by Jean Lee Cole
The Bolton Hill Bulletin began publication 45 years ago and is one of Baltimore’s longest-running neighborhood newsletters. But it was not Bolton Hill’s first neighborhood newsletter. That honor may go to the Home Weekly, which appeared on the streets of Bolton Hill more than a hundred years ago–and was written and published by a group of kids.
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The Weekly was the brainchild of Francis A. Davis, age 13, who assembled an editorial team that included his brother, Allan, age 11, friend Gideon N. Stieff—scion of the Stieff silver family—also 13 years old, and two of the younger Davis siblings, Hamilton Chase, 8, and Clara, who began contributing stories at the ripe old age of 6. According to John Davis and Jenny Hope, the son and granddaughter, respectively, of Hamilton Chase Davis, the Davis and Stieff children published the Weekly when they lived at 1701 Park Avenue (currently a large, multifamily residence). Several Davis children attended Friends School on the other side of the Park Avenue median, in buildings that were eventually converted into condominiums, and their grandfather, Francis Sr., lived down the hill at 1606 Park Ave.
The Home Weekly shows the active imagination, sweet sense of humor, and artistic ambition of the Davis clan. Francis, the eldest, declared in 1910 that it was precisely “Our aim … to show the curious the literary talent concealed in the family of Mr. & Mrs. E. A. Davis and aid in bringing out and developing the abovementioned talent. If we succeed only partially in fulfilling this aim we shall be more than satisfied.”
Lacking access to photocopiers, mimeograph machines, or printing presses, each issue of the Weekly was painstakingly copied, by hand, by Francis Davis. For this reason, they initially charged only a penny to those who wanted to read an issue, and a nickel (worth about $1.25 in today’s dollars) for readers who wanted their own copy.
Initially, the Weekly consisted of a single sheet from a lined, 2-column stenographer’s pad. Quickly, however, the creativity of the Davis and Stieff children filled 4, 12, even 20 pages. Each week. Within a year, prices had doubled, costing 2 cents to read and a dime for your own copy.
The contents of the Weekly mirrored popular magazines of the day. Most issues began either with an editorial or a piece of fiction, sometimes serialized, and fiction generally dominated throughout. But the editors of the Weekly also included squibs “reprinted” from other magazines, including Boys’ Life and St. Nicholas, as well as the local newspapers.
Like magazines and newspapers then and now, the Home Weekly sought to be topical. In preparation for their Christmas issue, the editors ran a fiction contest, offering fifteen cents for “the best Christmas story submitted to us by December 15, 1908” and a dime for the “second best.” They sternly advised potential submitters to follow these guidelines:
The stories must contain at the least 700 words and at the most 1,000.
An story (sic) that does not come up to the above qualifications will not be considered.
If we think that none of the stories are of the required standard all the rewards are revoked.
Christmastime was clearly a special season in the lives of the Davis and Stieff children. In the pages of the Weekly they described the Christmas plays performed by different classes at Friends School, noting that during one performance “one of the actors hooked his foot in a piece of scenery, pulling it down with a crash,” while “Another actor hit a foot-light with his foot so it went out with a loud pop.” Meanwhile, at Boys’ Latin, all of the students gathered in the school auditorium to present their gifts to their teachers: silver bon bon dishes, stickpins, a pipe and cigarette holder—certainly not gifts students would give a teacher today!—and a “Silver Handle Umbrella.” They wrote, “As each teacher received his gift he opened it so that everyone might see what it was and then made a short speech to the boys.” (One of the teachers, we should note, was a “Miss Dammran.”)