The History of Maryland in Rare Books

February 10, 2016
by Susannah Horrom

The time-worn pages, the sweet scent, the stories that persist in between the pages: rare and used books tell special stories that readers are unlikely to find anywhere else. Susannah Horrom of The Kelmscott Bookshop gives a glimpse into the history of Maryland as seen through the lens of four rare books.

The Chronicles of Baltimore by Colonel John Thomas Scharf (1874) gives a detailed history of the city beginning with Captain John Smith’s exploration of the Patapsco River and ending with the great Baltimore fire of 1873. While it may sound dry, The Chronicles not only includes the commonly known timeline of events; it is enhanced with details about the residents, local businesses, plays, fashion, and more. He explains how the Canton neighborhood got its name, when the streets were first paved, and the first time wallpaper was used in Baltimore. Scharf’s research came not only from journals, newspapers, and books, but “from musty records on the brink of decay, from odd places and unexplored corners, which by accident of fire or flood or time’s hard touches, might otherwise have been forever lost to us.” A noted historian of his day, Scharf (1843 – 1898) was once called “Baltimore’s Venerable Bede,” and his work continues to be of great value due largely to the inclusion of passages from primary source documents.

James McSherry’s The History of Maryland (1849) gives a complete history of the state from its first settlement in 1634 to a year after the Mexican-American War (1848). While McSherry does touch on all of the major events during this timeframe, the bulk of his history details Maryland’s involvement in the Revolutionary War. He also discusses other subjects of interest such as the Protestants, slavery, public schools, the Baltimore Ohio Railroad, tobacco, and Indian relations. James McSherry (1819 – 1869) was a lawyer and an author, best known for this seminal work.

The Firemen’s Record by Albert J. Cassedy (1911) documents the history of the Baltimore Fire Department for three centuries, from its inception through 1911. According to the introduction, the relief association was formed to be of assistance when “one of their number has sacrificed his life to save that of another, and when his charred and crushed remains are conveyed to his once happy home, his widow and children will not be thrown on the cold charity of the world.” This book gives detailed reports of the great fires of 1873 and 1904, tells how the city purchased its first fire truck, explains how firemen extinguished flames before fire trucks – think a whole lot of buckets. It’s a surprisingly riveting history of destruction, bravery, and survival. Also included are bylaws, rules, biographical sketches of chief officers, a map of the “pipe line system” (fire hydrants), and detailed illustrations.

Industries of Maryland: A Descriptive Review of the Manufacturing and Mercantile Industries of Baltimore (1882) emphasizes Baltimore’s industrial growth. Copious reviews of Baltimore businesses intermingle with illustrations, advertisements, and a concise history of the city. Detailed information on exports, imports, and population are also provided. Following is an excerpt from one listing for a highly regarded doctor: “Reader: if you are afflicted with a disease which has baffled the skill of all others, go to see Dr. Kohler, learn something of his wonderful treatment and be cured … Dr. Kohler is a native of this city, and merits a place in this work as a benefactor of suffering humanity.” The businesses reviewed range from oyster packers to photographers and everything in between. Presumably once akin to the Yellow Pages, this book is scarce today as it quickly became irrelevant and thus disposable. However, it provides a fascinating peek into Baltimore businesses and everyday life during the 1880s.

Susannah Horrom manages The Kelmscott Bookshop, Baltimore’s largest used and rare bookstore. Located on 25th Street between Charles Street and Maryland Avenue, The Kelmscott Bookshop carries books in all subject areas including many titles relating to Baltimore and Maryland. The books featured above are highlights from the shop’s Maryland section and are all available for sale.

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