Company keeps its presses running


April 15, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

The files of an old Charles Street firm read like a Who's Who of the past and present:

Woodrow Wilson, Air Force 1, Sharon Pratt Kelly, Cardinal Gibbons, William Donald Schaefer and the Confederate States of America. And that's dropping only a few names.

Isaac C. Lycett Jr., the fifth generation of his family in the engraving, stationery, printing and book business, is the state's leading authority on wedding invitations, business letterheads, calling cards and all natural-fiber paper.

His business, Downs Inc., is headquartered in the 300 block of N. Charles St., where his family has maintained a shop since the early years of this century. The first Lycett in America was an English bookbinder named Edward, who arrived in Baltimore in the 1830s.

Brides-to-be have been seeking the Lycett firm's services for decades. Its engraved script cards have announced births and deaths, partnerships and openings. The Lycett presses have printed money and stamps. Along the way, the conservative firm has swayed with changing social mores.

"Divorce was once never acknowledged. Now some customers ask for the individual names of the divorced members of a family to be printed on a wedding invitation," Mr. Lycett said.

That wasn't the case 35 years ago when his Charles Street store traded under the Lycett family name that is still rendered in brass script at the shop's threshold. Lycett's was then one of Baltimore's most elegant retail establishments, with whole departments full of the finest European china and crystal, other household wares and imported toys. There was always a stationery department, along with one for religious goods and grade-school supplies.

"We once sold more English Spode china than any store south of New York. We also held the record for [sales of hand-painted British-made] lead soldiers and figures," Mr. Lycett said.

His great-great grandfather, a Southern sympathizer, engraved $2 notes for a Virginia bank during the Civil War. The Lycett toy department, which lasted into the 1960s, was presided over by its buyer, Ruth Mullineaux. She scoured the New York trade shows for the best imported toys that included miniature German carved villages sold in mesh bags and wooden dollhouse furniture. These wares were not cheap, and are today prized by toy collectors.

"I could be rich today if I had that lead-soldier inventory," Mr. Lycett said.

A salesman always known as Mr. Doolittle worked the china department. He flattered his customers, kissed ladies' hands and achieved large sales.

In the 1960s, Mr. Lycett forecast that Baltimore would not continue to patronize the kind of shop he was operating. So he sold off his inventory to the A.H. Fetting Co., a jeweler that closed only last year, and concentrated on stationery, using the Downs name.

"Baltimore was a city that would not support that level of consumer sophistication we needed to remain open," he said. "Baltimore moves with a trend but doesn't go as far as

some cities."

The decision to go after the high-end engraving and writing paper market has served him well. His computerized, high-speed presses, now in Linthicum, consume tons of Crane's all-cotton-fiber paper.

He has Downs shops in Ruxton, Bethesda and Washington and recently acquired the controlling interest in Washington's Copenhaver, a fancy Connecticut Avenue social stationery firm. Through these Washington stores, he's picked up jobs from the National Geographic and Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.

"We can do the exact same job on stationery engraving as Tiffany. But our price will be 25 percent less," Mr. Lycett said.

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