A city of men's clothing

Baltimore Glimpses

June 30, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLER

LADIES, this is a Glimpses largely for men. (You're welcome to read on, but you might want to read the other articles on this page and come back next Tuesday.) This newspaper recently has reported on the financial problems of the parent company of Hamburgers, the 142-year-old men's (and later, women's, too) clothing retailer. According to the reports, Hamburgers may have to close some of its stores and/or sell off some others. Whatever, the news serves as an afterword to the chapter in the city's history that covers the life and slow death of its men's clothing businesses.

For more than 100 years Baltimore, as a world center for manufacturing of men's clothing, was a men's clothing town. Its haber--eries, located in the same city as the giant manufacturers -- Greif, Schloss, Schoeneman, Strouse, Sonneborn -- were a showcase for the city.

The big names in Baltimore menswear retailing were centered downtown, most of them in the few blocks east and west of Charles Street along Baltimore.

There is a Rite Aid there now, but in the period we're talking about 9 East Baltimore St. was occupied by the venerable Katz Clothes. A member of the Katz family would always be on the floor to help.

The store that passed itself off as the toniest of the local men's stores was Warner's (20 East Baltimore St.). Its prices were consistently higher than those of any of its competitors, but it hoped to persuade you that an expansive Warner suit actually saved you money in the long run. It couched its argument in its slogan: "The Indisputable Arithmetic of the Best."

And speaking of tonier shops, there were Payne & Merrill, Lohmeyer and the Canterbury Shop. Curiously, one of the most expensive men's suits of that era was the "Oxxford" -- a brand with two x's -- and it was offered exclusively not at Warner's, Payne & Merrill, Lohmeyer or the Canterbury Shop, but at Hutzler's, a department store. (Hochschild, Kohn and Stewart's, too, had popular menswear departments.)

Hamburgers, at Baltimore and Hanover, occupied the middle ground, in both fashion and in price. The store had made something of a Baltimore institution of its small ad in the newspapers every weekday. A sampling of those ads in the 1940s shows a collection of striped suits at $38, tweed suits at $30 and Oxford button-down shirts at $2.50.

For the men who liked their clothing trendier, there were Al Stein's at 24 East Baltimore St., Stulman's at 30 and Cowen's down the street at 115.

But then as now, not every man chose to pay retail; there were always those who sought out the "wholesaler" -- in quotes because a wholesaler then was really a retailer who called himself a wholesaler. Today, such operations are called "discounters." By far the biggest and most famous was T.I. Swartz, whose "warehouse" (read "retail store") at South Pulaski and Eager streets attracted the rich and famous and many from Washington political circles.

No account of Baltimore haberdasheries would be complete without mention of Jos. A. Bank, which started as a little-known wholesale operation at 105 Hopkins Plaza. The company, of course, went on to become one of America's best known and successful men's clothing retailers.

Many of us have noticed that fashion is only yesterday come back again. In clothing, things that go around come around. You can depend on it.

The city, watching its men's clothing retailers (Hamburgers among them) growing smaller these past years, should take comfort in that.

An editing error last week made it appear that the Century Theater was upstairs on West Lexington. It was at street level.

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