MS. in a Bottle – Edgar Allan Poe and Baltimore


October seems the perfect month to feature a blog post on Gothic horror writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and his storied history in Maryland. This circa 1830s wine bottle, recovered from a mid-19th century privy in Baltimore, inspired this post.

Figure 1. Wine bottle recovered from a mid-19th-century privy at the Federal Reserve Site (18BC27) in Baltimore.

Although born in Boston on January 19, 1809, Edgar Allan Poe’s Baltimore roots extend back before his birth. Poe’s father, professional actor David Poe, Jr., was from originally from Baltimore and Poe’s paternal grandfather moved there with his parents from Ireland in the mid-18th century.  As a result of his father’s abandonment and the subsequent death of his mother, Edgar Poe became an orphan at the age of three.  He and his siblings were split up, with Edgar Poe sent to Richmond, Virginia, to be raised by the family of John and Frances Allan. It was Poe’s relationship with this family that prompted him to take the middle name Allan.

Figure 2. Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, late 1840s.

Edgar Allan Poe’s own relationship with Baltimore began in 1827, when he was in the city for a short time before enlisting in the Army. Later that same year, his poem “Extract—Dreams” was published in the Baltimore newspaper The North American, under the initials W. H. P. [William Henry Poe].  Some of his other early poems were published in Baltimore in 1829 in a volume entitled Al Araaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems (Quinn 1998). Limited numbers of the volume were printed and it received very little notice at the time.

On October 19, 1833, the Baltimore Saturday Visiter published Poe’s short story, “MS. Found in a Bottle”.  The story was Poe’s response to a short story contest announced in the June 15th edition of the paper. Poe submitted six stories to the contest, and “MS. Found in a Bottle” was the unanimous choice of the judges, earning Poe a $50 prize. Poe scholars agree that this short story launched the author’s career (Peeples 1998). Perhaps Poe’s story was inspired by a wine bottle like the one illustrated here, since Poe was no stranger to drinking.

Figure 3. Banner of the Baltimore Saturday Visiter edition that published Poe’s story “MS. Found in a Bottle” on October 18, 1833.

One of Poe’s greatest connections with the city was with his cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm.  Poe married 13-year old Virginia in 1835; they remained married until her death from tuberculosis in 1847. Poe began to drink heavily after his wife’s death.

October is also the month of Poe’s rather sudden and premature death at the age of 40, during a visit to Baltimore. Scholars still disagree about the cause of Poe’s death on October 7, 1849, with at least nine hypotheses in play, including carbon monoxide poisoning, rabies, the flu and murder. Complications from his long struggle with alcohol addiction seem a likely candidate, although swelling of the brain was listed as the official reason on his death certificate (Geiling 2014). Poe was originally laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Baltimore, but in 1875 was exhumed and buried with his wife Virginia and her mother—in the city where he first gained recognition for his writing talents.

Figure 4. Poe’s gravesite in Baltimore.

Fascination with Poe and his mysterious stories and complicated life is still strong today, particularly in the cities where he made his home.  Baltimore even named their football team – the Baltimore Ravens—in homage to Poe. Today, fans of Edgar Allan Poe have a variety of Poe’s former homes where they can pay homage to the horror writer:  the Poe Museum in Richmond, The Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum in Baltimore, or even the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia.

References

Geiling, Natasha. 2014. The (Still) Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe. Smithsonianmag.com. October 7, 2014. Website accessed on October 13, 2020 at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/still-mysterious-death-edgar-allan-poe-180952936/.

Peeples, Scott.  1998.  Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. Twayne Publishers, New York.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. 1998. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Prohibition, Beer and Baltimore


Figure 1. Beer bottle dated c. 1910 from the
Monumental Brewing Company of Baltimore, Maryland.

As I perused social media and news feeds early in January, I kept coming across stories about the benefits of a dry January. An alcohol-free month was not in my cards, however, because an early January archaeological conference meant lots of social beers with colleagues. 

One hundred years ago this month, in January of 1920, citizens of the United States began to experience a long, dry period as Prohibition got underway. Congress passed the 18th Amendment in October of 1919, following it on January 16, 1920 with the passage of the Volstead Act, designed to enforce Prohibition.  The amendment made it illegal to produce, transport and sell alcohol in the United States. With the exception of Maryland, every U.S. state passed state-level versions of the Volstead Act (Walsh 2017).

Resistance to Prohibition was strong in Maryland, which had elected “wet” governor Albert Ritchie in 1920 (Ciammachilli 2019). This resistance even earned Maryland its nickname of the “Free State” in 1922 (Walsh 2017). Lawmakers in Baltimore especially opposed Prohibition.  Despite opposition within the city, however, the effects of the ban on alcohol were almost immediate, with the closing of bars, saloons and breweries (Levy 2016).  Of Baltimore, the American newspaper wrote that “gloom fell over the wet trade” (cited in Walsh 2017).

Baltimore has always been a city of breweries. The city’s first breweries were established in the first half of the 18th century and produced British-style ales. The bird’s eye view of the city shown on the 1869 Sasche Map illustrates at least 15 breweries, some of them with beer gardens. This preponderance of breweries can be traced back to the increasing German immigration, beginning in the 1840s. Germans brought with them a love of lighter lager beers, whose production began to predominate in the city’s beer manufacturing.  

Figure 2. Illustration of George Bauernschmidt’s brewery as shown on the 1869 Sasche Map of Baltimore. Baurenschmidt opened his brewery in 1864 and remained in operation until 1898, when he and a number of other breweries consolidated into the American Brewery Company. Digital version of the map available at https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3844b.pm002540/?r=0.093,0.004,0.101,0.062,0.

Beer bottles are a common find at archaeological sites, beginning in the second half of the 19th century.  The Monumental Brewing Company bottle shown in Figure 1 was found in a privy sealed around 1910 at the Federal Reserve Site (18BC27) in the Otterbein neighborhood of Baltimore.  The Monumental Brewing Company opened in 1900, but went out of business in 1920, at the start of Prohibition.  

Baltimore’s breweries reacted in one of two ways during Prohibition.  Some manufacturers, including the National Brewing Company and the American Brewery, went out of business (Levy 2016).  Others, like Gunther and Globe, managed to keep their doors open by manufacturing “near” beers—beverages that contained less than one half of one percent of alcohol by volume (Levy 2016).

General opinion holds that Prohibition was a failure (Buck 2013). Alcohol consumption was only moderately reduced by the legal restrictions, while organized crime centered on the illegal production and sale of alcohol soared.  Opposed to the 18th Amendment, Baltimore writer H. L. Mencken famously wrote, “there is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more”. The U.S. ban against the production, transportation and sale of alcohol was ultimately to last for 13 years. In 1933, the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition, making the 18th Amendment the only constitutional amendment ever repealed in our country.  Baltimore’s breweries rebounded and are still successful today.

References

Buck, Betty. 2013. The Failed Experiment of Prohibition.  Baltimore Sun.  Website accessed January 27, 2020 at https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-beer-20131204-story.html.

Ciammachilli, Esther.  2019.  Booze!  Causing Political Fights in Maryland for 100 Years.  WAMU 88.5 American University Radio, March 4, 2019.  Website accessed January 27, 2020 at https://wamu.org/story/19/03/04/booze-causing-political-fights-in-maryland-for-100-years/.

Levy, Sidney.  2016. Lost City:  Local Taverns and Big Breweries. Underbelly. Maryland Historical Society.  February 18, 2016.  Website accessed January 27, 2020 at http://www.mdhs.org/underbelly/2016/02/18/lost-city-local-taverns-and-big-breweries/.

Walsh, Michael T. 2017. Baltimore Prohibition:  Wet and Dry in the Free State. American Palate; A Division of the History Press, Charleston, S.C.

First Central Bank of the United States


Figure 1.  Front of a cast iron bank from the Nathan Mansfield privy (c. 1850-1870) at the Federal Reserve Site (18BC27) in Baltimore.

This flat piece of cast iron (Figure 1) was once part of a coin bank produced around 1872 by J. & E. Stevens of Cromwell, Connecticut. Known as a still bank (to distinguish them from mechanical banks, which had moving parts), this little repository was a bank shaped like a bank building (Figure 2).  To make matters even more interesting, this artifact was recovered from an archaeological excavation in Baltimore at the future site of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, on Sharp Street.


Figure 2.  Complete J. & E. Stevens bank from a private collection.

This archaeological artifact thus seems like a good entry into an exploration of our nation’s early central banking history.  Today’s Federal Reserve Bank is the country’s third central banking system.  The first—the First Bank of the United States—operated from 1791 to 1811 and was the brainchild of our nation’s first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton (Figure 3).

The newly-formed United States was left facing a sizable public debt at the end of the Revolutionary War.  Hamilton’s voracious reading habits, coupled with his experience as a clerk for a Caribbean merchant, left him with a sound understanding of economic systems.  Prior to proposing a national bank, he helped found the Bank of New York in 1784 (PBS 2019). He envisioned the formation of a central bank that would stimulate the economy and provide much-needed credit for building the new nation.  Hamilton’s 1790 proposal to Congress for a national bank was passed into law in early 1791. Hamilton’s other fiscal achievements included establishment of the U. S. Mint, consolidating the states’ debts into a national debt handled by the US Treasury and creating taxes on domestic production to help fund the military (Federal Reserve 2019).


Figure 3.  Alexander Hamilton, circa 1790. By Charles Shirreff – Magnet, Myron (2013) The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735–1817, W. W. Norton & Company, p. 492 ISBN: 978-0393241884., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61422753.

The First Bank of the United States, located in Philadelphia (Figure 4), was chartered for twenty years.  The Federal Government held twenty percent ownership in its ten million dollars of capital. The bank fulfilled numerous financial/fiscal roles:  tax collection, credit extension, issuing standard currency, making commercial loans, handling foreign exchange and serving as a depository for government funds. In addition to rapidly stabilizing the national economy, the bank helped position the United States on equal financial footing with European nations.

Figure 4. Bank of the United States, in Third Street Philadelphia [graphic] / Drawn, Engraved & Published by W. Birch & Son.; Philadelphia: W. Birch & Son, 1799.

From its beginning, centralized banking met with opposition.  The agrarian southern states, as represented by politicians like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were against the bank, while the more industrialized northern states were in favor.  The split eventually helped lead to the formation of our nation’s first two political parties – the pro-bank Federalist party and the anti-bank Democratic-Republicans.  Opponents saw the central bank as an overreach of executive branch power—similar to the opposition by state-chartered banks, who felt central financial control was an insult to state’s rights and unwanted competition.  

Republican control of the executive branch, beginning at the turn of the 19th century, led to the bank’s charter not being renewed at the end of its initial twenty-year term. Due to the dissolution of the First Central Bank in 1811, the United States was faced with economic difficulty during the War of 1812, when there was no central bank to fund the military (PBS 2019). James Madison, initially an opponent to centralized banking, supported the creation of the second centralized banking system in 1817.  Andrew Jackson did not renew the charter for the Second Bank of the United States in 1836 and it was not until 1913 that the third iteration of central banking – the Federal Reserve—was created (Britannica 2019).

References

Britannica Online Encyclopedia.  2019  Bank of the United States.  Encyclopaedia Britannica. Website accessed December 17, 2019 at https://www.britannica.com/topic/Bank-of-the-United-States.

Federal Reserve.  2019  Alexander Hamilton.  Federal Reserve History.  Website accessed December 17, 2019 at https://www.federalreservehistory.org/people/alexander_hamilton.

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).  2019  Alexander Hamilton; Establishing a National Bank.  American Experience.  Website accessed December 17, 2019 at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/establishing-national-bank/.

Chinese Americans in Early Twentieth-Century Baltimore


Figure 1.  The two center safety pins with stamped numbers marked net bags in commercial laundries and were used to track individual orders.  The smaller open pins surrounding the safety pins were probably used to pin paper tags on finished clothing.  The object t the top center is a soapstone pencil, used to mark stains.

Figure 1. The two center safety pins with stamped numbers marked net bags in commercial laundries and were used to track individual orders. The smaller open pins surrounding the safety pins were probably used to pin paper tags on finished clothing. The object to the top center is a soapstone pencil, used to mark stains.

During the 1980 excavation of the Federal Reserve site (18BC27), archaeologists uncovered the remains of a stoneware drainpipe that was clogged during the 1920s with debris from a commercial laundry.  When the pipe was broken open by earthmoving equipment, it was found to have filled over time with artifacts set in a concreted matrix of iron corrosion. Among the artifacts recovered from the pipe were laundry bag net pins—the two odd looking safety pins with the stamped numbers seen in the photograph to the left.  Since these large brass safety pins were rustproof, they could be attached to the net bags that separated individual orders in the washing machines. The solid flat heads were stamped with number designations that could be used to track bagged laundry to specific individuals. These pins are still being manufactured today for use in commercial laundries. They were just a few of the large number of commercial laundry-related artifacts found in the pipe.
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