We’ll have several artifact-specific posts about some of the finds at the Caulkers’ Houses in the coming weeks, but following our Open House Weekend on June 1 and 2, we thought it might be nice to spend a little time looking at the big picture: why the Caulkers’ Houses are important, and how the archaeological investigation sheds light on the history of these homes and the people who once lived in them.
In the early-to-mid 1800s, 612 and 614 Wolfe Street were the homes of African-American ship caulkers and their families. Archival information and contemporary accounts provide some of the outlines of their stories. One particularly important contemporary source is Frederick Douglass, who described his own experience as a ship caulker in Fells Point in his autobiographies.
By 1838, free black ship caulkers organized the Caulkers Association to negotiate wages and working conditions with the powerful Baltimore Ship-Wrights association, an organization of master shipbuilders and carpenters. As a result, despite numerous challenges, African Americans dominated the caulking industry in the early part of the 19th century.
Their corner on the caulking industry did not last. In 1858 and 1859, a white working-class gang calling themselves the Tigers broke the African-American monopoly on caulking jobs in an explosion of violence and harassment that came to be known as the Caulker Riots. These attacks, among other factors, caused the Caulkers Association to lose economic clout in the late 1850s, but the organization’s legacy continued in the work of Isaac Myers, a Baltimore ship caulker and influential leader in the creation of the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company, and the Colored National Labor Union. The two fragile wooden buildings at 612-614 Wolfe Street rare a rare, tangible piece of this history.
This gives us a brief sketch of the various racial, economic, and social tensions that were at play in 19th-century Fells Point, but what was life like for the ship caulkers at the household level? What did they do at home with their families and friends, and how did these forces shape their day-to-day lives? This is where the archaeology comes in.
The archaeological record at 612 & 614 Wolfe Street speaks to the caulkers’ ability to earn a living wage in the early 19th century, and their access to a thriving port filled with goods from an international market, as well as a broad array of items made closer to home. Baltimore-made stoneware jars and jugs containing locally produced beer, dairy products, and other farm produce were stored in the crawl spaces beneath the floorboards of these modest houses. Serving wares came from England, undoubtedly purchased from shipments arriving at the harbor.
The houses were tiny, with approximately 500 square feet of living space, and this is reflected in the archaeological record as well; cooking occurred in the narrow yards behind the houses, and the presence of marbles and doll parts across the site indicates that children were encouraged to play outside. Although paper items have not survived 200 years buried in the soil, writing slates and pencils are abundant at the site. Disc-shaped game pieces, buttons, and pins slipped through the floorboards of the house and were preserved in the soil below. Overall, the archaeological record speaks to the focus on family life, including play, social activities, cooking, sewing, education, and the choices the residents made as consumers in a diverse marketplace.
In his autobiographies, Douglass said that “going to Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway to all my subsequent prosperity.” But it wasn’t just being in Baltimore that did this; it was the experiences he had there, the people he met, and what he learned that helped him escape to freedom and become a leader of the abolitionist movement.
Douglass also describes meetings of the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, a group organized by free black workers in Fells Point to teach reading, writing, and debating skills. The group met regularly in Happy Alley (now Durham Street), the street immediately adjacent to Wolfe Street. Through this organization, Douglass received the help he needed to escape to freedom in the North. It is very likely that Douglass knew the people who lived at 612 and 614 Wolfe Street, and that they were members of the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society and the Caulkers Association as well. The people who lived at the Caulkers’ Houses, and in the surrounding neighborhood, showed Douglass what life looked like for free people, and now we can get a glimpse of it too, through a careful examination of what they left behind.