A City of Firsts

Sign at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. The museum is located inside the remains of an old canning factory. (Megan MacNeill)

Sign at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. The museum is located inside the remains of an old canning factory. (Megan MacNeill)

Baltimore Museum of Industry

1415 Key Highway, Baltimore, MD 21230

thebmi.org

On the Inner Harbor, with views of ships on the water and a rusting crane in the parking lot, sits the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Built inside the shell of the city’s last remaining canning factory, the museum is a tribute to the many industries that shaped the area. From oyster canning and food processing to ships and machinery, the museum highlights just how important Baltimore’s industrious past was to the United States.

Visitors first encounter Baltimore’s industrial food history, which began with oyster canning in the 1860s. Immigrants worked long days shucking, cooking, and canning the shellfish. Oyster shells litter the corners of this exhibit, immersing observers in factorylike surroundings. While Baltimore canning started with oysters, it eventually spread to in-season fruits and vegetables from surrounding farmland. But the longer growing seasons of the West Coast soon doomed this industry.

Next up is a working machine shop, a cacophony of grinding parts. A series of gears, belts, and cranks covers the ceiling and comes to life with a loud roar when the demonstrator flips a switch. Shops like this were used to create factory parts, shape metal, and sharpen tools.

Moving along, visitors encounter shops one might find along an industrious Baltimore street of the late 1800s or early 1900s. At each exhibit it feels as if workers have just left for a quick break, leaving behind their belongings and projects. The working print shop smells of ink and is occupied by shelves of type and printing presses. Docents provide a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a newspaper.

Baltimore was one of the first American cities to electrify its factories and shops, including its garment industry. In the garment shop a docent demonstrates the old-style shears that look like a very large and heavy pair of scissors and shows how the newer shear machine could cut through 50 pieces of fabric at once, allowing for more accurate and faster cuts. An electrical line installed over the garment workbench, similar in appearance to a lighting track of today, allowed workers to drag a cord back and forth without having to repeatedly plug in and unplug their large shears and sewing machines. Then as now, efficiency was clearly important. Details bring this shop to life: bolts of fabric sit in barrels; buttons and fabric clippings line shelves and tables. It feels busy. Mirrors cover a wall lined with sewing machines, giving an impression of a much larger room in which there is lots of work to finish.

Most of the museum succeeds in bringing the past back to life, but a few exhibits do feel underdeveloped. One on paint and the growth of the paint industry lacks detail and physical objects. Though brightly painted, it leaves the visitor feeling overwhelmed by color rather than intrigued by industry.

The most pleasing part of the museum runs the length of a long, accordionlike wall, with each fold a new advance in a consumer product made in Baltimore. An amusing display shows how a piece of sterling silver was cut, molded, and pressed into the form of a spoon. Other innovations include tennis racquets, in which the traditional wooden frame was replaced by aluminum; the world’s first disposable standard bottle cap; airplanes with cabins that looked like living rooms; and the world’s first portable electric drill. The wall showcases just how many innovations Baltimoreans had a hand in.

And while the museum tells the story of Baltimore’s innovations, it also recounts the history of the people who lived and labored there. Surprisingly, one of the best stories relates how workers ate their lunch. Before Tupperware and plastic bags, lunch was carried in a tin can. The carefully packed meal turned to mush after being jostled about in the can on the way to work. Innovations like lunch pails and tins with individual compartments ensured a meal was kept whole. But the growing need for a quick meal led to more than just a better lunch pail; diners, often housed in old railroad cars, sprang up to feed hurried workers, providing inexpensive, hearty meals around the clock.

While the Baltimore Museum of Industry lives firmly in the past, it does a good job of sharing that past with its visitors. Both adults and children will enjoy this step back in time.

Megan MacNeill is a visitor services assistant at CHF.