With the fifteenth annual Maryland Film Festival underway, many Baltimoreans have no doubt noticed that filmmakers from around the globe have converged on the city. You may have seen them drinking our best beer, eating in our finest restaurants, partying in our hotels, and swaying MFF swag bags. Naturally we thought this would be a great time for an AV report from the Maryland Historical Society’s H. Furlong Baldwin Library. Our own local filmmakers should take note that whether they are searching for documentary footage, or working on an experimental project, our collection is ripe for mining. MdHS’s Special Collections Department has a small moving image collection much of which came to us due to the demise of another Baltimore cultural institution, the Baltimore City Life Museums.
The Baltimore City Life Museums (BCLM) was a private non-profit organization created to preserve the history of life in Baltimore, Maryland. It was founded in 1931 and was integral in documenting and exhibiting aspects of Baltimore’s material culture. By focusing on immigrant communities and the less wealthy, the museum captured the day to day life of a more representative citizenry. Within the BCLM, there were eight historic sites: the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, the Carroll Mansion, the 1840 House, Brewers’ Park, the Center for Urban Archeology, the Shot Tower, the Peale Museum, and the H.L. Mencken House. All of these institution’s holdings, totaling approximately 200,000 items, were transferred to the MdHS upon the closing of BCLM in 1997.
The moving image materials from BCLM tend to deal with ordinary Baltimore life events, while the rest of the moving image collection at MdHS provides a more general perspective of Maryland history. Altogether the collection amounts to over 400 items.
MdHS has been able to preserve several titles from the collection through grants awarded by the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF), including:
- Baltimore: City of Charm and Tradition (1939), promotional travelogue narrated by Lowell Thomas.
- Bayshore Round-Up (1920), the Bayshore Amusement Park in its heyday, from the collection of the Baltimore Gas Light Company.
- Behind the Scenes at Hutzler’s (1938), behind-the-scenes film made to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the beloved Baltimore department store.
- Bermuda to Baltimore (1937), a short film celebrating the inaugural flight of PanAm’s Bermuda Clipper seaplane.
- Druid Hill Park Zoo (1927), home movies taken at one of the oldest zoos in America.
- Fair of the Iron Horse (1927), home movie of the centenary exposition for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the nation’s first common carrier railroad.
- The Picturesque Susquehanna (1928), celebration of the construction of the Conowingo Dam and Hydroelectric Plant, documenting the river from the Safe Harbor Electrical Plant to the Chesapeake Bay.
- Play Ball with the Orioles (1957), promotional film made by a local brewing company to highlight Baltimore’s major league baseball team—Richard and Pat Nixon appear in an opening day parade.
- Raising the Big Flag, VE Day (1945), Baltimore’s celebration of the end of World War II in Europe.
The rest of the collection consists of several different series. Though some of the films are commercially distributed and not particularly rare, many of the moving images and sounds are quite unique and in dire need of preservation.
In particular, there are several Umatic tapes from 1979 documenting the construction of Cold Spring Newtown. The age of this tape alone calls for swift preservation: most video and audiotapes only have a lifespan of 30 years (please see link). Unfortunately, this content is on video and not film, excluding them from the previously mentioned NFPF film-only grants.
There are a few educational films and programs in the collection that were created for the purpose of instruction or learning, relating to Maryland history or schools in Maryland. News programming also makes up a small portion of the collection from local stations WMAR, Cable 44, WBAL-TV, WJZ-TV and Fox 45. One very interesting item in this series is a kinescope titled Desegregation: Baltimore Report hosted by Walter Sondheim, which shows footage of people protesting on the street on September 30, 1956. This program also is excluded from the NFPF grants because it was made for television.
There are a huge amount of oral histories at MdHS, numbering over 1300, and it would really only be fair to have an entire blog entry dedicated to them. Many of the preserved films are part of series documenting Maryland landmarks and special events. Some that have yet to be preserved are videos from the 1980s of Hutzler Department Store, and the 1973 City Fair at the Inner Harbor.
Perhaps the most unique series in the collection are two home movies taken by the Siebert family in 1927 which were recently preserved through the NFPF grants. There are also many films made by the Boone Family from the 1920s. From provenance records it can be assumed that these are from the family of James R.H. and Muriel Wurts-Dundas Boone, who owned Oak Hill on Bellona Road in Ruxton. It’s rumored that the film was left at MdHS by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra after the house had been used as a BSO decorators’ show house. There are also several home movies of Italian-Americans in Baltimore. All of the home movies are one-of-a-kind documents of not just one family’s past, but of special events and the cultural heritage of all of Baltimore.
Lastly there are many unidentified films and videos that the MdHS is slowly working to identify of footage or edited programs whose series are unidentifiable from a succinct visual physical inspection. It takes a lot of money, expertise and staff time to even figure out what content is on these moving images and recorded sound formats, let alone reformatting them to other formats for preservation. (Siobhan Hagan)
Siobhan Hagan is currently the Audiovisual Preservation Specialist at UCLA Library. She is a native Marylander and has volunteered for MdHS since 2008.