Recollecting Tragedy Through Fashion

By: Emily Bach

On February 7, 1904, Mrs. Leonard P. Baker, wearing her two-toned navy blue and black velvet suit, started out for church like any other Sunday morning. This Sunday, however, tragedy struck as the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 ravaged the city, ingraining this day is Mrs. Baker’s memory.

The fire began on 10:48 in the morning inside the John E. Hurst & Company building, a dry goods store situated in the center of Baltimore’s business district. Speculated to be a result of a discarded cigarette butt, the fire caused an explosion, resulting in falling embers to spread the fire to surrounding buildings. Due to the winter winds and the lack of standardized fire-fighting equipment, the fire spread quickly and relentlessly, burning for nearly thirty-six hours. Seventy-two fire companies battled the massive fire, a number that emphasized the severity of the disaster. During the duration of its wreckage, the fire’s “Burn District” covered seventy blocks. Within this district, 1,526 buildings and 2,500 businesses were left in disarray as a result. Losses for the city of Baltimore were estimated at more than 150 million dollars, an outrageous sum when converted to today’s monetary value.



PP179.727 Burnt District map, The Sun Magazine. DETAIL.  Not for reproduction or publication.  The Great Baltimore Fire Photograph Collection, 1904 Box 10
PP179.727 Burnt District map, The Sun Magazine. DETAIL.
Not for reproduction or publication.
The Great Baltimore Fire Photograph Collection, 1904
Box 10



Photographs and artifacts from the fire have survived and provide documentation and interpretation of this historical event. Within its collections, the Maryland Historical Society holds such pieces regarding the Great Fire and now, as a result of the costume collection’s rehousing project, the museum holds a dress worn during the beginning hours of the fire. When Mrs. Leonard P. Baker and Miss. Edith Clark donated this costume piece, it was recorded on the piece’s catalogue record that Mrs. Baker wore this ensemble on that Sunday morning.



13875047_1040244492697053_1668271298_n Card catalogue for 1949.59.37. It reads "blue velvet 2 piece suit, black seal and satin trim. Worn by Mrs. Leonard Baker who had started out for church the morning of the Fire."



Baker’s safe-keeping of this dress suit speaks to the importance of costume in the interpretation of historical events. We can connect to Mrs. Baker as we imagine her beginning her Sunday routine like any other day. She would have donned her Sunday best, which on February 7th was her two piece, navy blue and black velvet suit. Black velvet at the bust and navy blue throughout the rest, the contrasting fabric colors created a visually entertaining appearance despite the dark, understated colors usually favored in the winter season.  Sleek fur trimmed her jacket at is opening and two black lace covered buttons laid just above this trim. Its neckline featured over-sized, black satin lapels in the front and a turned-down black velvet collar. Faux straps decorated the center of her skirt, creating a very militaristic style. Mrs. Baker's skirt also featured a band of fabric that ran almost entirely around the skirt, creating another visually entertaining feature.  The survival of Mrs. Baker's suit provides us with a new account regarding the Great Fire. Like Mrs. Baker, the civilians of Baltimore began their days as any other, not realizing that their city would be forever changed by the fateful fire of 1904. 


Back view of jacket.


Front view of jacket.


View of skirt.