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Baltimore Traditions

Baltimore may be world famous for its crabs, but there are other traditions that you shouldn’t leave the city without experiencing. From tasty treats to nostalgic games, here are a few Baltimore traditions to seek out during your stay.

Snowballs

The classic way to cool down in Baltimore is with a snowball (also known as a snoball), a cup of finely shaved ice covered with flavored syrup. Although there are dozens of flavors to choose from, egg custard is the most traditional -- it’s a mixture of eggs, vanilla and sugar -- and it’s the flavor that is favored by many locals. Some snowballs also come with a dollop of marshmallow on top.

Origin Story: As legend has it, the tradition began in the 1800s, when children would chase trucks shipping ice and ask them for shavings. After bringing those shavings home, their mothers would add flavored syrups. The Great Depression heightened the icy treat’s popularity because it was cheap to make and cheap to buy -- even today you’ll find snowballs for under a dollar.

Experience It Today: When the weather is warm, snowball stands pop up on sidewalks and roadside stands throughout the city. To try one year round, head to Lexington Market, the oldest continually run market in America.

Lemon Sticks

Lemon sticks are a rite of spring in Baltimore. The composition is simple: It’s a peppermint candy stick jammed into the flesh of a lemon. As you devour a lemon stick, the sweet taste of peppermint starts to mix with the tangy lemon, creating a sweet-and-sour treat like nothing else.

Origin Story: Though it was brought to Baltimore by women who had seen it in France, the lemon stick is a longstanding tradition in Baltimore. Mentions of lemon sticks appear in the Baltimore Sun dating back to 1924.

Experience It Today: This treat is the icon of FlowerMart, an annual festival held each May in the Mount Vernon neighborhood with live music, street food, and vendors selling flowers, plants, arts and crafts, and more.

"Hon"

In certain areas of the city this term of endearment — short for “honey” — is said so often it’s akin to the period at the end of a sentence.

Origin Story: “Hon” may be the catchphrase for Baltimorese, the name given to the dialect that originated among the white blue-collar residents of South and Southeast Baltimore. This way of speaking permeates most representations of Baltimore in popular culture – watch John Waters’ “Hairspray” as a primer.

Experience It Today: This phrase is celebrated each year at HonFest, a neighborhood festival in the Hampden neighborhood where beehive hairdos, cat-eyed glasses and feather boas are part of the dress code.

Duckpin Bowling

If you’re used to 10-pin bowling and are up for a challenge, give duckpin bowling a try. The game uses shorter and squatter pins and a significantly smaller bowling ball without finger holes. For these reasons, it’s more difficult to achieve a strike, and the bowler is allowed to roll three times per frame.

Origin Story: Duckpin Bowling is a Baltimore tradition that dates back to the early 1900s. The game is thought to have been brought to the city by two Baltimore Orioles players, John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson, who owned a billiards and pool hall in the city.

Experience It Today: Duckpin bowling alleys can be found throughout Maryland and suburban Washington, D.C., but Patterson Bowling Center is the oldest operating duckpin bowling alley in the country. The two-story, 12-lane alley has no snack bar, but allows you to bring your own food and drink. A more modern version exists at Mustang Alley’s which features 12 lanes of bowling dedicated to duckpin and 12-pin. There is also a full-service bar and menu.

Ouija

Who hasn’t heard of the famous Ouija Board, which claims to allow you to communicate with people beyond the grave? The first commercially sold “talking board” was invented in Baltimore.

Origin Story: Businessman Elijah Bond patented the planchette, or little plank where users set their hands, that was sold with the board in 1891, and is thus credited with the invention of the Ouija board. His sister-in-law, Helen Peters, was a spiritual medium who gave the game its name and description: “Ouija, the Egyptian Luck Board.”

Experience It Today: While you can buy a Ouija board from just about any retailer who sells board games, Baltimore is the only place where you can see a Ouija board-themed gravestone. In Greenmount Cemetery, Elijah Bond’s grave bears the traditional name, birth and death dates on one side, and a replica of a Ouija Board on the other. Additionally, you can visit the site where the board received its name and where Bond lived at 529 North Charles Street. It’s now a 7-Eleven but there is a plaque outside the store denoting the location’s history.

Row Houses and Formstone

In Baltimore, row houses are omnipresent. In fact, there are more row houses in Charm City than in any other U.S. city. You’ll find many row homes adorned with Formstone, a type of faux stone façade adhered to the traditional brick that became popular in the early 20th century.

Origin Story: Row houses have been a feature of Baltimore architecture since the 1790s, and some early examples are still standing in the Federal Hill, Locust Point and Fell’s Point neighborhoods. The addition of Formstone served as a way to update crumbling bricks and protect them from the elements. Once considered glamourous, Formstone is now referred to as "the polyester of brick" by filmmaker John Waters. You can see the style en masse in neighborhoods like Highlandtown and Pigtown.

Experience It Today: As you explore the city, you’ll notice how many different styles row houses can take on, from ornate row homes in Greek Revival, Neoclassical, and Queen Anne styles to others that look like English cottages – an everything in between. The American Visionary Art Museum houses a permanent exhibit in the Jim Rouse Visionary Center that shows traditional Formstone row houses, including marble steps and painted screens (see below for more information).

Painted Window Screens

A folk art custom born in Baltimore is the practice of painting scenes — landscapes, still lifes, and other subjects of interest — on your window screens. Not only does this beautify homes, but it also gives homeowners some privacy: It allows homeowners to see out while passersby are unable to see in.

Origin Story: Screen painting was invented by the Czech immigrant William Oktavec to restrict the sunlight entering his produce store, and the practice was later taken up by other artists in working-class neighborhoods in the early 20th century.

Experience It Today: It has been estimated that as many as 100,000 painted screens once adorned row homes in Baltimore; today, about 1,000 paintings are left. An exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum features a permanent exhibition on screen paintings.

Painted Ladies

A rainbow of brightly painted, Victorian row houses has become a signature of the Charles Village neighborhood, near Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus.

Origin Story: In 1998, Charles Village residents were challenged to take up paint brushes and choose vivid colors for the facades of their homes. The contest, which came with cash prizes, led to the enlivenment of more than 100 homes within five short years.

Experience It Today: Take a stroll through Charles Village, and you’ll find yourself in a picture-perfect part of Baltimore. For some more eye candy, stop by the Baltimore Museum of Art while you’re in the neighborhood!

Marble Steps

Baltimore is known as a city of white steps because marble is frequently used at the front entrances of row homes throughout the city. Homeowners of the past took great pride in caring for their front steps, scrubbing the dirt, grime, and footsteps from them to keep them gleaming.

Origin Story: The use of marble for steps is thanks to the presence of high quality white marble in Cockeysville, a town 17 miles north of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The same marble was used to help build many structures in Washington, D.C., including the Washington Monument.

Experience It Today: Marble steps can be found across the city, from richly ornamented mansions in Bolton Hill to narrow alley houses in Fell’s Point.

Arabbers

An arabber is a street vendor who sells fruits and vegetables from a horse-drawn cart. They often rely on hollers – short, lyrical calls – to attract the attention of their customers.

Origin Story: Arabbers were a common sight in many East Coast cities after the Civil War, but today, the practice only exists in Baltimore.

Experience It Today: There are less than a dozen arabbers that roam the streets in Baltimore, and they typically bring fresh produce and other goods to neighborhoods that are underserved by grocery stores.

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