New Bremen Factory is not certain, but it did produce similar decanters in the late 18th century.

ion facility was the New Bremen Glass Manufactory, which began operations south of Frederick in 1785. When owner John Frederick Amelung arrived from Germany, the United States was a new nation anxious to promote industry.  Encouraged in his endeavor by the likes of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, Amelung brought 68 experienced German glass workers with him to staff the new factory (Lanmon and Palmer 1976).  Within five years, Amelung employed between 400 and 500 workers, who lived in a factory village named New Bremen.  In 1788, Amelung advertised a range of glass vessels for sale, including “1/2 gill to quart tumblers, ½ to 1 quart Decanters…Wines, Goblets, Glass Cans with Handles, different sizes.” (Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser 1788).

Unfortunately, Amelung’s ambitious project failed to prosper and he sought financial assistance from Congress in 1790.  His petition, however, failed to convince Congress and the New Bremen industry collapsed around 1795 (National Register 1972).  Continue reading

Rocket’s Red Glare – The Battle of Baltimore and the Birth of the Star Spangled Banner


12 pounder

Figure 1.  A 12 pound solid shot found during dredging in the Patapsco River near Fort McHenry.

Resting for many years deep in the silt at the bottom of the Patapsco River, adjacent to Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, this 12 pound cannonball’s underwater fate belies its brief moment of glory. For this cannonball was fired during the momentous battle that led to the genesis of our country’s national anthem.

We all know the story from our elementary school days. Francis Scott Key, a Maryland-born lawyer, was inspired by the sight of the U. S. flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the September 1814 Battle of Baltimore.  Although British shells rained down relentlessly for 25 hours, the fort held (Lineberry 2007). Key, watching the battle throughout the night from about eight miles away, was relieved to see in “the dawn’s early light” the American flag flying above the fort – a sign of American victory.  Later that morning, Key penned a poem he entitled “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” Within a month, it had been published in at least nineteen American newspapers (NMAH 2016). Key himself set the poem to music, using a popular English melody written around 1775 and entitled “To Anacreon in Heaven”.  The first documented public performance of Key’s work set to music occurred on October 19, 1814 at the Holiday Street Theater in Baltimore (SI 2016).  The song was later retitled “The Star Spangled Banner”.  Although it was a popular patriotic song throughout the nineteenth century, “The Star Spangled Banner” did not become our country’s national anthem until 1931.

Ft._Henry_bombardement_1814

Figure 2.  A View of the Bombardment of Fort McHenry.  Print by J. Bower, Philadelphia, 1816.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort McHenry. 

 

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