The World in an Oyster: The Architectural and Cultural Landscape of Canton's Canning Industry

Thumbnail Image


Publication or External Link





Canton, a neighborhood in southeast Baltimore listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the former center of the food-canning industry that once dominated the economy in the city and in the state of Maryland. Canning was developed in France in the early 19th century and spread to America shortly thereafter, but it did not achieve widespread commercial success until the decades after the Civil War, when technical advancements made canning on an industrial scale possible. Baltimore canneries combined several natural features, including the Chesapeake Bay’s large oyster population and rich surrounding farmlands, with an influx of new immigrants from central and eastern Europe to create an industrial district that was the leading producer of canned foods in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Much as the canneries were designed architecturally to optimize their natural and commercial settings, the entire neighborhood of Canton came to be oriented, physically and socially, around the canneries, as a working-class neighborhood bound by ethnicity, language, religion, and occupation. Canning’s physical impact extended even beyond Baltimore to the Eastern Shore communities impacted by the increased demand for oysters, as sudden profits led to profound changes in the oystering industry that had long been the domain of rural watermen. Advances in technology like refrigeration and trucking largely obviated the need for Canton’s canneries in their designed form, and all of the firms along Boston Street closed down in the mid-20th century. Following a period of economic stagnation, redevelopment starting in the 1980s transformed Canton into a trendy, gentrified residential neighborhood by the turn of the century. Historic preservation had some success in retaining the area’s architectural fabric, but all of the former canneries have been demolished and largely replaced with apartment complexes and condominiums. The ways in which preservation handled, or perhaps failed to handle, this transition to modernity raise profound questions about the limits of preservation, especially in a maritime industrial context where the structures in question no longer support the prevailing economic impetus. Ultimately, new residents are drawn to Canton for both waterfront access and its historic associations, but when the forces that shaped the neighborhood have changed so dramatically, it is unclear what, exactly, has been preserved.



Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States