With its aura of being displaced from an earlier time, the Abell Room of the 117-year-old Woman's Industrial Exchange seems the ideal place for a talk on family history and genealogy.
The Abell Room has the look of being decorated by a turn-of-the-century Baltimore eccentric, with the ceiling unaccountably covered with wallpaper patterned with Eastern song birds, a gallery of photographs of generations of working women and a portrait of an early president watching over it all from above a townhouse mantel.
Standing before high, white-curtained windows overlooking Charles Street, Robert Barnes, a congenial genealogist, cautions that genealogy may be addicting.
"Let me warn you now," Barnes says. "This is a never-ending process. Genealogy is something you never finish, never quite complete."
Somebody is always getting married and adding a new branch to the family. Another child is born, adding a new generation. Another great-great-great-grandmother is found, opening a new line of ancestors.
Barnes is president of the Baltimore County Genealogical Society. He is the first presenter in the Wednesday Lunchtime Speakers' Series, the first-ever lecture program at the Woman's Industrial Exchange, an institution established in 1882 during a national post-Civil War movement to "encourage and help needy women to help themselves by establishing a sales room for Women's Work."
The movement remains one of the oldest volunteer institutions in America. And the Baltimore Exchange is probably the nation's oldest branch. It moved into this building at Charles and Pleasant streets in 1887.
The sales room on the first floor still offers lovely hand-sewn children's clothes, quilts and afghans, dolls and dollhouses, scrumptious cakes, cupcakes and turnovers, and the traditional and venerable sock monkey.
The chicken salad
"I love the Woman's Industrial Exchange," says Ann Manger, a retiree from the state Department of Social Services. "I've often had the chicken salad and tomato aspic."
That would be "Baltimore's best chicken salad," which has been served in the Exchange's lunchroom for generations, along with a menu of plain, tasty, wholesome, healthful food any Mom could love. In fact, the clean, well-lighted dining room seems to attract men and women whose mothers first recommended the W.I.E. And it's probably the last place in Baltimore you can get aspic every day.
Ann Manger is one of seven people who have come to hear Barnes talk, six women and one man in a flannel shirt, jeans and boots.
Eugene Daily, 48, has popped in from Charles Street where a Department of Public Works crew is checking a gas leak. He's on his lunch hour.
"I'd like to know what my family history is," he says. "My wife's family name is Joyce. She can trace her relationship back to James Joyce."
And his mother's family traces its history to kings in Lebanon.
"Like he said, you build up your family, but you don't know how to back it up."
Barnes says that, as the motto of real estate is "Location! Location! Location!" the motto of genealogy is "Documentation! Documentation! Evaluation!"
He hands out family charts and a checklist of sources and a sheet of frequently encountered problems. And he explains that you start by talking and recording the memories of your kinfolk and work on through libraries and archives all the way up to the Library of Congress and the National Archives.
You might find some things passed down you didn't expect, he says.
"In my 60 years my mouth has been known to get me into trouble," he says. "I found my great-great-great-grandfather had put an ad in the Maryland Gazette to apologize for rumors he had spread about somebody."
The Abell Room wherein he's talking is named for Elizabeth Abell, who was the Exchange board president for about 30 years just after the turn of this century.
"She ran the first fund-raiser to save the Exchange in 1917," says Diane Coleman, the executive director. "The room was opened about that time as the first ladies tea room."
The new Wednesday Speakers' Series is part of the attempt to emulate Elizabeth Abell and keep the Woman's Industrial Exchange relevant and viable through the turn of the 21st century.
Lunchtime Speakers' Series
What: Woman's Industrial Exchange's free Wednesday Lunchtime Speakers' Series.
Where: Woman's Industrial Exchange, Abell Room, 333 N. Charles St.
When: Noon-1 p.m. on occasional Wednesdays.
Next: March 31, Kirsten Coffen, a landscape architect, will talk on creating a landscape design that "fits your budget"; June 9, Frank Shivers, the nonpareil downtown tour guide and author of "Walking in Baltimore," will talk about the Civil War; June 23, Gary Franklin will discuss African-American genealogy. Pub Date: 3/25/99