Silver was our prestige export Goodbye: As Stieff Silver plant prepares to close, memories of its products stir.

October 24, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

I'LL MISS the sound of what seemed like a hundred hammers banging away at the Stieff Silver plant perched on the edge of the Jones Falls Valley. The old plant closes in a few months, as yet one more Baltimore manufacturing tradition evaporates.

I grew up eating birthday fare on Stieff ice cream forks, those strange devices that had curved edges and pricked your tongue. We were Stieff disciples, and even owned an upright piano made by another branch of this celebrated Baltimore family.

It's local blasphemy, but I liked the sign atop the Stieff building more than I liked its rival, the Domino Sugars one on the harbor, even though the Domino sign had it all over Stieff for kilowatt dazzle.Dating from the 1920s, the Stieff sign is far older than the 1940s Domino electric beacon.

I'll ever associate Stieff silver with the smell of the lace tablecloths that got pulled out of the sideboard for special

occasions. Just as the semi-musty cloths were closed up in storage for long periods, so was the silver. Not to mention the stale salt and pepper that got clogged in the fancy silver-topped cellars.

Throughout my life in Baltimore, I've witnessed vigorous after-dinner discussions about the merits of Stieff flatware over its competitors, Samuel Kirk and Schofield. People bashed one product, praised another.

Silver brought up other discussions too. How silver was once inexpensive but that it was hard to get during World War II. Or spirited accounts about which family brigand had made off with what set of silver, or who was the favored sibling and therefore received the preferred silver butter dish, water pitcher or salad fork.

There is no disputing that Baltimoreans treasured their hometown silver and went to great lengths to hide it from thieves. They hid it in all the places that good burglars know to look -- in closets, under beds, behind books.

For a blue-collar city that was ever a week late and several dollars short, our reputation as a center of fine silver production did impart a cachet. In the glory days of Baltimore manufacturing, we produced pretty ordinary things -- steel plates, fertilizer, bricks, men's pajamas, electrical insulators, steam boilers, straw hats, umbrellas and paint thinner. But the silver that appeared on Thanksgiving dinner tables was strictly out of this league. It was our prestige export.

One reason Baltimoreans grow so misty-eyed about their silver is the sheer emotional hold of the precious metal. Nobody bought flatware like it was a sofa or a topcoat. Silver came for weddings and anniversaries, for special occasions.

I still have the Stieff silver cuff links given me for my high school graduation by my longtime neighbor, Dorothy Croswell, at Stieff's old showroom, on Howard Street opposite the city's line of department stores. I think of Dorothy each New Year's Eve when I battle a formal shirt with starched white cuffs.

Her gift has served the test of time. They were one of many silver tokens -- butter knives, letter openers -- she showed up with over the years. She understood that these objects would never be chucked out.

Dorothy never married, but she selected a silver pattern and paid for her utensils with a curiously thrifty method. She would save dimes on the coin-holding cards that banks used to give out. When she got enough (maybe $8), she would buy a single piece. One by one, she added to her treasured set.

One favorite family story, told again and again, concerned the woman who lived on 29th Street facing old Oriole Park.

In the early morning hours of July 4, 1944, the wooden grandstands burned down in a spectacular blaze. The woman fled her home and stood on the sidewalk clutching her insurance policy and her Stieff silver. Then, after a few minutes, she let out a terrified cry. She'd forgotten her baby, asleep upstairs.

Pub Date: 10/24/98

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