Articles

Baltimore’s First Building Laws

In Special Collections on April 8, 2014 by rob schoeberlein

BMS 41, The Builder's Exchange of Baltimore City Collection

BMS 41, The Builder’s Exchange of Baltimore City Collection

We received an unsolicited gift recently, something atypical of what has been donated in the recent past. It is an object that holds significance to both the appearance and growth of Baltimore’s urban landscape. And it’s kind of fun (hey, I’m an archivist—what can I say?)

The item is the signing pen used by the Baltimore’s one-term Mayor Robert G. Davidson (1889-1891) to affix his signature to the 1891 “Building Laws” ordinance. Before that time Baltimore had “no code of laws to regulate the construction and inspection of her new buildings,” according to the City’s Annual Report of 1891. As J. Theodore Oster, Inspector of Buildings, opined, “[i]t is gratifying… that we have at last succeeded in getting a code… passed, which we trust will secure to the public safer and more substantial buildings.” Oster added that he now required at least four more assistants, adding but a slight bump upward to the city bureaucracy.

We know that the item was displayed originally at the offices of the Builder’s Exchange. Founded in 1888, the Exchange headquarters stood at 19 W. Saratoga Street in 1892 and served as a meeting place for individuals in the building trade. A committee from the Exchange was present at the ordinance signing and “requested the pen that was used, and [intended to] have it suitably framed and hung in the exchange.”

BMS 41 detail

BMS 41 detail

The Committee mounted and framed the item in great style. They commissioned a special engrossed background upon which the pen would be mounted. That, in itself, was not unusual. But this background, in addition to the pertinent hand-lettered information about the pen, included fine scrollwork, flourishes, and other embellishments from the fine art of penmanship. Dr. S. C. Malone, who styled himself as an “artist penman” performed the work. Not only did he take on commissioned work, he taught penmanship classes at his Charles Street office and, later, served as an expert witness in matters relating to handwriting analysis. In thirty-eight years, he “testified in 2,000 cases… and lost only seven.”

The pen has been added to the Baltimore City Archives holdings as BMS 41, The Builder’s Exchange of Baltimore City Collection

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