The waitresses at the Woman’s Industrial Exchange called Layne Bosserman, age 30 at the time, “the baby.”
She was much younger than the rest of the ladies who were in their 70s and 80s, most of them with decades of seniority working at the industrial exchange — a tearoom and craft store started to promote entrepreneurship among women dating back to the 1880s. They doted on her like she was their daughter. If the bow on her white apron was cockeyed, Miss Phyllis walked out from behind the register to fix it. On her first day, the women in their baby blue uniforms sat with her in the tearoom and went over the name of every customer and their usual order.
The women like Bosserman who worked there made the industrial exchange an institution in Baltimore — but not much is known about them. The Maryland’s Women’s Heritage Center is trying to change that and make sure the memory of the institution is preserved.
After years of financial trouble and a series of closings, reopenings and attempts to rebrand the business, the industrial exchange permanently closed in the summer of 2020. The heritage center moved into the building on North Charles Street that same year, finding a room with records, photos and artifacts left behind.
In March, the heritage center began to hold a series of open houses at which they invite people to share their stories about the industrial exchange.
“We’re missing a huge opportunity here if we don’t look at what’s left behind and if we don’t document the Woman’s Industrial Exchange,” said Amy Rosenkrans, a member of the heritage center’s executive board.
The industrial exchange dates back to the years following the Civil War, when G. Harmon Brown opened her home’s parlor on Saratoga Street as a place for women to sell their handwork, like needlework, clothing, quilts and baked goods. It grew into the industrial exchange on North Charles Street in 1889, and by the end of the 19th century, they opened a room for luncheon and tea that became a hugely popular dining spot.
The heritage center hopes through its research that people will recount to historians what they remember about the luncheon and show them the baby layette and christening gowns that people purchased at the consignment shop. Maybe, if the historians are lucky, they will learn the names and memories of the women who used to work there.
Nationwide, industrial exchanges were part of an entrepreneurship movement, at a time when women had little financial independence. They put their items, like sock puppets and cakes, for sale anonymously and usually took home between 85% to 90% of whatever was sold. In the early years, the industrial exchange also held classes on the second floor of the building where they taught machine sewing and woodworking techniques and gave out recipes of jams, jellies and baked goods.
But it was the luncheon that became the place to be, said Rosenkrans. The tearoom and Miss Marguerite Schertle, a beloved waitress who retired the retired at the age of 95, became so iconic they had a cameo on “Sleepless in Seattle.” Katharine Hepburn, who visited the city frequently, called the merchandise “perfectly charming.” One secret to the food was sugar on everything, even the salad, tenured cook Dorothea Day Wilson told The Baltimore Sun in 1997. The dishes were comforting and hard to replicate, said Bosserman.
When Bosserman began to work as a waitress in the 1990s, one of three jobs, the lunch room had recently reopened after a financial crisis. Schertle, a longtime fixture at the industrial exchange, had retired and Bosserman took over her station. She remembers it being incredibly busy, all the waitresses on their feet all day. They carried a pad and a pen, and sent their orders to the kitchen in a bucket with a bell and string tied to it.
“When you got your order, you hold that bucket up, put your order in it and you drop it,” she said. The bucket dropped to a kitchen in the basement where Dorothea Wilson picked up the order and, once it was ready, put the food in a dumbwaiter.
“And she had a big rock … and she would bang that rock on the bottom of the dumbwaiter with the food in it. And that meant there’s hot food on a dumbwaiter and whoever was closest would pull it up,” Bosserman said.
The waitresses ate together during their lunch break in the back of the tea room, always at the same table next to the kitchen. They usually ate a sandwich and salad, rather than the chicken salad or the tomato aspic popular with customers. The other waitresses told Bosserman stories of their younger days. Miss Phyllis always reminded Bosserman to slow down and enjoy life.
“You’ll find money, but you won’t get these times back,” Miss Phyllis would say.
There was something special about the Woman’s Industrial Exchange, Bosserman said. Sure, every restaurant will tell you they are family. But the waitresses and customers had known each other for decades, and many truly felt that way.
One time, one person on staff lost their apartment to a fire. The next morning, the waitresses brought her brand new clothes and things for her cat. Another time, Bosserman and a friend bought groceries for one of the waitresses, Miss Willie, who was in her 90s and never missed a day of work, because they were worried she wasn’t eating well.
Bosserman met Rosenkrans recently at the exchange on a Saturday, helping her go through the records and artifacts. Being back in the tearoom, now closed for years, jogged her memory. She helped Rosenkrans identify the names of people in photographs and told her how the tearoom was once set up.
In white, male-dominated academia, scholars largely excluded and ignored women from American history, said Anna Choudhary, who is part of a group of undergraduate students from Notre Dame of Maryland University that is helping research the history of the industrial exchange. They want to include the women “so that we don’t have missing chunks of history,” Choudhary said.
Eliza Davis, another student at Notre Dame, said that people should know about the industrial exchange long after it’s gone.
“When it closed, it’s like, how do you remember?” she said.
Bosserman excitedly wonders what other stories will come out of the research, but won’t share what she knows Rosenkrans has already discovered.
“I don’t want to spoil any of the surprise.”