Friday, December 19, 2003

Few presidents have felt the burden of office more heavily than Abraham Lincoln. Not only did he have to guide the country through its bloodiest war, but he endured domestic sorrows as well, especially the death of his son Willie in 1862.

One way Lincoln had of coping was his well-known habit of telling funny stories to people. Another way for the president to unwind was to take his young son Tad for visits to the Stuntz toy and candy store at 1207 New York Ave. NW, just four blocks from the White House.

The little shop is long gone, but it was a city landmark for more than 50 years. The store originally was a private home built by Ulysses Ward, who bought the land on Oct. 14, 1840, for $157. The building was brick, two stories tall and 14 feet and 4 inches wide. In 1847, Ward leased the place to Joseph and Apolonia Stuntz. (Some accounts spell the wife’s name Appolonia.) The couple converted it into a shop.

Joseph Stuntz died during the Civil War, and Apolonia then ran the place by herself.

The store’s most popular display by far was the “penny counter,” where children could buy any item for 1 cent. The penny candies included black licorice, jujube paste, yellow taffy on a stick, little cakes shaped like horses, chewing gum and chocolate caramels, neatly wrapped.

The penny toys included miniature wooden churns and washtubs, paper dolls, china dolls, doll furniture, the “bean-blower” or bean shooter, paper parasols and tin whistles.

There were other, more expensive items, such as toy soldiers of wood or tin. Joseph Stuntz, who had been a soldier under Napoleon, would carve the wooden soldiers himself while resting his disabled leg on a stool. The toy soldiers were a special favorite of Tad’s.

As the president once explained, “I want to give Tad all the toys I didn’t have, and all the toys I would have given to the boy who went away,” referring to Willie. On another occasion, Lincoln sadly asked of Stuntz, “Does it hurt you as much to have your soldiers shot down as it does me to have mine?”

The little store must have become quite successful, for after Joseph’s death, his widow bought the property from Ward for $2,800. Apolonia continued to run the shop until her death on April 19, 1901.

As the decades passed, Apolonia became as well-known as the store itself. She was the archetypal kindly old woman, beloved by two generations of Washington children. In particular, her young customers would fondly remember in later years how she never pressured them, no matter how long they took deciding what to buy.

The store kept going even after Apolonia’s time, for The Washington Post of Aug. 27, 1913, mentioned the funeral of a Kate France, who had been running what by then was called the Lincoln Toy Shop. After that, the place became Larch’s — “Washington’s Foremost Cleansers and Dyers.” Larch’s counted on the memories of Washingtonians, for as late as 1927 it still ran newspaper ads reminding people of how the Stuntz shop once had done business there.

Finally, in 1933, the Post ran a mournful little story — in its Christmas Eve issue, no less — with a headline that said it all: “Landmark Becomes Auto Parking Lot.” It would have been infinitely preferable to save the shop and turn it into a Lincoln historical site, with a bronze plaque out front.

• John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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