What’s the Point?
While writing a previous post that looked at the debate over the oldest house in Baltimore, a coworker introduced me to another longstanding Baltimore debate. After reading the post, my coworker gently chided me for the use of “Fell’s Point” rather than the correct “Fells Point.” Not being a native Marylander, I was unfamiliar with the argument over the little mark of punctuation, or the fact that its use, or absence, can elicit such strong feelings. Just within the last dozen or so years, the debate has been addressed in the pages of The Baltimore Sun, City Paper, and Baltimore Magazine, with various theories proposed. A 1999 City Paper article, for instance, states that Fells Point is spelled without an apostrophe, because it’s not a mark of ownership, but rather “the plural of ‘Fell,’ presumably in honor of the two brothers.” (The two brothers being English Quakers Edward and William Fell) The reaction got me curious, so I decided to do a little digging of my own, to see if a brief history of the apostrophe could be charted.
In 1730, English carpenter William Fell arrived in Maryland and purchased a plot of land overlooking the Northwest branch of the Patapsco River. The small 100-acre tract, called Copus’s Harbor, soon became known as Fell’s Prospect. The success of his younger brother Edward, who settled in Maryland a few years earlier and set up a successful store on the east side of Jones Falls, convinced William to make the trip across the Atlantic. Both William and Edward figured prominently in Baltimore’s early history – in 1732, Edward and a group of settlers founded a town they called Jones’s or Jones Town, after David Jones who first settled the area around Jones Falls in 1661.
When William died in 1746, he left his settlement and business interests to his son Edward, who in 1763, laid out the town that bears his family’s name. Needing residents and revenue for his new venture, Edward placed an advertisement in the January 14, 1762 issue of the Maryland Gazette newspaper notifying those who had submitted their names for the right to purchase lots in his new town that their “Lea[s]es are now ready to be filled up…” In what is probably one of the earliest printed references to the Point, the land is described as being near “Baltimore-Town, Maryland, on a Point known by the Name of Fell’s-Point.” (Note the liberal use of the hyphen, a common stylistic choice in the period.) Four years later, Edward’s wife Ann placed another ad in the Gazette, this time threatening legal action against new residents of the town for unpaid debts. The ad retains the apostrophe but dispenses with the hyphen.
The Maryland Gazette, the state’s first newspaper, set a precedent that most other newspapers from the period followed. Early papers published from the Point continued to use the apostrophe, including the Fell’s Point News-letter and Mercantile Advertiser (1835), and The Courier and Inquirer (1836). The neighborhood’s first newspaper, the Fell’s-Point Telegraphe (1795), retained Edward Fell’s original use of the hyphen as well.
The Baltimore Sun, founded in 1837, also utilized the possessive apostrophe until changing course early in the twentieth century. A keyword search through the Enoch Pratt Library’s online database of The Baltimore Sun from 1837 to 1985 reveals the usage of “Fell’s Point” almost exclusively throughout the 1800s. (Fells’ – the plural possessive form of Fell – can also be found on occasion.) It appears that sometime in the early decades of the twentieth century, the paper made a decision to switch to “Fells,” although “Fell’s Point” can still be found in articles as late as 1985.
Within decades of the founding of the community, however, references to the Point that omit the apostrophe could be found scattered through manuscripts and government documents. In 1773, Fell’s Point was incorporated, along with Jones’s Town and Baltimore Town, forming the City of Baltimore. Three years later, the first census of what was now the neighborhood of Fell’s Point was taken. The apostrophe is eliminated. Members of the Fell family were also not overly concerned with using the possessive when referring to their own town; a June 29, 1769 land indenture for the sale of “Lot 90” in “Fells Point” to a Robert Harrison of Dorchester County is signed by Ann Fell. Edward consistently omits the mark in a record of his business transactions from the period.
The preferred usage of early historians of Maryland and Baltimore was “Fell’s Point.” One of the earliest histories of the city, Thomas Griffith’s Annals of Baltimore, published in 1824, doesn’t reference either “Fells” or “Fell’s” Point, but “Fell’s Prospect” does appear within its pages. Historian Thomas Scharf, in his History of Baltimore City and County, published in 1881, the standard reference work on Baltimore through the mid-twentieth century and still one of the best sources on the history of early Baltimore, uses “Fell’s Point” throughout. By the twentieth century though, the balance had tipped and today both forms can be found in equal measure in scholarship on the city.
Although newspaper publishers and historians remained generally loyal to Edward Fell’s original use of the possessive apostrophe through the nineteenth century, cartographers have omitted it from their work from almost the beginning. In 1792, Frenchman and self-styled geographer A.P. Folie produced the first printed map of Baltimore – and employed the apostrophe. Most subsequent nineteenth century maps however, including Fielding Lucas Jr.’s, Plan of the City of Baltimore, drafted under the direction of the state legislature of Maryland and the mayor and city council of Baltimore in 1822, omit the apostrophe. An identically titled map produced in 1882 by Englishman Thomas Poppleton and commissioned by the city, uses the same designation. The Poppleton map remained the standard reference map for Baltimore until the publication of the Bromley Atlas in 1896. Today, the ubiquitous Google maps has replaced its printed predecessors as the leading geographical resource, and it too omits the apostrophe.
An appeal to the federal government to provide resolution to the debate is no help, as the government began eliminating the possessive use of the apostrophe for geographic names on most maps and signs in 1890. The following is the official stance of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the organization charged with overseeing U.S. naming conventions:
“Since its inception in 1890, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has discouraged the use of the possessive form—the genitive apostrophe and the “s”. The possessive form using an “s” is allowed, but the apostrophe is almost always removed. The Board’s archives contain no indication of the reason for this policy…Myths attempting to explain the policy include the idea that the apostrophe looks too much like a rock in water when printed on a map, and is therefore a hazard, or that in the days of “stick–up type” for maps, the apostrophe would become lost and create confusion. The probable explanation is that the Board does not want to show possession for natural features because, ‘ownership of a feature is not in and of itself a reason to name a feature or change its name.’”
As of 2013 only five natural features have official license to use the possessive apostrophe. These include Martha’s Vineyard, granted permission in 1933 after an extensive local campaign, and Clark’s Mountain in Oregon, which received the blessing of the Board in 2002 to “correspond with the personal references of Lewis and Clark.” The federal disregard for the apostrophe applies only to geographic names. According to Board’s website,
“[a]lthough the legal authority of the Board includes all named entities except Federal Buildings, certain categories—broadly determined to be “administrative”—are best left to the organization that administers them. Examples include schools, churches, cemeteries, hospitals, airports, shopping centers, etc. The Board promulgates the names, but leaves issues such as the use of the genitive or possessive apostrophe to the data owners.”
Other administrative branches of the U.S. government have followed suit. In 1969, “Fells Point” was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the U.S. government’s official list of the nation’s historic sites worthy of preservation, becoming the first area in Maryland recognized as such. Although you’ll find subject entries on the Library of Congress’s list of authority headings for both “Harper’s Ferry” and “Harpers Ferry” as well as “Pike’s Peak” and “Pikes Peak,” you won’t find reference to “Fell’s Point.” If you’re going to cite a source according to Library of Congress standards then “Fells Point” is the proper designation.
Today, “Fells Point” is by far the most common and popular usage. Most modern newspapers, including the Gazette: The Fells Point Newspaper (now defunct), City Paper, and The Baltimore Sun, use it. The Baltimore City government also endorses “Fells.” For Google, the ultimate arbiter of popularity in the internet era, it is no contest—a Google search for “Fells Point” generates some 2.5 million hits; “Fell’s Point”, on the other hand, produces a meager 300,000. Although vastly outnumbered, there are still a few groups that continue to carry the banner for the apostrophe including The Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell’s Point and the Fell’s Point Residents’ Association. In 2009, Baltimore Magazine joined the minority, switching its allegiance from “Fells” to “Fell’s.”
Although “Fell’s Point,” the grammatically correct and first choice of founder Edward Fell will probably continue to be used, it may eventually disappear. With the U.S. government, the Baltimore City government, and most importantly, the Google juggernaut, all aligned against “Fell’s Point,” its future looks bleak. And while people have been omitting the possessive apostrophe for hundreds of years, the internet has greatly accelerated the practice. In recent years the debate over the increasing decline of the apostrophe has become a major issue in Great Britain, with some cities removing the offending mark from street signs. In 2001, some concerned folk even established an Apostrophe Protection Society. When British book seller Waterstone’s, dropped the apostrophe from its name in January of 2012, the chairman explained that “it was a matter of simplifying the name to suit its digital presence.” At this rate, we may see the apostrophe go the way of other rarely seen punctuation marks like the hedera or the snark. Perhaps the possessive apostrophe will be just one more thing our Intel-equipped descendants will mock us for. (Damon Talbot)
Sources and Further Reading:
Francis, G. Gardner, Fell’s Point bicentennial jubilee. 1730-1930. Two hundredth anniversary (Baltimore: The Weant press, 1930)
Greene, Susan Ellery, Baltimore: An Illustrated History (Woodland Hills California: Windsor Publications, 1980)
Papenfuse, Edward C. and Joseph M. Coale III, The Hammond-Harwood House Atlas of Historical Maps of Maryland, 1608-1908 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982)
Scharf, Col. J. Thomas, The Chronicles of Baltimore, (Baltimore: Turnbull Brothers, 1874)
Scharf, J. Thomas, History of Baltimore City and County (Baltimore: Regional Publishing Company, 1971)