Baltimore Suburbia: a Foreign Land We Want to Discover

Posted on February 8th, 2012 by

A blog post by Laura Tomes.

The Go-Between, a romantic novel published by L.P. Hartley in 1953, opens with the now famous line, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Many historians now take this concept for granted, and not without good intention. The idea that the past is a foreign country means that as historians we should not presume that our own values can be read seamlessly into the times and places we research. We should allow the past to speak in its own language, through the ideas and images of its own time.

It is easy to get excited about trips to foreign places. They are pregnant with possibility: new worlds to discover, new cultures to appreciate, new foods to savor. A journey into the foreign past is a journey into the unknown. It has the ability to surprise us. Jewish boxers in interwar Baltimore? Who knew?! The foreign past can challenge our understandings of who we are and where we have been.


Fun-A –Rama in Pikesville, 1956.

When we work on the history of the relatively recent past, however, the sense of the foreign can get lost. The recent past is familiar to those who lived it. How can something be exciting, undiscovered or full of possibility, when it took place right here in Baltimore, just forty years ago? Well, to those of us who did not live it, and even for those who did, recent history can still be full of surprises. The Jewish Museum of Maryland is collecting pictures of Jewish life in Baltimore’s suburbs during the 1950s and 1960s. That means pictures of children playing in the backyard, Mom and Dad standing proudly next to the “Sold” sign, suburban neighborhoods, family simchas, and gatherings in the kitchen, living room, dining room and basement. In short, all those photographs that most family albums are teeming with. To you, these pictures might not seem very interesting, but to others who had different experiences of suburban life, or who never experienced it personally, it is a foreign place waiting to be discovered.


Did your suburban home look like this?


For me, Baltimore’s suburbs are quite literally foreign country. I came to America from the U.K. in 2008 to begin working on my PhD, and subsequently began working at the JMM on our suburbia project. I’m fascinated to see how your images of Baltimore compare to the Jewish suburbs of England that I am more familiar with. For the class that we are teaching at Johns Hopkins University this semester, in which we are developing a travelling exhibit about the move to suburbia, the suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s are a foreign land that the students know only through family stories, and through films and TV shows. Yet the fact that the success of the show Mad Men has inspired stores to produce 1950s themed clothing lines shows us that the foreign land of the 1950s and 1960s is a place that these young people are keen to discover.


Etta Salabes standing behind sofa, Ruth Salabes (Cohen) seated on sofa, and Julius Cohen seated on sofa.

Even for those who were present, who made the history of the Jewish suburbs of Baltimore in the 1950s and 1960s, there might still be a foreign land just off of Liberty Heights or Reisterstown Road that you never knew about. While the connotations of suburbia often suggest uniformity, the reality is that Baltimore’s Jewish suburbs are diverse places; full of different kinds of houses built at different times by different people and lived in by different kinds of families. Your photographs of your experience of suburbia might seem mundane to you, but they might be a foreign place to someone whose experiences of suburban life were different.

So please consider bringing your pictures of suburbia to show us! We are also interested in hearing your stories. If you would be willing to sit and talk with me about the different places where you lived in Baltimore during the 1950s and 1960s, please contact me at, or by calling the museum and leaving your name and number. This foreigner is looking forward to discovering new lands through your eyes.

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Baltimore’s Suburban Story

Posted on August 1st, 2011 by

A blog post by Summer Intern Laura Tomes.

For the past two months, I have been doing the preliminary research for a new exhibit on suburbia and nostalgia in Baltimore from 1950-1980. In the course of my reading, I have discovered that suburbia is a slippery concept. Everybody knows what suburbs are, but no-one agrees quite how to define them. Jewish suburbia is even harder to pin down. What are the Jewish suburbs of Baltimore? The Northwest, of course! Pikesville, Owings Mills and Reisterstown. Once we could include Randallstown in that list too. But how and when did they become Jewish suburbs?  The U.S. census does not ask questions about religious affiliation, so it is difficult to know how many Jews have historically lived in any given place at any given time. But, we can make some logical deductions.

Baltimore’s Urban-Rural Demarcation Line, created in 1967, distinguishes between the suburbs of Baltimore and the rural areas surrounding them. Photo Credit: http:///, accessed 7.20.11

The suburbs of Baltimore were not divided into census tracts until 1960. So to compare and contrast population growth before 1960, we have to look to a bigger unit of population measurement, one that has been used for a much longer period of time: the minor civil division. The area around Randallstown corresponds to minor civil division 2, the area around Pikesville corresponds to minor civil division 3, and the area around Owings Mills and Reisterstown corresponds to minor civil division 4. Looking at the population data from the census for these areas yields some interesting results. In 1940, the population for these three minor civil divisions numbered only around 7,000 people. By 1950, it had grown only by about 2-3,000. However, between 1950 and 1960, the population of these three areas grew to around 25,000 – an increase of more than double. Between 1960 and 1970, the population doubles again, increasing to between 30,000 and 50,000. By 1980, however, the population growth levels out, only increasing by 3-5,000 people.

Reisterstown in 1936. How much has changed!

So we can tell from this that 1950-1970 are clearly the most important years in the growth of Baltimore’s Jewish suburbs. Add to the population figures the fact that the Beltway was constructed between 1959 and 1962, and that the Social Security Administration headquarters were built in Woodlawn in 1960, and we begin to get a sense of why the suburbs of northwest Baltimore became convenient places to live and work in these decades. Indeed, we have found that many new housing developments were advertised in the Baltimore Jewish Times along Liberty and Reisterstown roads beginning in the early 1950’s,  It is interesting, however that during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the real estate advertisements of the Baltimore Jewish times are full almost exclusively with adverts for apartment blocks being built in suburbs outside the Beltway. In addition, marriage announcements frequently include references to young couples beginning their married lives in suburban apartment complexes such as Scotts Level, Eton Hall, and Pikesville Plaza. So while suburban development began with housing development in the early 1950’s, it seems there was definitely a trend towards suburban apartment living amongst young Baltimore Jews during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Field’s Pharmacy at Pikesville medical center, 1958.

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What Makes You Smile?

Posted on June 15th, 2011 by

On Friday June 10th, the Jewish Museum of Maryland went across town to visit another Baltimore attraction: the American Visionary Art Museum. The occasion was the JMM’s annual volunteer appreciation event, bringing together a motley crew of staff, volunteers and interns to celebrate all that the volunteers do, and to enjoy a tour around this iconic Baltimore institution. Our guide was the museum’s founder, Rebecca Hoffberger, and her detailed and informative tour was clear evidence of her enthusiasm for the museum, its art, and its engagement with the Baltimore community. Did you know, for example, that the shining mosaics that coat the museum’s exterior are the largest example of mosaic art produced by incarcerated youth? Or that all of the art displayed in the museum was produced by self-taught artists? Or that the museum’s current exhibition was co-curated by Matt Groenig, creator of The Simpsons? These are just some of the things that we learned last week.


Rebecca Hoffberger explains the creation of the mosaic façade of the museum.



Elsa Lanchester watches over a captive audience


We concluded our tour with a lunch to celebrate the contributions that all of the volunteers make to the efficient running of the museum, from the docents conducting tours around B’nai Israel and the Lloyd Street Synagogue, to those who help in the gift shop and at the front desk, to the behind-the-scenes administrative assistants. Every year, the American Visionary Art Museum chooses a different theme for the main exhibition galleries. This year’s theme is “What Makes Us Smile?” and explores the science, the history, and the beauty behind human joy. The exhibition runs until Labor Day, so do go and visit if you can. As for the JMM, the consensus on Friday was that the volunteers certainly give all who work at the museum something to smile about.


Speeches at the Volunteer Appreciation lunch.


A blog post by intern Laura Tomes.


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