Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A digitally preserved program from the city's Star Spangled Banner centennial festivities boasts about an unparalleled new sewer system, among other amenities.
In 1914, with visitors set to flood Baltimore for the Star Spangled Banner's centennial, local officials were eager to prove that the city was one of the world's great modern metropolises.
From Sept. 6 through Sept. 13 of that year, ceremonies were held to commemorate Baltimore's role in the War of 1812. In the official program, digitally preserved by Archive.org, has two sections that tell two stories: Baltimore and the war, followed by Baltimore and the 20th century.
As the program points out, the city's legacy in the War of 1812 was more than just the place where a D.C. lawyer, stuck on a British vessel during the Battle of Baltimore, decided to write a patriotic song.
Local merchants loaned the federal government $3 million at the start of the war (eventually assumed by the city and turned into its first municipal debt). Maryland residents, mostly from Baltimore, supplied "more officers, ships, and seamen ... than from any other state."
After Francis Scott Key's song was penned and the war concluded, Baltimore kept growing—a lot. After its role as a major railroad hub and port city was firmly established, Baltimore experienced a population explosion and became America's third largest city.
When 1914 rolled around, Baltimoreans were feeling rather confident. The city had rebuilt after the devastating Great Fire of 1904, and officials were eager to showcase all things new and proper, including a highway named after Key. The program's second section uses over 100 pages for relentless but charming self-promotion.
Simply titled "The Book of Baltimore," the tone is set early:
Baltimore, as far as the memory of man runneth, has always been big. ... Baltimore has been bountifully endowed by nature, and nature is being assisted by those most skilled in civic development.
It goes on to praise nearly every aspect of its infrastructure. From pools to electrical wiring to its convenient access to the new Panama Canal, the book makes the city seem like a utopia built on a foundation of awe-inspiring public works projects and clean, strike-averse citizens.
Judging from the book, few infrastructure upgrades inspired as much pride among city officials as much as their new sewage system. An 11-year, $26 million project, the book calls the system the finest "in the world." Of course, above the sewers, so much more greatness was to be found. Such as the city's health department:
With the combination—nature, vigilance, and science—enlisted on the side of health, pestilence and epidemic are unknown...This is all the more gratifying when it is recalled that Baltimore is an immigrant port.
And its fire department:
... officially declared by experts to be one of the most thorough in the United States. It has all known mechanical devices for fighting fires.
On labor relations:
Industrial tranquility lasts the year round.
Its biggest park, Druid Hill:
It is famous, for among the parks of the country, it is unequaled in natural beauty.
On housing, which reads like a response to New York's quality of life at the time:
Baltimoreans are not stowed away in the uppermost stories of unhealthy, insanitary tenement houses, with dubious and doubtful associates under the same roof and in an atmosphere of social, physical and moral impunity.
The 1910s were, in fact, not perfect in Baltimore. Racial tensions were high enough that mayor J. Barry Mahool passed a residential segregation law in 1911 in hopes of maintaining social order. But, compared with previous decades of poor health and sanitation conditions (H.L. Mencken once shared that typhoid, smallpox, and malaria were common during his childhood in 1880s Baltimore), the city had made great strides. Baltimore had a lot to brag about. So brag they did.