Cohen Family Stories
Finding a New Home
Unlike Philadelphia and New York, Baltimore was home to fewer than 150 Jews when the Cohen family arrived and there were no synagogues or formal Jewish institutions. Many Jews, like the Cohens, left the comforts of more established communities in other cities because of the economic opportunities that Baltimore offered. Despite the challenges of maintaining religious observance, the Cohen family continued to uphold their Jewish traditions.
The Cohens were not the only prosperous traditional Jewish family to settle in Baltimore during this time. The Etting family established roots in the city in 1791 with the arrival of Solomon Etting and his new bride from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The similarities between the Cohens and Ettings are striking – both families’ successful business ventures afforded them a privileged lifestyle and both maintained their religious traditions. The two families became more closely connected when Mendes’ younger brother, Benjamin, married Solomon Etting’s daughter Kitty in 1819.
Mendes was a confirmed bachelor who never married. As a grown man, he continued to live with his mother and brothers. According to both the 1850 and 1860 censuses, the Cohen household included three bachelor brothers: Jacob, Mendes and Joshua. This may have been due to Baltimore’s extreme lack of eligible young Jewish ladies.
Portrait of Mendes Cohen by Joseph Wood. Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase.
A Shining Example
Baltimore was the first American city to install gas streetlights when the Peale Museum premiered the lighting in 1816. In 1820, the Cohen’s house on Charles Street was the first private home to be lit by gas.
Reprinted from Fredrick Accum, A Practical Treatise on Gas-Light, London, 1815, Plate 3, courtesy of American Gas Association, Inc. Library, Arlington, Virginia.
Keeping up with the Cohens
As you can see from these household objects, the Cohen family lived an upper-class lifestyle quite different from how most people in Baltimore lived. The family’s business success in Richmond allowed them to take up a similar position upon their arrival in Baltimore.
(left) Sheffield wine cooler, JMM 1978.30.4. (right) Cut glass wine pitcher and stopper, JMM 1978.30.1a,b. Gifts of Florence H. Trupp.
Mrs. B. I . Cohen’s Fancy Dress Party.
Thursday, February 2, 1837
Benjamin and Kitty Cohen were part of an elite social circle and hosted many lavish parties in the house they built on Saratoga Street. One party was still being talked about 80 years later. A 1919 article described the party in great detail.
"...everything about the house is rich and expensive...everybody was there who was at all in the habit of attending parties."
1837 part invitation, courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.
Learning the Aleph Bet
Except for the youngest brother, Joshua, we don’t know how the Cohen children were educated. Public schools did not yet exist in Baltimore. Children of wealthy families most likely attended parochial schools or were taught at home. Wherever he learned his lessons, Mendes became a successful businessman and world traveler, and the letters he wrote home from his travels reveal a highly educated mind.
Character book for Joshua Cohen Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society Mendes’ younger brother, Joshua, attended a private school run by Reverend Edmund Drinan Barry, an Episcopal minister. Students received weekly report cards that had to be signed by a parent, or in Joshua’s case, an older brother. On this page, Jacob includes a note explaining Joshua’s absences due to the “Hebrew Festivals.”
This handbill publicizes an auction of the household objects of Israel Cohen following his death.
Richmond, VA - Nov. 7, 1803 – Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.
Mendes & You
Think about how difficult it must have been for Judith Cohen, a widow with seven children, to uproot her family and move to a city without any family connections. Why do you think she chose to do this?
Women and children had no legal right to inherit property in 1803. How would you feel if your house and belongings were auctioned off after your husband or father died?
How would you feel moving to a new city at age 12, where few share your religious heritage and customs?