“Mendes I. Cohen and the Travails of Travel in the 19th Century”

Posted on December 19th, 2013 by

Maryland Historical Society  Source:  Luce, W. Ray, "The Cohen Brothers of Baltimore:  from Lotteries to Banking," Maryland Historical Magazine, 68 (1973), 288-308.

Maryland Historical Society
Source: Luce, W. Ray, “The Cohen Brothers of Baltimore: from Lotteries to Banking,” Maryland Historical Magazine, 68 (1973), 288-308.

Whether the purpose is to see friends and family or enjoy a relaxing vacation, many people associate the holiday season with travel. Of course, for the millions of Americans who take to the roads and skies this month, holiday travel is rarely without its headaches: lengthy security lines, flight delays, and traffic jams seem to be ever-present this time of year. Yet the modern sojourner should take heart, for as difficult as travel is in the 21st century, it is exponentially easier, quicker, and safer than it was for 19th century adventurer Mendes I. Cohen.

Born in 1796 into what became one of the most prominent Jewish banking families in Baltimore, Cohen retired from business in 1829 and used his wealth to embark on a seven-year-long tour of Europe, the Middle East, and Egypt. During his time abroad, Cohen wrote over three hundred letters to his mother and brothers back home in Maryland. From the historian’s standpoint, this extensive correspondence represents a treasure trove of information detailing not only the sites and people Cohen visited, but also the manner in which he traveled and the challenges faced by trans-Atlantic voyagers in the early 1800s.

Though the breadth of his correspondence would seem to suggest otherwise, one of the first problems Cohen ran into was the logistics of sending and receiving mail. For the modern traveler, communication is often as easy as picking up a phone or updating one’s status on social media, but for Cohen maintaining contact with home involved a complicated series of steps in which the arrival of letters depended upon the willingness of individual strangers to assume responsibility for their delivery. Consider the following instructions Cohen provided to his brother Jacob before setting sail from New York:

This will be to inform you of my route and how and where to direct your letters to me with further orders. I sail for Liverpool and have a letter of introduction to our consul there, Francis B. Ogden, to whose care you will direct and after the 30th of December you will please direct to the care of Messrs. Wells & Co., Paris….Whilst in Bristol and London my letters will be forwarded to me by Mr. Ogden and I will take care after I leave London that they will follow me to Paris. Your letters to Paris, Messrs. Wells will forward to me wherever I direct him. 

Beyond the need to depend upon others for his communications with home, Cohen also had to deal with the fact that mail simply moved much more slowly in the early 1800s. Most of Cohen’s letters from England and Western Europe took upwards of six weeks to reach their recipients in Baltimore and even this lengthy period of time was subject to extension if the weather failed to cooperate.

Important as his letters may have been for combating homesickness and boosting morale, the troubles Cohen had corresponding with family could have been avoided by simply limiting his communications. Doing without was not an option, however, when it came to such necessities as food, and here again Cohen faced challenges unknown to the modern traveler. To begin with, in contrast to the all-you-can-eat buffets that typically greet cruise ship passengers today, Cohen had to provide his own provisions for the nineteen-day trip across the Atlantic. In his first letter from New York, Cohen mentions bringing onboard “pickles, onions, etc., anchovies in [salt], lemons, oranges, limes, [and mineral] water,” a menu that was expanded in a later letter to include salted herring, smoked tongue, green tea, and rice. Aside from the hassle and expense of bringing these supplies onboard, Cohen’s choice of provisions also points to another set of problems: the need to pack food that will not only resist spoiling but also provide nutritional protection against the maladies associated with ocean voyages. Due to their long shelf life, heavily salted and pickled foods were staples of trans-Atlantic travel, while citrus fruits were an essential ingredient in the fight against scurvy.

Unfortunately for the modern tourist, the subject of Cohen’s victuals on the Atlantic also points to an unpleasant element of travel that has remained constant across time: seasickness. Although he had previously travelled by steamboat to attend to the family’s business in the United States, Cohen was afflicted by seasickness throughout his voyages. Less than a week after setting sail from New York, for example, a presumably green-faced Cohen wryly observed that he “must not talk about rolling” while drafting a letter at sea. This same gallows humor was also in evidence when Cohen recounted the misery of a steamboat trip across the English Channel:

Though the day was fine and [there was] but little wind, many had their drooping heads,

and the high and low paid their tribute to Old Neptune, and I among the rest. 

As any smart traveler will do, Cohen recognized the likelihood of the ailment and took precautions by bringing along palliatives such as gingerbread (ginger being a well-known remedy for nausea) and laudanum (an opiate used to treat all manner of illnesses in the 1800s). Nevertheless, these were poor substitutes for the sure footing and clear-headedness that comes from being on land.

So, as we set forth over the river and through the woods for that three-hour-long car ride or plane trip to grandmother’s house this season, let us all take a moment to count our blessings. After all, if Mendes Cohen’s voyages demonstrate nothing else, it is that modern travelers have relatively little to complain about in comparison to those who came before us.

A blog post by JMM Researcher Joseph Abel. To read more posts about the Amazing Mendes Cohen, click here.

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Drawing from History

Posted on June 27th, 2012 by

A blog post by Education Intern Lisa Perrin.

Paper dolls are very dear to my heart. I collected them obsessively as a child and fretted endlessly about whether or not to cut them out. I loved the costumes and the potential for storytelling in each paper doll book. And I did not realize it at the time, but I was learning. Paper dolls shaped my sense of history. When I think of the Civil War era I envision hoop skirts and mutton chops. I can picture the straight silhouettes of the 1920s and the flared, tailored dresses of the 1950s. Knowing about the styles of those eras has helped me better understand them in a grander sense.

An example of a paper doll I was commissioned to make for the Mutter Museum gift store in Philadelphia, PA of Dr. Mutter, for whom the museum is named.

It will come as no surprise that I began to make my own paper dolls inspired by history and literature. I also sold them through an online Etsy shop and discovered that many people feel a special connection to this simple toy. During my education department internship interview with the Jewish Museum of Maryland I mentioned my passion for making paper dolls. I was met with a great sense of enthusiasm and an idea for a project. I was asked to create a series of paper dolls representing famous Maryland Jews to be used as learning tools. I am very excited because I know of very few paper dolls depicting Jewish people.

A working sketch of my first paper doll: Mendes Cohen, a Jewish man who served in the war of 1812.

My hope is to make paper dolls that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds as a unique and fun way to educate them about the history of the Jewish people in this state.

Stay tuned for updated posted on my progress!

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They Ate Kosher at Fort McHenry

Posted on April 25th, 2012 by

In honor of the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812, I’d like to submit an excerpt of an article that appeared in our Generations magazine back in December 1979, written by Albert J. Silverman. ~Historian Dr. Deb Weiner.

"A view of the bombardment of Fort McHenry." Drawing by J. Bower, 1819. Public domain. Via.

The two best known Jewish families in Maryland during the first half of the nineteenth century were the Cohens and the Ettings. When the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British occurred in September, 1814, two members of the Cohen family and one of the Ettings were among the defenders. They were Philip and Mendes I. Cohen and Samuel Etting. Philip and Mendes were twenty-one and seventeen, respectively, and Samuel was eighteen. All three were members of Captain Joseph Nicholson’s Artillery Fencibles, which was attached to the First Regiment of Artillery, commanded by Lt. Col. David Harris. The eldest of the Cohen brothers, Jacob, was also a member of the Fencibles, but he was on leave and in Philadelphia taking care of a sick uncle—probably  Jacob Cohen, a Revolutionary War veteran—at the time of the bombardment.

19. Historic American Buildings Survey. Portion of a lithograph of Fort McHenry, by E. Sachse, 1862. Peale Museum, Baltimore. – Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine, East Fort Avenue at Whetstone Point, Baltimore, Independent City, MD. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The Fencibles were home guards recruited locally. All were volunteers. Although paid monthly they drew no rations; each man furnished his own provisions. Many, like Philip, Mendes and Samuel, were supplied by their families. Every morning a covered cart loaded with edibles set out from Howard and Baltimore Streets for the fort. Inasmuch as the Etting family lived on Baltimore Street, between Howard and Eutaw, in all likelihood the Etting home was the cart’s point of departure. The Cohens likewise lived on Baltimore Street. Years later, Mendes Cohen, in a memoir narrated to a great-nephew, related that the Cohen famiy “had a large stone jug around which was tightly sewn a cover of carpet, which was filled with coffee each morning and sent by the cart, always arriving there good and hot.” Other families living in the neighborhood no doubt also used the cart to provision their relatives in the Fencibles. This arrangement was perfect for the Cohens and the Ettings. Both families were devoutly Orthodox and adhered to the dietary laws. Moreover, as Samuel Etting’s father Solomon was certified to slaughter food animals in accordance with the ancient rite, the boys at the fort must have been well-provided with kosher viands.

16. Historic American Buildings Survey. Portion of a plan of Fort McHenry, by William Tell Poussin, 1819, National Archives, Records of the War Department, Cartographic Section, Record Group 77, drawer 51, sheet 2. Plan of fort and enclosed buildings. - Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine, East Fort Avenue at Whetstone Point, Baltimore, Independent City, MD. Courtesy Library of Congress.

During the worst of the bombardment, a shell struck a powder magazine in the fort. Mendes Cohen was one of several Fencibles who rushed in, rolled out the barrels of powder and removed the cases of cartridges. . . . In 1836 Governor Veazey of Maryland appointed him one of his aides with the rank of colonel in recognition of his services during the defense of Baltimore. . . . Of the three young defenders, only Samuel was wounded during the bombardment. This was on September 13, 1814. It was not a serious wound, and he made a rapid recovery. . . .

18. Historic American Buildings Survey. Portion of an anonymous watercolor painting of Fort McHenry bombardment of 1814. Peale Museum, Baltimore. View of southeast bastion and sally port. - Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine, East Fort Avenue at Whetstone Point, Baltimore, Independent City, MD. Courtesy Library of Congress.

During the war, Solomon Etting (Samuel’s father) represented his ward on the city-wide Committee of Vigilance and Safety. The committee charged him with the responsibility of finding quarters to house the military units stationed in Baltimore and for preparing facilities for the care of the sick and wounded. He carried out his responsibilities with energy and competence.

1818 portrait of Mendes I. Cohen by artist Joseph Wood. Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1978.67.1, museum purchase.

Postcript: Mendes I. Cohen went on to a career as a world traveler (one of the first Americans to visit the Holy Land), raconteur, state legislator, and banker. He died in 1879 as “one of the oldest and most highly respected citizens of Baltimore,” according to a local newspaper. Into his eighties, “his tall and commanding figure could frequently be seen on North Charles and Baltimore streets.” Well known as the oldest living survivor of his artillery company, he frequently regaled his fellow citizens with stories of the bombardment. For more on his fascinating life, see our Generations 2007-2008 issue.

For more about the War of 1812 and to find out about Maryland’s celebration of the 200th anniversary, see http:///starspangled200.org/.  


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