Above: Photo of the Museum of Industry from the Harbor courtesy of the Museum of Industry https://www.thebmi.org/visit/
Looking out over Baltimore’s harbor, you’ll see a thoroughly modern port. Colossal container ships come and go with the tide as longshoremen unload goods from around the world just as they’ve done for centuries.
But around the port, you’ll see warehouses converted into breweries and apartment buildings within the shells of former factories. On what used to be shipyards, there now sits luxury hotels and casinos.
These are echoes of Baltimore’s past when the city was a thriving hub of industry. Today, these buildings serve designer beers or act as trendy homes for bohemian Baltimoreans.
But a century ago, they were heated by the fires of the smelter and the sound of rivet guns echoed against their walls. Their smokestacks belched smog, and the working men and women of this city built the future and won the war.
The legacy of Baltimore’s working-class lives on, woven into the fiber of the city. It’s faded in some places, but the sweat and muscle they poured into the city shines through. And the artifacts of the hardworking people of Baltimore can all be found in a short steel and glass building overlooking Fells Point, a historical shipbuilding location, across the harbor.
The Baltimore Museum of Industry was established in 1977 to preserve the city’s industrial past. It occupies a building that once served as a cannery for Platt and Company.
The building itself is fascinating and bits of the old factory it used to be are still plainly visible. There are many buildings like this in southern Baltimore. But this one has seen extensive modernization, including a huge wall of windows overlooking the harbor which you’ll see near the conclusion of your visit.
It’s a fairly open museum, and a few routes are available to you from the start. I’ll be walking you through it in roughly chronological order. Signposts hanging from the roof will direct you towards each era of Baltimore’s industrial history.
First up, a recreation of what this building once was. Follow the signs to the cannery and you’ll find yourself looking at an enormous vat with a basket full of tin cans being pulled from it. The Museum of Industry is the last-surviving cannery building.
Oysters used to be very common in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. In fact, they used to be a hazard for ships as a tall enough oyster colony could shred the wooden hulls of ships from the age of sail. Oysters were once so important for the economy of the Chesapeake region that we fought a war over it called the “Oyster War.” Pollution, ironically from many of the canneries that relied on them, caused the oyster population to drop. Today, the bay is recovering thanks to extensive ecological efforts by Maryland and the surrounding states in its watershed; Virginia and Delaware.
Canned goods were a huge innovation in the 19th century. They were first used in the Napoleonic wars but quickly caught on as militaries around the world saw the value of keeping large quantities of non-perishable food on hand. Urban populations worldwide took interest as well, since canned goods spared them from having to go shopping every day.
Firms like Platt and Company launched into a canned goods arms race, offering cheaper and more novel canned meals. The oysters canned here likely found their way to New York, London, Paris, and dozens of other cities around the world. They too could now enjoy Chesapeake Bay Oysters for the first time.
Moving on from the cannery, you’ll find a room filled to the brim with a tangle of drive belts hooked up to multiple machines. These are from the machine shops and forges that once provided workers across America’s modern “Rust Belt” with jobs.
In the 19th century, the world was speeding up to a mechanical tune. Belt-driven machines powered by steam, internal combustion, or electric motors allowed formerly labor-intensive work to be done more quickly and efficiently each year. If you come on a Saturday, you can see a museum employee demonstrating a variety of these strange contraptions.
Moving on, we’ll enter a new century with three exhibits from the next stage of the Industrial Revolution in the early 20th century.
First up is a Baltimore area pharmacy circa 1910. Between the black and white checkered tile floor and the ornate cash register, entering this exhibit is like stepping back to the turn of the century.
Back then, a “druggist” could sell you medicine right along with ice cream and soda. Places like this were often hangouts for entire neighborhoods in the increasingly dense and tall cities of the 20th century.
It was in a pharmacy like this one that the now ubiquitous skin ointment Noxzema was invented. In 1900, Maryland native Dr. Francis J. Townsend had developed the formula for it. He produced it for a time in Berlin and later Ocean City, Maryland. But the product really took off in the 1920s after George Avery Bunting got ahold of the formula.
In 1926, Bunting broke ground on a factory in Baltimore proper. From there, the cream became a nationwide and later worldwide product found in pharmacies around the world even to today. Though, now it’s produced by Proctor and Gamble.
Moving on to the next exhibit, you’ll step back to a garment factory in the 1920s. These used to be everywhere in America’s old industrial cores, often staffed by women or sometimes children they cranked out affordable, quality, stylish clothes that the growing urban middle class could afford.
For the first time in history, millions of people no longer had to make their clothes at home or pay a tailor a fortune to make custom outfits. They could simply pop down to their local department store and buy the latest fashion turned out in factories like this.
Workers labored for hours on these worn wooden tables, using another new innovation – the sewing machine – to produce more and more, faster and faster. Conditions were cramped, the rooms were filled with the heat of dozens of bodies which combined with the heat radiating off the sewing machines to create a veritable sauna. To make matters worse, these factories were often on the upper floors of ever-taller buildings in an age before air conditioning.
Fires and workplace injuries were commonplace, but they did lead to worker’s improving conditions across the western world. Because of events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York, fire escapes had to be put on tall buildings nationwide.
Moving on and stepping forward into another decade, you’ll be able to explore a print shop from the mid-1930s. Before the 1980s and the rise of computing, newspapers, magazines, and other large-scale publications relied on shops like these and their linotype machines.
In rooms exactly like this one, magazines and newspapers shot off the presses warm from linotype machines, which are quite large and operate at high temperatures. In this room, you can also see vintage printing presses, the precursors to the linotype machine.
Journalism has a long history in Baltimore, the local paper, the Baltimore Sun was established back in 1837. Machines like the ones in this exhibit once hummed along, pumping out thousands of newspapers every single day to keep the people of Baltimore informed.
You can see a live demonstration of how these behemoth linotype machines worked every single month.
Moving on to the next exhibit, we move a couple more decades into the future to the 1950s, the golden age of the United States’ auto industry. While Detroit may be the beating heart of the industry, home to Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, Baltimore had its own contribution to America’s love affair with the automobile in the form of two local gas companies Amoco and Crown-Central.
In this exhibit you can explore the fuel of the 20th century and even climb into a prime example of the American auto industry, a 1953 Packard Clipper. You can also look at a 19th century kerosene wagon that would have transported fuel to the gaslights that lit up the streets of the centers of the industrial revolution.
Finally, you can have a look at one of Tesla’s ancestors. Far from the sleek, sexy cars of Elon Musk’s modern company, Bill Spicer’s 1979 electric car looks like a child’s creation. Still, Tesla wouldn’t exist if not for cars like this, so give credit where it’s due.
Up next is another more modern exhibit, the history of the telephone and modern communications technology. These devices, as much as the machinery you’ve already seen, have built the modern world. From the rotary phone and radio to smartphones and the internet, from cabinet TVs to modern flatscreens, the technology that made America and the world smaller is all here for you to see.
Finally, once you’ve seen all the other exhibits, you can step out into a wide-open gallery with exhibits ranging from a neon sign shop to an old-school steamroller. But the highlight of this room has got to be the 1937 Mini Mariner, a prototype of the World War II PBM naval bomber. This example was restored by some of the workers who originally built it to serve in WWII.
Baltimore had a considerable role to play in WWII. Not only did the city build planes like this one in her factories, but Baltimore’s ample shipyards cranked out dozens upon dozens of Liberty Ships. These cargo vessels allowed the United States to become the Arsenal of the Free World.
They transported tons of equipment ranging from rifles and grenades to planes and artillery pieces to our allies in the fight against Nazi Germany, Italy, and Imperial Japan. At peak production, American shipyards like Bethlehem-Fairfield’s in Baltimore could build an entire ship from stern to bow in just 24 days.
Whenever you’re finished touring this room, you can head back to the gift shop and leave through the doors you entered from. Before you leave though, be sure to check out the steam-powered tugboat “Baltimore.” She’s quite literally a museum piece now, but in her day, she scurried about the bustling port of 20th century Baltimore helping ships come and go. And while she doesn’t sail like she used to, she’s a testament to the industrial hub this harbor once was and the tourism and trade hub it is today.
There is a giftshop, you’ll be greeted with it as soon as you enter the museum. Here they sell a bunch of cool little knick nacks but I’d advise you wait to buy anything until you’re ready to leave. This is a relatively small museum but it’s one less thing to carry.
The gift shop/reception area is also where you’ll buy your tickets. They’re very cheap, just $12 for adults, $9 for senior citizens, $7 for students and children aged 7-18 and free for kids age 6 and under.
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James Hires is a research report writer for the Oxford Club, a financial publishing company. He is a native of Baltimore and graduated from Towson University in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in history. He runs a podcast and blog called Renegade Historian, which explores various topics ranging from Medieval history to World War II. The current podcast series is called “Between the Crescent and the Cross” and it delves into the history of the Crusades. Learn more on Twitter @H_Renegade_ and on Facebook.