- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2001

BALTIMORE — Most people walking through the 19th-century doors of the Woman's Industrial Exchange to buy a handmade christening dress or a lunch of chicken salad and tomato aspic say the same thing — it's like stepping into another world.
The world of grandmother's attic.
White shelves are filled with terry-cloth elephants, wooden boats and hand-crocheted blankets. Glass counters are lined with hand-sewn baby bibs, ornately decorated salt and pepper shakers and chocolate cupcakes.
Beaded jewelry, pillows and infant clothing also are on display.
Farther back sits the restaurant that once fed society's elite, with burgundy booths along the left wall and purple and yellow faux flowers on each table.
It hasn't changed much since 1880.
"It is basically a time warp," filmmaker Vince Peranio says. "In a city that has changed so much, that something has stayed that consistent is really wonderful."
Its charm has spread beyond Baltimore.
Celebrities such as Katharine Hepburn, Meg Ryan, Rosie O'Donnell and Julia Roberts have been served by veteran waitresses in baby-blue uniforms secured by the puffy white bows of their aprons.
Miss Roberts even donated $200 because she loved the biscuits, says Linda Goldberg, president of the exchange board. The exchange, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, also appeared in the 1993 film "Sleepless in Seattle."
"The Baltimore exchange … has this wonderful, quirky, beloved reputation," says historian Kathleen Waters Sander, author of "The Business of Charity: The Woman's Exchange Movement, 1832-1900."
"What so many people don't realize is that it's a charity … and it's served a really important role in Baltimore. It's kept families off the bread line."
Customers can find anything from crocheted baby booties to evening purses.
The cupcakes and brownies offered for sale are baked by Dorothea Wilson, a 35-year veteran.
Working in the basement, Miss Wilson receives orders for crab-cake sandwiches and the ever-popular chicken salad with deviled eggs and tomato aspic and then sends the food back up to the kitchen's top floor on the dumbwaiter.
"I love it," she says. "I love to cook. I love to bake."
On the kitchen's upper floor, other cooks prepare such cold dishes as the beloved charlotte russe.
Twenty-eight exchanges still operate across the country, but the Baltimore exchange is the only one in its original building — a four-story brick structure on the corner of Charles and Pleasant streets that formerly was a private home.
Before the wooden and checkerboard floors creaked under pressure or the air smelled of must and hot coffee, there was G. Harmon Brown.
Brown was a well-to-do Quaker woman who started the exchange along with 11 other women in the parlor of her Saratoga Street home in 1880. It was an alternative to the existing labor market in the destitute years following the Civil War and was modeled after the original Philadelphia exchange, founded in 1832.
Nearly 100 exchanges formed in cities around the country — including Boston, New York, New Orleans and St. Louis — for primarily high-society women to sell their handmade goods and receive part of the profits.
"No one would know that they were destitute, and they would not be labeled with the stigma of being a working woman," Miss Goldberg says.
To survive financially, many exchanges opened eateries. They were a "sure income-producer" and often "the most lucrative department of Exchanges," wrote Miss Sander, who sits on the Federation of Woman's Exchanges board.
The Baltimore eatery now is frequented mostly by downtown employees, but there was a time when patrons would be dropped off by chauffeurs.
"Ya know, high society," says Phyllis Sanders, who started working as a 16-year-old waitress in 1939. The 77-year-old retired a few years ago but still keeps in touch with her "family" of co-workers.
The exchange restaurants were places to see and be seen "because they were run by very well-known ladies," says Miss Sander, the historian.
Many exchanges also maintained boarding rooms as a safe place for young consignors to live in the city. Those rooms will return atop the Baltimore location in October.
The $40,000 that those seven rental units should generate will trim the exchange's $70,000 operating deficit, a result of the dramatic reduction of consignors, Miss Goldberg says.
Miss Sander, who also is a University of Maryland University College professor, says the movement is "probably the oldest continuing women's voluntary organization in the country."
What also remains constant is patron loyalty.
Julian Lapides, a 40-year customer and frequent visitor to the Down Under Club in the exchange's basement, says he most enjoyed the kidney stew on buckwheat cakes the restaurant cooked up each Thursday during winters in the 1960s.
The club was an informal diner where Baltimore's businessmen gathered to socialize. Besides waitresses, few women were allowed in the club, whose Pleasant Street entrance now is the door to a separate jewelry store.
Mr. Lapides, a former state senator, visits the exchange about once a month. He says he hopes the younger generation appreciates the establishment as much as he does.
"It's such a wonderful tradition," he says, "and there's something just comfortable and warm and friendly and peaceful. There's no noise, no music blaring.
"It's just how society is supposed to be. It's terribly civil."

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