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Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

25 Not-So-Crabby Facts About Maryland

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

Maryland has a handful of nicknames and just as many reputations. The state is a study in contradictions—cramming crabcakes, trash-talking, jousting, and the greatest TV show of all time into 12,407 square miles.

1. The colony of Maryland was founded by Sir George Calvert, also known as Lord Baltimore, in 1632. Calvert left his stamp all over the territory, from the state flag that includes his family colors to the city of Baltimore itself.

2. The state seal of Maryland was taken from the aforementioned Lord Baltimore’s family crest. As such, it includes his weird family motto: Fatti Maschii, Parole Femine. Literally translated, this means “Manly deeds, womanly words”—a statement that doesn’t really go over too well these days. Maryland tourism information often rephrases the motto as “Strong deeds, gentle words,” which seems to miss the point. Historians and translators have condemned the motto as “sexist in any language,” and note that “traditions can become embarrassing.”

3. Maryland takes its noble roots seriously. In 1962, Maryland became the first state to designate an official state sport. The selection: Jousting. And it’s not just a formality; to this day, the Maryland Jousting Tournament Association is going strong. Horses not your thing? Maybe you’d prefer lacrosse, the official state team sport.

4. Only in Maryland are members of the Court of Appeals (the state's highest court) called judges; elsewhere, they’re justices. And only in Maryland do those judges wear red robes [PDF]—another throwback to the state’s British roots.

5. Baltimore-based TV series The Wire is widely accepted as one of the best shows of all time. It’s also a favorite of President Barack Obama’s. Like most of us, the president’s favorite character is charming, principled gangster Omar Little. “That’s not an endorsement,” Obama clarified in the Las Vegas Sun.


HBO


6.
Maryland is technically a part of the South. The Mason-Dixon line cuts right between Maryland and Pennsylvania, which didn’t seem like a big deal until the Civil War broke out. As a border state, Maryland’s loyalties were divided. Most citizens supported the Union, although a good number went to fight for the Confederacy.

7. The iconic Maryland blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) was named the official state crustacean in 1989. Only two other states have state crustaceans: Louisiana (crawfish) and Oregon (Dungeness crab). Maryland also has a state dog, the Chesapeake Bay retriever, and a state drink (milk).

8. The Baltimore Ravens were named in honor of famous (and famously miserable) Baltimorean Edgar Allan Poe. The team’s mascots, two ravens named Rise and Conquer, live at the Maryland Zoo, where their favorite hobbies include “stealing food from each other and hiding it” and “tearing up telephone books.”

9. Maryland’s state anthem is really something to behold. The song, which is sung to the tune of “O, Tannenbaum,” was written by a Confederate sympathizer during the Civil War and is essentially one long, bitter rant against Abraham Lincoln and the North. There’s no room for misinterpretation here: the lyrics call Lincoln a “tyrant” and the Union “Northern scum.” And there’s no arguing that it was just picked at a bad time; “Maryland, My Maryland” wasn’t named the state song until 1939. Much to the chagrin of Maryland’s children, the anthem—all nine verses of it—is still part of the public school curriculum.

10. Mother Elizabeth Seton was the founder of a number of Catholic schools and charity houses for poor girls in the 1800s. More than 150 years after her death, the Roman Catholic church canonized Mother Seton, which made her the first American-born saint.

11. Maryland was first called the “Free State” on November 1, 1864, after slavery was abolished within its borders. Nearly 60 years later, it was again referred to as the "Free State" because it refused to participate in Prohibition, and continued to permit the use and sale of alcohol even when it was illegal in the rest of the country. 

12. An impressive 41 percent of Maryland’s land is covered by forest [PDF].

13. The first hot air balloon in the U.S. to carry a passenger launched from Baltimore on June 23, 1784. Tavern-keeper and lawyer Peter Carnes built the balloon based on French designs and sold tickets to the first launch. Carnes didn’t test his creation until the big day came, at which point Carnes learned that he was just too heavy. Thirteen-year-old Edward Warren stepped up and took the ride in his place.

Image Credit: Something Original via Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-SA 3.0

14. The first Ouija board was invented in Baltimore in an apartment that is now a 7-Eleven. Creator Elijah Bond and medium Helen Peters asked the “talking board” what it wanted to be called. “O-U-I-J-A,” the board allegedly replied. Bond’s bond with his creation was so strong that it followed him into death; there’s a Ouija board engraved on the back of his tombstone.

15. In 1982, the community of Garrett Park became one of the first American jurisdictions to declare itself a nuclear-free zone. The move made headlines, even if the declaration didn’t change much in Garrett Park. “It was really a symbolic gesture,” town hall manager Elizabeth S. Henley told The New York Times. Garrett Park is still a pretty interesting place; its citizens have opted out of home mail delivery, which means that the community’s little post office sees nearly every adult citizen every day.

16. Boring, Maryland, lives up to its name: It's home to a post office, one church, a volunteer fire company and approximately 40 houses. Accident, Maryland, (population: 325), whose residents are called "Accidentals," has a slightly more interesting backstory.

17. Maryland crab cakes may be too popular for their own good. A recent study found that a full 38 percent of Maryland crab cakes contained imported crab. DNA tests identified eight non-Maryland crab species in crab cakes sold throughout the region. “This is kind of a not-so-secret secret in this area,” a representative for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources told TIME magazine. Maryland fisheries simply do not produce enough crab meat to keep up with the demand, he said, so local restaurants get their crab elsewhere. The crustacean fraud pays off—on average, “Maryland” crab cakes cost $2.12 more apiece than their unlabeled counterparts.

18. The first-ever six-pack of beer was sold in Maryland by the National Brewing Company. That company would later become Baltimore’s iconic National Bohemian, or Natty Boh, as the locals call it.

19. Baltimore’s National Great Blacks in Wax Museum is not your average wax museum. The exhibitions do celebrate the contributions and accomplishments of famous African Americans, but they also highlight overlooked or horrific moments in American history. Each year, the museum sees nearly 300,000 visitors.

20. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written in Maryland in 1814. Francis Scott Key penned the song that would become our national anthem while watching British forces attempting to take the city of Baltimore.

21. Satirist and legendary grump H.L. Mencken called his home city of Baltimore “an immense protein factory” [PDF]. Other famous Baltimoreans include Frederick Douglass, Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Adrienne Rich, Babe Ruth, Ira and Philip Glass, Henrietta Lacks, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Frank Zappa.

22. Maryland is home to the country’s first railroad station (1830), first umbrella factory (1828), first telegraph line (1844), and first dental school (1840).

Image Credit: Eric Christensen

23. Maryland’s Smith Island used to be famous for one thing: the layer cake that bears its name. Smith Island Cake, which features between eight and 15 thin layers covered in thick frosting, was named the official state dessert in 2008. These days, Smith Island has a less-pleasant claim to fame: it’s sinking. Scientists estimate the island’s shores might be totally submerged by 2100.

24. The most famous Maryland island may be Assateague, where herds of feral ponies have lived for hundreds of years, eating dune grass and drinking pond water. Whether the animals are true ponies or small, strange horses is up for debate, but everyone can agree that they’re great.

25. Like a crunchy lovechild of Punxsutawney Phil and Paul the psychic octopus, a blue crab named Baltimore Bill had a brief run at psychically predicting the weather. The Old Bay spice company set up two chutes on a dock, one labeled “WARM FALL” and the other “EARLY WINTER,” then let Bill go. In 2012, his predictions failed; in 2013, he was closer to the mark.

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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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