For a fleshy, faceless little creature, the Chesapeake's native oyster gets a lot of attention. It's a seafood delicacy, a pollution filter and an embattled Bay icon.
Did the oyster also help jump-start the industrialization of Baltimore?
It sure did, according to Shawn Gladden of the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Steam power provided the means, but oysters provided the opportunity.
"We had a product that absolutely everyone wanted," Gladden said. "So we needed a means to mass-produce it and a means to export it."
In the 1850s, oysters that once moved directly from baskets to tables found temporary transport-and enormous new markets-in tin cans, thanks to steam-powered equipment.
Driven by the oyster market, Baltimore became a leader in the canning craze that washed across the nation during the second half of the 19th century. Many Bay oysters traveled to the U.S. West, and they helped sustain soldiers in two wars.
Three major advances in canning technology came from Baltimore men in the oyster business.
"By 1900," Gladden said, "oyster canning was one of the biggest businesses in the city."
Appropriately, the oyster canning industry is literally at the center of the Baltimore Museum of Industry. The oldest part of the building, which dates to 1865, housed one of the first oyster-processing plants in Baltimore, the Platt and Company Oyster Packers. With wide plank floors and exposed rafters, it's a natural showcase for the oyster canning story.
But you'll find far more than oysters here. The Baltimore Museum of Industry, a member of the Chesapeake Gateways Network, demonstrates how mass production and technology of many types have shaped Baltimore's identity-along with its critical location as a deep water port on the Chesapeake Bay.
"Geography made Baltimore what it is, from an industrial and commercial standpoint," Gladden said. "When the state began to industrialize, Baltimore became an exporter, and the city boomed."
The fact that the Platt and Co. Packers opened its building in 1865 is no accident. The opening coincided with a quickening rate of production and a new wartime market.
The stage was set by Thomas Kensett, who began canning oysters in New York in the 1820s and applied for the first U.S. patent for tin cans. Tin cans may seem mundane in today's world, but the idea was radical then. Officials truly believed the patent application was a joke.
Twenty years later, Kensett and his partner were processing oysters more quickly. Kensett brought their process to Baltimore in the 1850s.
"New England started to industrialize a little ahead of us, and they pretty much destroyed their oyster beds by dredging them for mass production," Gladden said. "As a result, there was a big migration of New Englanders to the Bay."
As the industry took hold, Isaac Solomon was the manager of a tomato-canning plant in Baltimore. In 1860, he began adding calcium chloride to boiling water, which quickly raised the temperature of heating containers to 240 degrees. This slashed the sterilization time of five or six hours to less than one hour. Production soared. A factory that packaged 2,000-3,000 cans per day could now crank out 20,000.
Solomon went on to open a successful oyster packing plant on a small island in southern Maryland. The town there today, Solomon's Island, is named for him.
In the meantime, Solomon's process left the oyster industry-and the canning industry in general-poised for success at the dawn of the Civil War. Canned food proved invaluable for supporting an army, feeding sailors and sustaining the wounded.
"During the Civil War, if oysters were part of your provisions, they were coming from Baltimore," Gladden said.
With increased production and lower prices, even the average family could enjoy canned goods like oysters, tomatoes and corn. Production skyrocketed. In 1860, the nation produced approximately 5 million cans. In 1865, it produced 30 million.
Then Baltimore delivered again. A.K. Shriver, who worked in one of the city's oyster and produce plants, invented the steam retort in 1874. The retort served as a giant pressure cooker that provided an even faster, consistent means of production. In turn, the new pace drove more improvements in automated equipment, including can-making and labeling, to keep up with the output.
Gladden said that the spinoff businesses, first with the oyster industry and then with other canners and manufacturers, created a network of production that sealed Baltimore's success as a port city.
"I can't think of time with more total, dramatic societal change than the period between 1840 and 1880," Gladden said.
Outside of the museum, a large waterfront pavilion provides picnic space and a view of the Inner Harbor. A massive industrial sculpture reminds visitors that this entire area, now a tourist beacon, was once a dense thicket of steam ships, long piers and factories.
Before the invention of steam power, most of Baltimore's mills were located on the Jones Falls, a stream that flows into the harbor from the north. Many of the mills produced cloth, using the waters of the Jones Falls for power.
But the invention of steam power allowed a factory to operate almost anywhere-and proximity to ships was a first choice. Goods near ships could be exported more quickly, at less expense.
"By the 1840s, most major manufacturers had already relocated around the 'Basin,' which is what they called the Inner Harbor back then," Gladden said.
Docked at the museum pier is the Baltimore, a historic tugboat that served the harbor from 1906 to 1963. The boat is a product of the Skinner Shipbuilding Co., which stood along the harbor in a space now occupied by a high-rise hotel.
The Baltimore was named a National Historic Landmark in 1983.
"She's the last of her kind in the United States," Gladden said, "a hand-fired, coal-fed steam tug."
After serving the city, the tugboat passed into private hands before sinking in the Sassafras River on the Eastern Shore. Volunteers raised the boat and moved it to the museum for extensive repairs. The tug ran on steam again and gave tours of the harbor before a host of needed repairs brought it to the dock.
After a 10-year wait, restoration lies ahead. The National Park Service recently awarded the museum a $250,000 grant for the work, and Gladden is in search of the matching funds that will allow the public on board once more.
Inside, the Baltimore Museum of Industry is a cross between theatrical sets and an indoor mall. Rather than gritty machines and workshops, visitors first glimpse the world that evolved from their success.
Old-time storefronts line the halls-a pharmacy, a corner grocery, and a movie theatre. A miniature bank reflects the growing need to secure new wealth.
There are surprises at each corner, rich with detail. The best part is that you can enter each space.
The pharmacy, with fully stocked shelves, features an ornate gold cash register and soda counter. The wood-framed screen door on the corner grocery swings open to reveal the "latest" selection of canned tomatoes on the shelves.
Of course, the labor of the day is featured too. There's the oyster cannery, and a textile shop with bolts of cloth along the work table. Tacked above a manager's desk, vintage flyers proclaim the advantages of doing business in Baltimore.
The print shop is packed with mechanical equipment that took painstaking effort to operate, yet produced Baltimore's early newspapers. The metal shop drives home the mechanical inventiveness of the age, which produced tools and parts with a level of precision and consistency that today's consumers take for granted.
A large exhibit hall in the newest wing of the museum pays homage to Baltimore's many inventions and achievements.
The first bottle cap was invented here. Called the "crown cork," the cap was originally made from thin disks of cork that were crimped around the bottle top. The use of sheet metal disks came later.
At first, no one believed the cap would work. So the American Brewery Company of Baltimore shipped a bottle of beer topped with a "crown cork" to South America and back. When the bottle arrived back in Baltimore, the skeptics looked it over. They found no fault with the cap (or the product).
Baltimore inventors produced an early typesetting machine, the first practical modern submarine, and advances in the chemical industry. Black and Decker, a Baltimore company, delivered the first electric and cordless drills.
A history of Maryland roads complements the truck exhibit. Considering the impact that paved surfaces now have on the Bay and its rivers, it is stunning to consider that Maryland had more than 14,000 miles of road in the early 20th century, of which only 100 miles were paved.
Dense with both setting and substance, the museum conveys a message that's quite relevant today: The jobs we hold, the goods we consume and the state of our environment are more closely related than most of us imagine.
Baltimore Museum of Industry
The Baltimore Museum of Industry is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. It is closed Mondays, as well as Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The museum is occasionally closed for private events; call ahead to confirm hours.
Admission: $10 for adults and $6 for children and ages 60 and older. Children younger than 4 are free.
Directions: From I-83 South, take the Lombard Street exit traveling west. Turn left on Light St. Continue south past Inner Harbor. Turn left on Key Highway. The Museum is .75 miles from the intersection.
From I-95 North or South, take Key Highway Exit 55. Turn at light, go under overpass, turn left on Key Highway. Museum is on your right.
For information, call 410-727-4808 or visit www.thebmi.org. For information about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net.