Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Women's Industrial Exchange

Last Wednesday I went to the Snow Hill Library to listen to a talk given by Eleanor Mulligan on the Women's Industrial Exchange. The Women's Industrial Exchange I knew nothing about but thought it might be interesting and it was. Eleanor Mulligan gave an excellent presentation of the subject. She amplified on the exchange movement talk by going into a number of time-related subjects.

As we know the United States has had constant economic up and down swings thru out it's history. In the 1830's there was also economic problems resulting in the male bread winner being bankrupted. The woman of the house hold had no way to earn money without the disgrace of working outside the home in a factory. As Eliza Doolittle said in "My Fair Lady" " I sold flowers; I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me, I'm not fit to sell anything else." So short of selling themselves the other skill they were trained in was fancy hand goods, fancy lamp shade, china painting, linen and other hand crafted popular in that period. In 1832 a depository for such items opened in Philadelphia so those items could be sold discretely. This movement spread across the states and territories and there were shops in a number of places to sell these items. The Woman's Industrial Exchange began shortly after the Civil War in the home of Mrs. G. Harmon Brown of Baltimore, where women brought their handwork to be sold to local citizens and visitors. Mrs. Harmon's endeavor was part of a nationwide Exchange Movement to help "gentlewomen of diminished means" to discreetly earn a living.

The Woman's Industrial Exchange of Baltimore City (333 N. Charles St) continues today as a non-profit organization that was founded in 1880, incorporated in 1882, and continues to serve the same mission of providing local people the opportunity to earn income by selling handmade items to the public. The Maryland State Legislature incorporated the organization "for the purpose of endeavoring by sympathy and practical aid to encourage and help needy women to help themselves by procuring for them and establishing a sales room for the sale of Women's Work."

Perhaps one of the memorable items about the Woman's Industrial Exchange of Baltimore City was the restaurant. It was a relic of that genteel age when a lady simply never appeared in public without gloves and a hat, the Exchange was a step back to a time of Chicken salad, tomato aspic and cucumber sandwiches (without the crust, and ice cream with a chocolate sauce. Also memorable was a group of waitresses who started there in the 1930's and continued working there until they were in their 80's and 90's. They always used that Baltimore tradition of referring to you as "Hon." When "Sleepless in Seattle" was being filmed in Baltimore, the producers of the film discovered the place and was fascinated by the waitresses - to the extent they were a bit of a pain. One waitress (in her 80's) told them not to worry about her as she was preserved in aspic. Marguerite Schertle (93), one of the waitresses, was even given a part in the movie. The restaurant however closed about 2005. I have heard of another restaurant going into the building (Dogwood's).

Most of those 19th-century Woman’s Exchanges have closed now. The remaining ones open are;
Brooklyn Women’s Exchange in New York
Woman’s Industrial Exchange of Baltimore City in Maryland
Woman’s Exchange of St. Louis in Missouri
Woman’s Exchange of St. Augustine
Woman’s Exchange of Memphis in Tennessee

The window of Woman's Industrial Exchange of Baltimore

Eleanor Mulligan pointed out that much of her presentation came from the book
"The Business of Charity: The Woman's Exchange Movement, 1832-1900" by Kathleen Sanders.

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