16, 1773, the first permanent Jewish settler in Baltimore, a Sephardi named Benjamin Levy, took out a full-page ad in
the Baltimore Advertiser promoting the merchandise in his wholesale and
retail store on Market Street at the corner
There, “for ready money,” one could buy “… a large assortment of Corks for
bottles … rubber for tables, tea, coffee, chocolate, buckets, pails … fine
pickled Salmon, Irish beef, rose blankets, English cloth, rugs, felt hats,
silk and cloth umbrellas and sundry other articles.”
Levy’s establishment was a precursor of the palatial department stores that
immigrant Ashkenazim, largely from Bavaria, would open
a century later.
These stores and their merchant princes are being featured in an exhibit at
The Jewish Museum in Baltimore titled
“Enterprising Emporiums: The Jewish Department Stores of Downtown Baltimore.”
Also featured on a weekend excursion here is “The Cone Collection” at the
Baltimore Museum of Art, one of the world’s major collections of modern art
donated to the museum by the city’s philanthropic Cone sisters.
Now, down the New Jersey Turnpike, across the Delaware Bridge and south on
U.S. 95 directly to our hotel, the Hyatt Regency, overlooking the spectacular
Inner Harbor, the very heart of Baltimore — hometown of the Cone Sisters,
Gertrude Stein, Henrietta Szold and Babe Ruth.
And the new settlers who barely eked out a living as storekeepers. They
mostly had little education, either general or Jewish. Theirs was a tradition
of hard work, thrift and discipline. These storekeepers would keep open their
modest shops from dawn to late night, and would travel from village to
village peddling their wares.
Beginning in the 1830s, substantial numbers of Jewish immigrants from
German-speaking areas of Europe settled in East
Baltimore on such tenement streets as Lloyd, site of The Jewish
Museum. Many brought with them an Old World experience
in buying, selling, trading and bartering.
It was from such beginnings that the merchant class of German Jewish
immigrants would develop. The great department stores they would create a
century after Levy’s buckets, blankets and beef were virtual fairylands for
shoppers. As the museum exhibit shows, the emporiums would feature under a
single roof an endless variety of merchandise, artful displays, enticing
eateries and a stream of special events, entertainments and celebrations.
The excitement of the full-blown department store hit Baltimore in 1886
when immigrant Joel Gutman opened his four-story,
30,000-square-foot emporium. The “artistic event of the season,” as it was
advertised, attracted thousands of Baltimoreans who waited in a line three
blocks long to enter the impressive building.
Gutman’s success was followed by other stores of
the same grand stature — Hutzler’s, Hochschild Kohn’s and Hecht’s. The stories of these
institutions illustrate the richness of the downtown experience at its peaks
and the ways in which these Jewish businesses changed Baltimore forever.
Window dressing was the art form created by the stores. Their windows became
cultural showcases providing a canvas on which to depict historical events,
express points of view, honor local achievements and celebrate community
moments, not to mention their primary functions — to sell goods. By
selecting, buying, selling and displaying stylish merchandise, the department
stores became the educators and tastemakers in the complex world of American
For many second-generation German Jews with growing purchasing power, the
department stores sold the clothing that would help form their American
identity. The imaginative displays of party dresses, storefronts, high-button
shoes, corsets and flowered hats show what a small museum with limited staff
and budget can do to evoke the entire history of a community.
With the postwar flight of a new generation of Jews from the inner city to Baltimore’s green
outer reaches, the great stores that had shaped their parents and
grandparents fell into decline. Eventually the stores, which had made the
intersection of Howard and Lexington the lively
center of the city’s commercial life, would give way to the shopping malls.
The city’s close-knit Jewish community of 90,000 is concentrated now in
northwest Baltimore and the
adjoining suburbs. A Jewish presence is visible there, mainly on or near
Reisterstown Avenue — as many as 50 synagogues, religious schools, Baltimore
Hebrew University, mikvehs, kosher restaurants,
butchers, bakeries, Judaica shops, a major weekly
newspaper, a wide range of social and cultural activities.
But our main destination this weekend is the museum at the corner of Lloyd
and Lombard, where the Jewish community had its beginnings and to which its
members return on nostalgia trips to recall their own history, housed in
Maryland’s oldest synagogue, dedicated in 1845; to worship next door at B’nai Israel, built in 1876, the oldest synagogue in
continuous use; to eat Jewish-style food in one of the two surviving delis,
around the corner on Lombard Street; and to meditate at the monumental
Holocaust memorial, a short walk from the Inner Harbor.
Also downtown is the Baltimore Art Museum, a world-class institution, and the
J.M.W. Turner show, whose permanent exhibit is based on the Cone Sisters
Collection of modern art.
For a period of 50 years dating from the end of the 19th century, Claribel and Etta Cone, heirs to a great German Jewish
fortune and friends of Gertrude and Leo Stein, their advisers, traveled to
Europe, frequented Paris salons, met Matisse and Picasso among other
struggling young artists, and wisely bought their works by the thousands.
The collection contains 500 works by Matisse, 100 by Picasso and numerous Courbets, Degas, Renoirs, Pissarros
and other icons of 19th and 20th century art. Resisting the friendly
persuasions of Alfred Barr, late head of MoMA,
Etta, last of the sisters to survive, bequeathed the entire collection to her
hometown museum, where it now occupies an entire wing.