The History of Baltimore-Painted Screens: Our Inspiration for Handmade Jewelry Organizers

Posted by David Downey on

The year is 1913, and your grocery store has a bit of a problem. 

For years you have displayed your shiniest apples and most enticing bananas on the street to attract customers. But as the days grow hotter, the fruit spoils faster than ever, bruising and collecting condensation.

Faced with the dilemma of choosing between bad fruit or bad marketing. Do you leave the produce outside to drum up sales and risk losing heaps of fruits and veggies each day, or do you bring them in and hope the business will come?

The answer grocers came to in 1913 might surprise you. It turns out there was a third solution: art. Specifically, painted screens — a century-old folk tradition that began in Baltimore. Painted screens artfully combine aesthetics and functionality, showcasing vibrant designs on their exterior while maintaining their core purpose of ventilation and protection. These canvases, while visually captivating, subtly shield interiors from prying eyes without obstructing the view from inside. The creative ingenuity of this simple yet thoughtful solution has continued to inspire artists and tourists to this day — with tons of visitors who come each year to see the functional artwork in person. The stunning screens are also the inspiration behind our popular line of jewelry organizers. 

The origin story of the Baltimore-painted screens ties directly into the history behind our bespoke earring holders. Follow along as we delve into the rich past of Baltimore, the craftsmanship of painted screens, and the man who made it all possible. We’ll even touch on how this story inspired us to create our handmade jewlery organizers! 

Turn of the Century Baltimore

The turn of the century marked the first industrial revolution in many American cities. Production was booming, factory work was all the rage, and a new population of workers needed a place to live. The most efficient way to house the masses was in rowhouses, which lined the streets of Baltimore.

Despite living in nearly identical units, residents still found ways to add character to their homes. Tenants in street-facing units often filled their windows with plants and statues. It was a way to gain some privacy from folks on the street without keeping the Baltimore breeze at bay.

However, it was a business owner, not an apartment-dweller, who was the first to seek out a new way to stand out among the local competition. William Oktavec was the local grocery store owner who decided to preserve his produce by keeping it inside the cool shop, instead of on the street to attract customers (as was the norm at the time).

It turned out that Oktavec had not always worked as a grocer and had training in commercial art and illustration before arriving in America. He migrated to Baltimore hoping to teach and create art, not sell onions.

Fortunately, he put his artistic skills to good use. The grocer advertised his obscured produce by painting their likeness onto the screens outside the shop, so no one had any doubt about what they would find inside. The practical solution meant that the shop owner could see out, but pedestrians couldn't see in, affording him safety and privacy during the workday.

Painted Screens Catch On

In Baltimore neighborhoods, folks living in street-level flats were craving the artistic touch and the privacy a painted screen could afford. Of course, nobody wanted teenagers snooping through their ground-floor windows.

So, it wasn't long before Oktavec's first neighbor approached him about painting a screen for their rowhouse window. For his neighbor, he painted the likeness of a calendar scene, which was proudly displayed in the neighborhood. Naturally, the community's admiration followed.

After that, everyone wanted an original artwork to differentiate their unit from their neighbor's. Painted screens began to fill the nearby rowhouses, providing privacy even while attracting attention from the locals.

Soon, Oktavec himself could not keep up with the demand. Other local artists found work painting bespoke scenes for their neighbors. Buildings began to fill up with stunning multicolored scenes painted by different hands — making a walk down the street feel like a visit to the museum.

Just a decade later, Oktavec was able to leave the grocery store behind and pursue his first dream. He opened an art shop, where he sold his screens to the public. He dedicated his life to teaching art and beautifying his city, creating a legacy he could never have imagined while reorganizing his produce back in 1913!

Twenty years later, the screens would reach the peak of popularity, outlasting the advent of home air conditioning units and two world wars. The screens became an industry in their own right. They employed thousands of artists and utterly transformed the humble rowhouses of Baltimore.

The Legacy Lives On


William Oktavec passed away in 1956, leaving behind two sons, who are also artists, who each added their artistic touch to subsequent screens. Oktavec never met his grandson, John. Even so, the contemporary artist also continues to paint screens on commission to this day.

Fortunately, you don’t have to take a trip to Baltimore to experience the delight of painted screens. Keen jewelry collectors can also incorporate this tradition in their homes. The pieces in our collection at Earring Holder Gallery take inspiration from the beauty of Oktavec's innovative painted screens. Just like Oktavec, we craft and paint each screen by hand so they double as a piece of original artwork.

The mini-screens work similarly to an earring tree or necklace holder. We make them with  fiberglass mesh, which does not rust or tarnish. Choose from our gallery of popular designs, or reach out to order a custom piece.

Our jewelry organizers solve a problem for jewelry owners, just as the Baltimore-painted screens solved a problem for 20th-century homeowners. When you can see all your earrings and necklaces at a glance, you're far more likely to wear them. 

Bring the Baltimore Painted Screens Home

Tourists still comb the streets of Baltimore in search of authentic Baltimore-painted screens to this day. The next time you're in Baltimore, we hope you'll take the time to seek out the vestiges of this community-driven artistic phenomenon.

In the meantime, you can bring home a jewelry organizer inspired by the beauty of the Baltimore-painted screens. Each earring holder is a piece of art inspired by a timeless tradition.  Browse our online collection to discover the perfect hand-painted jewelry holder.

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