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Growing Up in Fell’s Point: Jennie Sokolowska’s Stories

The Anchorage, Broadway Market, and Port Mission [detail], 1913, MdHS Collection

The Anchorage, Broadway Market, and Port Mission [detail], 1913, MdHS Collection

My mother Jane Schoeberlein, known in her youth as Jennie Sokolowska, passed away in December 2014. As a means of memorializing her, and also to hold on to her spirit for just a little bit longer, I wrote down some stories and memories that she had shared with me about her youth. Here is a small excerpt that touches upon cold weather and the holiday season.

Life in Fell’s Point

Jennie Sokolowska, Stella Sokolowska, and Sophie Sokolowska, probably 1927, taken in the 508 S. Broadway studio of Nicodemus Jaroszewski. Author's Collection.

Jennie Sokolowska, Stella Sokolowska, and Sophie Sokolowska, probably 1927, taken in the 508 S. Broadway studio of Nicodemus Jaroszewski. Author’s Collection.

Jennie Sokolowski, the daughter of Polish immigrants, spent her childhood and early adult life in the Fell’s Point area of east Baltimore. Successive waves of newly-arrived foreigners already had called the Point their home, the Polish first arriving here only in the late 1870s. Broadway was the main thoroughfare in Fell’s Point and south Broadway was always a busy place. The red brick Broadway Market, one of the several city-run public markets, housed vendors of all varieties from butchers, vegetable and fruits stands to confectioners within its three long buildings. Did you want horseradish? You could get it freshly ground right before your eyes. What about a live, plump chicken? One could be killed and plucked while you waited, or else you could come back for it at the end of your shopping. Baked goods, hard candies, seafood, whatever one needed, it was all there. The market also had places where you could get a bite to eat, the best known being the Prevas Brothers stand. Run by Greek immigrants, you could grab a hot dog and a locally famous five cent ice cream-less “milkshake,” a concoction made from shaved ice, simple syrup, vanilla flavoring, and whole milk.(1)

Shops, bars, and places of entertainment lined the lower end of boulevard almost down to the water. Flanking the “Foot of Broadway,” way down at Thames Street, stood “The Anchorage” on the west and the “Port Mission” to the east. The Anchorage was a large, no-frills boarding house that catered mostly to merchant seamen, many foreigners among them, needing temporary housing. The proximity of the bars, and other diversions, such as the supposed brothels on Bond Street, gave extra work to the police officers at the nearby Eastern District Station. Drunk and disorderly arrests of the sailors occurred every day of the week.(2)

On the other side of Broadway, however, one could have their soul saved at the Port Mission. As far back as the 1880s, the unemployed, the poor, even sailors, could be found here for free spiritual and physical nourishment. Across from the Port Mission, jutting out into the harbor stood the Recreation Pier. Owned by the City, but run by the Playground Athletic League, here is where the community could gather for free entertainment such as Municipal Band concerts and adult dances. Its rooftop “athletic field” served as a playground for the youth where dodge ball, basketball and various kid games were played.

Recreation Pier, 1928. Author's Collection.

Recreation Pier, 1928. Author’s Collection.

Just around the corner from all the hustle-bustle of Broadway sat Shakespeare Street, about one city block in length, a narrow lane of what had once been single family homes in the 1700s and later built two-story brick rowhouses. Laid out in the 1760s, the tiny street’s claim to fame was the fenced off graveyard of William Fell, the merchant who gave his name to the area. By the 1930s, however, any distinction about living on Shakespeare Street had long since faded, as many houses had been rental properties to waves of immigrants through the decades.

The regular passage of the number 21 streetcar down the center of its Belgian paving stone street brought some unwelcome noise, as did the patrons of the five neighborhood bars, one even featuring pool tables. About mid-way through the street, South Bethel Street met Shakespeare. Narrower than Shakespeare, here is where the streetcar turned right to go northward.

Shakespeare Street Days

The Sokolowskis rented homes on Shakespeare Street, which dated from the late 1790s to the early 1800s, had very few modern improvements. At two and a half stories tall and at about $16 per month during the 1930s, they were basic houses for a family of limited means. Seven people shared a living space of just over one thousand square feet.(3) The only heat source was the wood-fed cooking stove within the modest backroom kitchen, and there was no indoor bathroom. Each backyard featured an outhouse, and the “bathing facilities” consisted of a simple porcelain bowl on a washstand, though a really good head to toe cleaning could always be had at the public bath a few blocks north at Bond Street and Eastern Avenue.

Stella Sokolowska and daughter Helen (leaning down) sitting on stoop at 1630 Shakespeare Street, 1936. REFERENCE PHOTO. Historic American Building Survey Collection, PP85.98, MdHS.

Stella Sokolowska and daughter Helen (leaning down) sitting on stoop at 1630 Shakespeare Street, 1936. REFERENCE PHOTO. Historic American Building Survey Collection, PP85.98, MdHS.

During the winter time, the most desirable part in the house was the kitchen. The warmth of the stove, along with the smell of some hearty Polish-style food being prepared, would draw the family within its cramped confines. A slowly simmering pot of soup, most often chicken, golden yellow in color, but occasionally something more exotic—soups made from sauerkraut, string beans, even dill pickles or duck’s blood—might find its way on to the dinner table. All meals had to be accompanied by thick slices of either a rich, black pumpernickel or a sour-tasting rye bread, the latter flecked with “kimmel” (caraway) seeds, purchased from the nearby Polish bakery.

Sitting down to dinner was the high point of the evening, with lively conversation interspersed between savory spoonfuls of hot, tasty liquid and good-sized bites of liberally-buttered bread. Once the meal was done, and after the dishes were cleared away and washed, the evening’s recreation began. They might have listened to the radio since a table top unit could have been within the means of the family.(4) Dziadzi might remove himself and stroll down to the corner bar at Shakespeare and Bond. Visiting saloons for social drinks with comrades was common for Polish men at this time.

The stillness of bedtime soon came over the entire household. Jennie shared an upstairs front room bed with her sisters Sophie and Wanda. Helen slept with her parents in the backroom, and the boys, Chester and Joey, slept under the eaves in the small attic room. The whole upper portion of the house was unheated so both heavy sleeping clothes and bed coverings were essential to ward off the cold. A hot water bottle, or perhaps, a brick heated next to stove, may have been placed into the bed beforehand to help warm up the ice-cold sheets. Jennie and her sisters would quickly undress in the painfully cold room and hurriedly throw on their thick flannel nightgowns. Their heads would be covered in heavy knitted stocking caps; woolen mittens and stockings adorned their hands and feet. Jennie recalled how Sophie, her big sister, would sometimes tease her. Sophie’s feet were always cold. Sometimes Sophie would hike up the back of Jennie’s nightie and place those two great ice-blocks squarely across Jennie’s backside, prompting the unfortunate girl to let loose a piercing squeal. The cold would make Wanda’s nose look like a bright red glowing beacon. All three sisters would burrow down hurriedly under the heavy blankets, snuggling, whispering secrets to one another, and giggling until sleep would finally overtake them.

 Christmas Memories

Jennie at 13 (R) with unknown friend (L),Wanda Rakowska (C), winter of 1937. Author's Collection.

Jennie at 13 (R) with unknown friend (L),Wanda Rakowska (C), winter of 1937. Author’s Collection.

Christmas was a happy time though not marked with the great abundance that many more fortunate Americans today have all come to know. It was, after all, the Great Depression and the Sokolowskis came from modest means. It appears that the family did not participate in any of the distinctly Polish traditions, such as the Wigilia, the special Christmas Eve dinner, or pass around the Oplatki wafer. The children were brought up with American customs. Within the kitchen at 1630 Shakespeare, they all hung their stockings, not specially bought decorated ones but the ones that they wore everyday, on the small mantle of the blocked-off fireplace. Jennie’s own stocking was a plaid knee-high.

Christmas morning, the kids all awoke to find them filled with tangerines, apples and walnuts, little delicacies not often purchased for everyday. In general, the gifts then tended to be the more useful kind. One holiday season Busia told Jennie to hurry and go with her siblings to the Eastern District Police Station for she heard that they were handing out free pairs of shoes. Knee-high boy’s socks and brown oxford shoes resulted from Jennie’s hike up to Bank and South Bethel Streets. The nearby Port Mission would also give away small boxes of candy to the neighborhood children. One of her fondest memories, however, was the year that her brother Chester took her and Wanda to the Fifth Regiment Armory for the annual Empty Stocking Club event. The Club was a women’s charity dedicated to making Christmas a real holiday for Baltimore’s poor children by hosting a party with entertainment and gifts. The kids were each given a stocking that had “a ball, horn, fruits, nuts [and]… a doll for every girl and a mechanical toy for every boy.” (5) Jennie was so very happy to receive a small baby doll—with clay face, arms, legs and cloth body—and a box of hard candies.

Cart of Christmas stockings destined for poor children, 1935. Author's Collection.

Cart of Christmas stockings destined for poor children, 1935. Author’s Collection.

One year Jennie so desperately wanted a Christmas tree. She had even made a multi-colored paper ring garland to decorate one.(6) Yet, a tree was something that her family simply could not afford and so they did without. It must have been painful for her to walk by the Christmas tree vendor stands at the Broadway Market everyday knowing that she could not bring one home. Jennie, however, was a determined and resourceful young girl, traits that became even more pronounced with the years.

She foraged around the Market stands and, all at once, spied a large evergreen branch trimmed from the bottom of a tree. After getting the nod from the vendor, she carefully gathering up her prize and joyfully took it home to serve as the family “tree.” Going straight into the kitchen, she filled a simple glass jar almost to the top with water and then placed the solitary branch inside. Now in the kitchen there sat a “footlocker,” a roughly made trunk placed just under the window. Jennie took her “tree” and set it right on top of that container. Collecting up the garland, the young girl went about decorating her prize, dreaming all the while about the Christmas morning yet to come. (Robert Schoeberlein)

 Dr. Robert Schoeberlein is the Acting Baltimore City Archivist.


Aerial view of the Foot of Broadway, 1926, BCA Collection.

Aerial view of the Foot of Broadway, 1926, Baltimore City Archives Collection.

(1) As told to me by Nick Prevas, a Prevas family descendant, sometime during the late 1990s.

(2) See the Eastern District Criminal Dockets (arrest logs), C2111, at the Maryland State Archives.

(3) The Maryland Property View website shows 1,100 square feet for 1603 Shakespeare, 1,400 for 1630. This is the current (2015) square footage. Additions may have been added since the 1930s.

(4) The 1930 US census did not indicate that the Sokolowski’s owned a radio. The Depression drove down the average price of a radio sold in United States from $139 in 1929 to about $47 just four years later. By 1933, 60% of U.S. households owned a radio.

(5) This may have occurred in 1932. See Sun, Nov. 28, 1932, p.16; the event was held on Dec. 23.

(6) Jennie made the garland while in school.