A ladies' summer garment known as a duster is a indispensable part of a Baltimore July day.
As the heat and humidity battle each other for top billing, the poly-and-cotton duster, also known to merchants as a snap coat, has its finest hour.
In scores of city neighborhoods -- Highlandtown, Upton, Park Heights and Locust Point -- this all-in-one, light-weight summer sack is as much a part of the scene as are the snowball stand, the water bug and open fire hydrant.
A cousin to the cotton house dress, the duster, which is also called a housecoat, comes in sleeveless and short-sleeve models. It fastens in the front, with metal snaps disguised as buttons. The models with zippers are often favored by women with arthritic hands. And the duster is designed to be roomy and colorful, fashioned of prints and pastel tones.
Its season arrival coincides with climactic conditions favorable to sitting out on front steps or trying to catch a breeze in the back yard. In other cities, women do not appear outdoors in it. But in Baltimore, the rules of the duster are relaxed.
Ladies wear dusters while shopping on Eastern Avenue. They are considered just the thing for a morning coffee klatch at Muhly's bake shop next door to the Cross Street Market. Park Heights Avenue grandmothers sport them on the front porch as they converse with neighbors.
And there is no law that bedroom slippers or the most comfortable of flimsy summer shoes can't be worn with the summer duster.
In fact, about the only law the duster violates is that of high fashion. You will not find these $13 baggy tents at the citadels of high and mighty fashion.
Also, don't bother looking for them to be modeled on the streets of Columbia or Cockeysville. The duster is a combat uniform for battling a torrid, un-air-conditioned city summer.
"A duster is all about comfort," said Dorothy Cwiek, whose family has operated a classic East Baltimore dry goods shop at Linwood and Foster avenues since 1945.
Cwiek's, in fact, is known all over the community for its unswerving allegiance to children's and ladies' wear that other merchants might disdain as old-fashioned or too limited in appeal.
"We like to serve our customers, if they want a snuggie or a size 50 cardigan sweater. And the grandmothers who will think twice about spending $25 on a dress for themselves will buy a $120 coat for their grandchildren. We've shipped to Poland and we've shipped to Berlin on the Eastern Shore," Cwiek said.
Her duster selection fills a portion of a wall in her 15-foot-wide corner row house shop, which still has the stained-glass transoms from the days in the 1920s and '30s when it served as a Canton neighborhood confectionery store.
The shop brims with an inventory of infants', children's and ladies' wear, all neatly arranged by category.
"When my mother opened this store, I was still in the [World War II] service. She bought it as a little corner store. It still had a marble soda fountain. She soon began stocking socks and oil cloth, men's clothing, sheets and blankets," said Melvin Cwiek, the shopkeeper's husband. In time, the household products were dropped in favor of children's and women's goods.
So well known is the store's founder, the late Bertha Cwiek, that many customers still refer to this institution as Miss Bertha's.
"The duster is only one small part of what we carry," Dorothy Cwiek said. "The grandmoms who buy the dusters like to come in and get our children's clothes -- the velvet collars on the Rothchild dress coats and the Feltman infants' suits. And the christening and first communion dresses. We're really well known for these."
Cwiek's does not have the duster market all to itself. Dusters are a big seller for the Goldenberg's chain of variety stores. And Epstein's department stores, which closed earlier this year, long were a major competitor as well. The remaining Epstein's duster inventory was sold to the popular East Baltimore discount emporium, Shocket's of Broadway. The ex-Epstein's dusters promptly sold out.
Does the duster have a particular neighborhood where it is most popular?
"Not really," said Emma Darden, a buyer for Goldenberg's. "The sell citywide -- on Pratt Street, Broadway and Monument Street."
"We run them on sale all the time," Darden said. "They are popular with older women. They have the two pockets and are big sellers."