In the early 1800s, the English novelist, George Lawrence, toured America and found the women in Baltimore more beautiful than anywhere else.
"On the appearance of a debutante," he recorded in his journal, "they say the first question in Boston is, 'Is she clever?' In New York, 'Is she wealthy?' In Philadelphia, 'Is she well-born?' In Baltimore, 'Is she beautiful?'"
A Scotsman passing through the Port of Baltimore in 1830 observed that "so warm-hearted, so cheerful, so easy to fraternize with did our travelers find the citizens of Baltimore that it was somewhat difficult to withdraw from its conviviality. Dinner invitations were sent not only for each day, but frequently very many for the same day. You have heard of Glasgow dinners and Glasgow punch drinking, but they are no more to be compared to Baltimore dinners and Baltimore quaffing than the Clyde is to Chesapeake."
Another European visitor, John Woods, who toured America before the Civil War, had his first encounter with the institution of slavery in Baltimore.
"The treatment of slaves at Baltimore was mild," he recorded, "but still they were slaves and at the mercy of their owners, if fellow creatures and Christians can be called the property of others. I could not settle in a slave state to disgrace myself and my family by the horrid practice of slave keepping."
All three excerpts are taken from a rare and expensive collection of diaries, journals, and letters of European travelers through the Port of Baltimore between 1794 and 1830, acquired by the library at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).
What the travelers saw in Baltimore was unparalled elegance, political liberty and prosperity for some, yet always shadowed by the stark and tragic reality of racial slavery.
Few travelers in that era had cameras. For most the only way of remembering their trip was to record their impressions in a journal or diary.
"That period of time produced a tremendous amount of eyewitness accounts of what people were doing. In terms of getting people back into history, this is one of the best ways possible," said Joseph Arnold, associate professor of history at UMBC.
Arnold, a specialist in urban history, has been cataloguing and editing the collection for more than a year. It contains, he says, one of the fullest accounts to date of what life was like in late 18th and early 19th century Baltimore. The collection was acquired from the estate of Edward G. Howard, a lawyer for the American Railroad Association and a Maryland history buff who spent years gathering the material.
"The foreign travelers tended to give a definition to the city which Baltimoreans came later to accept," said Arnold. "They found that Baltimore tended to combine the urbanity of the North with a Southern flair for good living.
"They found that living the good life was even more important than making money," Arnold continued, "and for the Europeans, that was the sign of a civilized society."
"There struck me as being at Baltimore more effort than elsewhere to combine the pleasures of social life with professional labor," said Thomas Hamilton, who visited the city in 1832. "The tone of conversation is lighter and more agreeable, and topics of mere commercial interest are rarely obtruded at the dinner table."
For accommodations, the European travelers found Baltimore's hotels unequaled in America in terms of luxury, service and cruisine. English movelist Charles Dickens recalled staying at Guy's Hotel, opened in 1840 on the east side of Monument Square, where the owner sent him "a most enormous (mint) julep wreathed in flowers."
Dickens and American author Washington Irving reparied to a hotel room where they set the julep between them and shared it during an evening of conversation.
"It was quite an enchanted julep," said Dickens, "and carried us among innumerable people and places that we both knew. The julep held out far into the night."
Most famous of all the Baltimore hotels was David Barnum's City Hotel. It eventually grew to a size of 250 rooms and for a time was the largest hotel in 1889, men came from all over the East and South to attend the auction of its wines and spirits.
Stopping at the City Hotel in 1838, the German nobleman, Francis J. Grund, sought a single accommodation but was told none was available and he would have to share a room.
"You will, of course, put me together with a gentleman," demanded Grund.
"Nobody stops here but gentlemen," the clerk replied indignantly. "You need have no scruple about that."
Throughout the journals and diaries, the beauty of Baltimore women was a recurring theme. A British army officer, Subaltern E.T. Coke, who visited the city in 1832, observed, "I do not remember in any part of the Globe, seeing amongst the females so much lovliness and beauty, as in Baltimore."
A visitor identified only as Baron Klinkowstrom observed in 1818 that women in Baltimore dressed more colorfully than in Philadephia an that they had "bewitching eyes."
Since most travelers reached Baltimore from the Northern cities of New York, Boston or Philadelphia, it was in Baltimore that they first observed the institution of slavery, and it made a deep impression on most.
On visitor became so unnerved by the presence of slaves on the Pratt Street wharf when he stepped off the Philadelphia packet boat" . . . . that it seemed, at first, as if I had been transported to some unknown land."
Several visitors noticed a marked diference between the slaves and free blacks. On the eve of the Civil War when only 2,218 of the 27,898 black residents of Baltimore were still in bondage, one traveler recorded that the free blacks were "well dressed, orderly and respectable in both appearance and behavior . . . far above the condition of the slaves."
While life within the city was often marked by luxury and elegance, travel in and out was something else.
Writing in 1819, Baron Klinkowstrom said he was "rushed along the York Turnpike by a coachman who drove insanely over slippery roads, did not fail to stop at every tavern so that when we arrived at Baltimore he was so drunk that I, sitting next to him, took the reins in order to protect life and limb."
Traveling from Baltimore south to Washington in 1832, Subaltern Coke wrote that 15 miles south of Patapsco River, the coach suddenly turned off the Post Road "and wound its way through a maze of forest. Looking out to ascertain the cause of such a detour, I saw the branch of a tree laid across the road and a few yards further, a broken down wooden bridge."
Impressions recorded by the foreign travelers, says Arnold, remain at the foundation of the present city, although much, in fact, has changed.
"The city began to respond to its image," he said. "It had a reputation to live up to."