The Murphy family of South Baltimore followed the Irish pattern in America. Thomas and Elizabeth McDonnell Murphy were born in Ireland and arrived in Baltimore with their daughter Anastasia in 1850, during the years of the Great Hunger. They settled in the modest St. Joseph Catholic Parish, located in Baltimore’s 17th Ward just a few yards from the railroad tracks that led to Camden Station.
Dad was a laborer and became a voter by 1870, while Mom raised five children. One of them was “Thomas Michael”, baptized at St. Joseph’s (see photo; spire at right rear) on June 19, 1853. A bit of education must have been part of Michael’s childhood, and he became a clerk. The profession relied on men with a “fine fist”, as it were, and his trade was an entry into middle class life. He married Emma V. Sank at St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church on July 24, 1884. They had seven children in the home by 1900 including Arthur, born on May 12, 1892.
Arthur was recommended to become a high school student, but lost his father Michael by the time of the 1910 U.S. Census. His mother was left with seven children, and Arthur brought his own income into the family home at 1115 Hanover St., becoming a salesman of retail meats and a member of a trade that would become his career. He eventually opened his own grocery store by 1915 complete with a meat counter. He must have done well, a she married Emma Nordt that same year and began his own family, including little Emma.
Little Emma was one of seven children they would raise together. Their market was at 600 Scott Street, close to the historic St. Jerome’s parish (just south of Pigtown…a good omen for a meat retailer, it would seem). People relied on stores like the Murphy’s for all sorts of food and supplies for the home, and their promotional displays included Schmidt’s bread, Kellogg’s products, Esskay sausage and lard, Carnation milk, produce, various soaps and Wilbur melting chocolate.
Opening a grocery and meat market was not a simple thing to do. A considerable amount of equipment, fixtures and shelving units were needed to display inventory, and a meat market needed scales, butcher blocks, meat grinders and saws for processing. Iceboxes had to be purchased to keep food fresh. None of this came cheap to Arthur and Emma, and a considerable investment was required to run their retail operation.
Grocers were essential members of the community, and many families relied on credit until payday to make ends meet. The Murphy grocery was one of at least 3,000 groceries listed in the City Directory of 1915 and were scattered throughout Baltimore’s many ethnic neighborhoods. These served the needs of families that might not have lived close to Baltimore’s eleven public markets of the era: large, city-owned structures that rented space to retailers, food oriented or otherwise.
Credit seems a bit remote to the modern retail purchaser but was part of a relationship in earlier days. Letting a stranger walk out of your store without paying simply wasn’t done, but letting a trusted neighbor catch up on things come payday was very common. This system was possible because customers would out of necessity be faithful to a particular store or two, where they could count on the owner’s good graces when they ran out of money before they ran out of time.
Things seemed to have been going well for the Murphy family. They owned their own home a few miles south of the market, and their business must have had a steady clientele. Credit customers were customary, but a tragic turn of events in 1929 changed it all for both proprietor and customers. It is known as the Great Depression: a dramatic drop in the stock market that impoverished millions of Americans at every income level. Suddenly, those that owed the corner grocer could not pay. Those who were particularly hurting still darkened the Murphy’s door, however and asked for a bit more credit to feed their desperate family. Arthur and Emma found it awfully hard to say no, as these were more than anonymous customers. They had relationships with many hungry people, and things kept on spiraling downward for both the Murphy’s and their community until it just couldn’t be done anymore.
The market itself went up for sale on November 2, 1930, when the fixtures and equipment were auctioned off. Everything was sold to others who wanted to try running a market that was being sold for pennies on the dollar. Some additional owners gave it a try in coming years, but the property went up for rent as a three-story house by December 1945. The building itself was eventually razed, and the corner at Scott and Carroll Sts. is now an empty lot, with scattered old trees on it.
Arthur was an ambitious man and stayed in the meat and grocery business. His career returned to working for others, including the A& P grocery store chain.
Emma lived until 1951, with Arthur following her in death on August 6, 1962. They were laid to rest in Howard County, Maryland.
While Arthur’s life work was not without its own tragedies, he and Emma experienced the rewards of hard work for themselves and their children. They progressed forward within the flow of the middle class into the suburbs of Anne Arundel County at the end of their lives…a far distance from the simple rowhouses that hugged the railroad tracks that were once the home of Arthur’s grandparents from Ireland.
Special Thanks to those who contributed to this article:
Chris Lienesch and family
Baltimore City Directories
Library of Congress
Sharon Lina Pierce