AS A STUDENT, it was always hard for me to keep track of all those revolutions: the French Revolution, the Transportation Revolution, the Communications Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and so on.
But a recent visit to the Baltimore Museum of Industry brought one of these textbook revolutions into sharp focus. Stepping into this waterside museum, housed in a former cannery, is quite literally stepping back into the Industrial Revolution.
"It's hard for most children to understand the world of work, especially industrial work," says museum director Dennis Zembala. "The museum is trying to give people a more realistic look at what industrial work was really like in the 19th century."
Indeed, there is a dark, musty feel to the Museum of Industry that harkens to another time -- a time when machines were operated by muscle power rather than electricity, when printing presses were so slow that newspapers were published only once a week, and barefooted children worked 60 hours a week alongside their parents.
"This is not a museum glorifying the city fathers or grandma's silver. It's about the real world of garment workers, machinists, printers and cargo handlers," Zembala says.
The 1870 cannery is home to an assortment of early industrial equipment, and children are invited to operate old printing presses, to try out foot-operated sewing machines and to lift a 200-pound weight using a pulley. Yet the focus of the museum is not just on machines, but on the people who worked with them. The sweatshop area, for example, is home to industrial-sized scissors, layers of fabric waiting to be cut, rows of sewing machines -- and a huge photo mural of women looking up briefly from their work to gaze into the eyes of the late 20th century. The cannery area houses not only canning equipment, but photos of the adults and children working with that equipment.
"Children don't know where the products they buy in stores come from," Zembala says. "This museum shows them that real people make those objects."
While children enjoy touring the museum and operating the equipment, the real highlights are two simulated work experiences. The museum's original worksite is Children's Motorworks, a scaled-down simulation of a 1920 automobile assembly line. Each child is assigned one task on the line, and the group constructs old-fashioned miniature cardboard cars under the supervision of a "foreman" or "forelady." Children learn about the efficiencies and drawbacks of assembly line work, and each child takes home one of the cars. The experience lasts about 45 minutes, and is intended for children ages 5 to 11 (although younger and older children may also participate).
The newest activity -- housed in a remodeled part of the building, with only a glass wall separating the children from Baltimore's harbor -- is called the Cannery. This much more elaborate experience lasts 90 minutes, during which children are transported to the cannery as it was in 1883, when it housed the Platt Oyster Factory. A short video introduces children to the people who once worked at this site.
To enhance the drama, each child is assigned a photo identification badge based on a real cannery worker: The badge comes complete with name, age, occupation and skills. Simple costumes such as aprons, vests, eyeshades and starched white collars complete the scene as children are transformed into oyster shuckers, canmakers, printers and foremen.
When the whistle blows, the factory swings into action. The loaders deliver glued oyster shells to the shuckers, who open them with dull knives and remove the clay oysters. The loaders then take the oyster meat to be washed, weighed, canned and steamed by other unskilled workers.
"Hey, we need more cans!" shouts one foreman. The children entrusted with the skilled trades, such as canmaking and printing, are holding up the production line as they try to master their crafts. "Boss!" yells one frustrated labeler, her hands sticky with old-fashioned glue.
A foreman keeps track of each worker's production, so the children can be rewarded with the appropriate number of tokens. After about half an hour, the whistle blows to allow the skilled and unskilled workers to trade places.
To the surprise of museum staff, the novelty of the experience was so pronounced that children did not get a sense of the monotony of unskilled labor. In a trial run before the cannery officially opened, fourth-grade students reported that all jobs were equally enjoyable.
But the cold reality of factory work sunk in when students were invited to the company store at the end of their shift. They were encouraged to study the goods, and decide what they would buy with their brass tokens. There were old-fashioned toys, bonnets, boots, beaters, lunch pails, wicker lamps and other period pieces.
The children counted their tokens, and prepared to make their purchases. But at the crucial moment, education coordinator Sheila Garred, who was running the store, presented the final lesson. "Before you can buy any of these things, you must pay the rent and buy food for your family," she informed her young workers. "Hand over your tokens -- you each owe me four dollars."
With one fell swoop, the children's dreams were shattered. They learned an unforgettable lesson about the meaning of work and money.
But the Cannery does not leave the children in the 19th century. After they recover from their loss at the store, they are led to a room full of computers for a transition to the 1990s.
"The idea is to bring children gently back to the present, to give them an opportunity to relate what they just learned with their present life and their future life," says museum curator Ann Steele. "The game-like programs show children that people are still doing jobs that incorporate skilled trades, manual labor, management and creativity."
It's not too early for children ages 6 to 14 (for whom this activity is intended) to start thinking in general terms about the types of work they like to do, Steele says, as long as they understand that their preferences might change over time.
"We ask them whether they enjoyed working alone or in groups, whether they liked working with their hands or with ideas, whether they enjoyed supervising people," Steele explains. "We want them to know that work is not just something you dress up and do in the past -- it's something they will have to dress up and do in the future." BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF INDUSTRY --
1415 Key Hwy., Baltimore. 301/727-4808. Take I-95 to Baltimore and follow the Fort McHenry Tunnel signs. Key Highway is the last exit before the tunnel. Make a left off the ramp at the first traffic light onto Key Highway. The museum is in a green building about a half-mile farther on the right. Between Labor Day and Memorial Day the museum is open Thursday, Friday and Sunday noon to 5 and Saturdays 10 to 5. Museum admission is $2 for adults and $1 for ages 6 to 12, college students with ID and senior citizens; free for 5 and under. The motorworks assembly line starts at 1 Sundays, while cannery shifts start at 11 and 2 Saturdays and at 2:30 Sundays. Fees are an additional $1 for for the assembly line, and $1.75 for the cannery. Guided tours of the museum are offered by request.
Daphne White last wrote for Weekend about the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria.