Getting to Know Mendes

Posted on August 21st, 2014 by

MC_Exhibit Assets_v2

Exhibit Opens September 14th!

Mendes I. Cohen was born in Richmond VA in 1796, the son of a German Jewish father and an English Jewish mother.  His family moved to Baltimore in 1807 and lived until 1879.  He was a witness to many events in history both at home and abroad and a participant in a surprising number of transformational moments.  Here are a dozen highlights:


1. Mendes is one of six Jewish defenders of Ft. McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.  When one bomb falls into the powder magazine rather than “bursting in air”, Mendes and two other artillerymen are sent in to rescue the ammunition.  (To Mendes’ great fortune, the bomb was a dud)


2. The Cohen family starts out in the lottery business.  Mendes and his brother are sent to Norfolk to sell DC lottery tickets (federal lottery tickets).  Virginia authorities arrest the Cohens for selling tickets without the authority of the state of Virginia.  The case of Cohens v. Virginia goes to the Supreme Court where Chief Justice Marshall technically rules against the Cohens, but establishes the principle that the Court has standing in resolving differences between state and federal authority.


3. The Cohen family is very active in the campaign for “The Maryland Jew Bill”.  Finally passed in 1826, the bill allows people to serve on juries, serve in the militia and serve in public office without taking an oath to the New Testament.  Mendes will later provide assistance to English Jews fighting for the same liberties in the 1830s.


4. Thanks to the success of his family’s banking enterprise, Mendes Cohen is able to “retire” at 33 and start an extensive tour of Europe and the Middle East.  His first stop is England where he combines business with pleasure, dining with Nathan Rothschild and striking up a friendship.


5. Mendes arrives at the barricades in Paris just two weeks after the Student Revolt (think “Les Miserables”) and reports some disappointment in having just missed the action.


6. When in Rome, Mendes is invited to the installation of the new pope (Pope Gregory XVI).  He writes a letter dedicated to the thorny question of whether a Jewish American democrat should kiss the feet of the pope.


7.  Mendes decides to take up Egyptology.  He sails down the Nile in a boat with an American flag of his own design, acquiring rare antiquities.  The artifacts he collects are later purchased by Johns Hopkins University and are today the core of their archeology collection.


8. Mendes heads for Palestine, becoming the first American to ever acquire a firman (permit) from the Ottoman sultan to visit the Holy Land.  Mendes spends his time trying to trace places mentioned in biblical passages.


9. After returning to the US, Mendes becomes a special assistant to Governor Veazey.  He is asked to serve as Maryland’s representative at the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837.


10. Mendes becomes one of the early directors of the B&O Railroad and Baltimore’s first Jewish charity, the Hebrew Benevolent Society.  The Cohen brothers are very involved in the development of Baltimore’s first and only Sephardic synagogue in the 1850s.


11. Mendes is elected to the State House of Delegates in 1846.  He votes for leniency in the sentencing of debtors.  But as a loyal Democrat he also votes to condemn Pennsylvania for helping Maryland’s slaves escape to freedom.


12. Mendes spent his final years near his home in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore (Mendes lived with his mother and then his brothers for his entire life).  He spent his last years in the 1870s recounting tales of his youth to passersby, intensely proud of his adventures.

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Farewell to the Pickle!

Posted on August 20th, 2014 by




There once was a pickle I knowed,

Through which electricity flowed.

Though the smell was horrendous,

The applause was tremendous,

‘Cause that little pickle’s tuches glowed!



The Pickle’s stay was short but sweet. Our exhibition team has worked quickly to take down the exhibit.

The Pickle’s stay was short but sweet. Our exhibition team has worked quickly to take down the exhibit.

An interesting but probably little known fact about The Electrified Pickle is that the #1 Favorite Item in the exhibit amongst schoolage children who visited was not the nightmare-inducing permanent wave machine, but the humble ice tongs! #ThanksFrozen.

(If I had a quarter for every time a child started singing or humming “Let It Go” while in the exhibit, I’d have a dollar or two.)

(If I had a quarter for every time a child started singing or humming “Let It Go” while in the exhibit, I’d have a dollar or two.)

abby krolikA poetic blog post by Visitor Services Coordinator Abby Krolik. To read more posts from Abby click HERE.

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Mendes’ Star Spangled Banner

Posted on August 14th, 2014 by

There are due to be some amazing objects on display within our upcoming exhibit, The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen, one of which is the American flag Mendes made during his time in Egypt. The flag is an important part of our collection and has a great claim to fame, probably being the first American flag to be flown on the Nile. Though exciting that the flag will be on display throughout the duration of the exhibit, it was essential to undertake some conservation to ensure no damage comes to the flag.

Last week we had a visit from Michele Pagan, the textile conservator who is working on the flag. She has already done some great work, adding a new backing to the flag that is much lighter that what had been used previously. This layer will also act as a support to the fraying edges and will have a section sewn in to make display of the flag easier. Michele has also added a layer of red silk organza behind the red strips of the flag, giving back some of the color to the flag, without doing anything that could be potentially damaging.

Marvin Pinkert, Deborah Cardin and Michele Pagan with Mendes’ flag

Marvin Pinkert, Deborah Cardin and Michele Pagan with Mendes’ flag

At present the strongest area of the flag is the canton, the blue square, the fabric is in good condition and has lost little of the original color. In contrast the stars are starting to deteriorate, not surprising as they are only made with paper and attached with an adhesive. The stars are receiving some careful treatment from the conservator, a fine layer of silk organza is being sewn over the top of the stars, keeping them visible but offering a little extra support.. This approach is the simplest of the three options presented, but it is also the one which is least likely to prove problematic in the future.

The flag

The flag

One of the surprising things to hear from Michele was that this is possibly the most fragile flag on which she has ever worked, given that she worked on THE Star Spangled Banner, this is quite a statement! There are a number of reasons for this all of which relate to the conditions in which it was made. Mendes certainly didn’t plan to be making this flag prior to leaving America, it seems whilst travelling in Egypt his patriotism inspired him to create the flag. This means that unlike most flags of the time made of wool, Mendes had to make the most of what he had and so his flag is made of cotton.

The difference in the ways in which the materials have deteriorated comes from the quality of the cotton, the blue is of a higher thread count and was dyed prior to weaving helping it to retain its color. In contrast the red and white are of a lower thread count and it is probable that the dye was applied to the red after weaving resulting in its loss of color. We did wonder if perhaps Mendes had dyed the fabric himself, but based on this letter it seems not, dated May 3rd, 1832:

“10th day … Manfalout containing about 400 inhabitants – bazaars – apricots, cucumbers, apples (small) – purchased red, white and blue cotton to make a flag – returned on board and cut it out, my servant making it”

Packing the flag safely away again, ready for more conservation work.

Packing the flag safely away again, ready for more conservation work.

The flag is a stunning piece so make sure you come and see the great work that has been done on the flag in The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen, opening September 14th 2014.


A blog post by Program Manager Trillion Attwood. 


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