Ceramics, silver, furniture: throughout the 19th century, Baltimore was a center for the production of fine goods. A major port and rail hub, this Maryland city utilized its cheap labor force and abundant natural resources to produce luxury wares as well as practical items in small factories and workshops. Today, those factories are gone, replaced by tourism and light industry, finance and education, health care and services. But this city of neighborhoods continues to prosper, continues to appreciate the fine items that were made here years ago, and continues to provide unique urban antiquing opportunities.
Although the suburbs offer large antique malls full of rows of booths and showcases, the downtown area provides specialty shopping with the kind of personal attention found decades ago. And many of the areas in the city that include antique shops were once the origin of the wares being sold there today.
“Antique Row” on Howard Street has long been considered the heart of Baltimore’s antiques trade, having been the location of the city’s esteemed furniture industry during the early 1800s. Located north of the harbor near the city’s cultural center, this two-block stretch (with a few shops on adjoining side streets) is generally accepted to be the country’s first antiques district.
“We know for a fact that in the 1840s, the furniture makers were buying back their furniture and then refinishing and reselling it,” said Philip Dubey, owner of Dubey’s Art & Antiques, and Antique Row Stalls, a multi-dealer cooperative. “The word ‘antique’ first appeared in the Baltimore phone book in 1910, with 23 antique furnishings businesses listed, 14 of which were on Howard Street,” he added.
As is generally the case, the knot of shops attracted other dealers and, within the next few decades, antiques dealers committed to the trade had moved in. What resulted was an area with a local, national and international reputation for fine wares, knowledgeable shopkeepers and personal service. By the last quarter of the 20th century, business was booming. Camaraderie among the dealers – many of whom had been in the same location for 50 years – was high. And most important, buying and selling here was fun.
“Anyone who was anyone shopped on Howard Street,” said Linda Sarubin, who was an area dealer at the time. Now the co-owner (with her husband Carroll Swam) of the Gatchellville Store in nearby York County, Pa., Sarubin owned a shop and later managed a multi-dealer facility on Antique Row from 1982 to 1993. “People from all over the world shopped there, from Japan, France, Great Britain – everywhere. It was a mecca for anyone who wanted to shop.” Additionally, entertainers visiting Baltimore “took their first day off and came shopping here.”
As a young dealer, Sarubin said every day was educational for her. “Many of the shopkeepers were recognized experts in their field. And they were always very generous with their information.
“The street was full of some real characters. It was a fabulous time.”
Dubey agrees that the 1980s were a great time for antiquing in general and antiquing on Howard Street in particular. But after a slump caused by the construction of Howard Street’s light rail and the reconfiguration of sidewalks, Antique Row has rebounded and is indeed on the upswing, the dealer said. Of the 19 years he has been in the 800 block of Howard Street, this year has, so far, been his best yet.
“We’re seeing a tremendous amount of traffic from tourists,” he said. “London buyers shop here on a regular basis.” Among the treasures he is currently offering for sale is a sofa made about 200 years ago just three blocks away from Dubey’s shop.
And as word of the street’s revitalization has spread, more dealers have moved in. Dubey estimates that his shop and co-op account for about 11,000 square feet, and that Antique Row now boasts a total of about 150,000 occupied square feet. “We’re not competing with each other. This is a destination for those wanting to shop for antiques.”
But in-town antiquing is not limited to Howard Street. Like the shops on Antique Row, venues scattered about in other parts of the city are located near where Baltimore’s antique treasures were produced.
A few blocks to the southeast of Antique Row is a section of Charles Street that was once the address of the manufacturers of late-19th- and early 20th-century furniture and pianos, the very names that still ring out in upscale auction houses. The Mount Vernon neighborhood surrounding the Washington Monument became a fashionable retail center, until gradually the small shops either closed or moved to the suburbs. Charles Street is currently experiencing a retail revival, and among the mix of businesses moving back into the area are antiques galleries and purveyors of fine art and vintage posters.
South of the harbor is Federal Hill, a natural high point in the city that was once used as a lookout for ships approaching from Chesapeake Bay. In the mid-1800s, the hill was mined for clay and sand to be used for the manufacture of pottery and glass. During the Civil War, Federal Hill became a Union army fortification, and the tunnels that had been dug were used for the storage of armaments and supplies. Today, Federal Hill is a city landmark and park, and the surrounding neighborhood provides antiquers another area to explore.
The raw materials mined from Federal Hill were used in factories on the outskirts of nearby Fells Point. Located east of downtown, this area was the home of a successful porcelain and pottery industry for nearly a century, until the Great Depression brought it to its knees. Over the years, Fells Point has become an entertainment hot spot, with shops scattered between the restaurants and bars.
Just a stone’s throw away from where Baltimore’s fine silver was manufactured is the neighborhood of Hampden. Now, younger families are moving into the area, which is located near the campus of Johns Hopkins University. To keep pace with their tastes, the “Avenue,” as the main shopping district is known, is boasting a number of new antiques shops. Not surprisingly, this is a great spot to find funky Mid-Century items, but several nearby consignment shops continue to offer traditional wares from homes in the city’s more affluent communities.