Today's tent king sewed sails in 1815

History: Loane Bros. Inc. has survived 184 years by making frequent adaptations, whether they be in making sails, Civil War military tents, or possibly the nation's first awnings.

August 22, 1999|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

The desk Bryan Loane sits at belonged to his father. His file cabinet, to his grandfather. But the company he heads, Loane Bros. Inc., is rooted much further back in his genealogy -- and Baltimore's history.

The family business, now a $3 million-a-year party tent rental and canvas awning company, started out in 1815 as a sail maker's loft on Bowley's Wharf at the Inner Harbor.

In the 184 years since Bryan's great-great-great-grandfather, Joseph Loane, began producing canvas sails, the company has survived by adjusting and refocusing, abandoning the production of sails, shifting to canvas awnings and, later, party tents.

"We have just transitioned with the times," explained Bryan Loane, 36, president of the company since 1993. "When one market was dying, we looked for another one."

Though the company bares little resemblance to its beginnings, there is something about a modern Loane Bros. tent that calls to mind the canvas sails of Joseph Loane's generation. About the way, when it's going up, the tent catches the wind and billows up and out from the poles.

"Thar she blows," one crew member yelled as he helped to set up a white vinyl tent in Baltimore County recently.

Such generational blurs are easy to imagine when talking about Loane Bros. In the company's various incarnations, there has been hardly a part of the history of this city -- or this country -- that the company has not in some way touched.

After the War of 1812, Joseph Loane produced canvas sails for the famous Baltimore clipper ships.

According to family legend, Joseph's son Jabez manufactured the first awning in the United States in the 1830s after seeing one in the background of a French print.

During the Civil War, the company provided canvas tents and flags for Union troops.

In October 1875, it decorated City Hall in red, white and blue bunting for its inauguration.

As Americans began to travel westward to settle the frontier, the company manufactured the canvas covers for the Conestoga wagons.

At the 1927 centennial birthday festival of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Loane Bros. provided the huge grandstand tent.

During World War II, the company made canvas gun covers for B-52 bombers and decorated Liberty Ships for their christenings at the harbor.

But through the years, the company, called J. W. Loane & Son by Jabez Loane in 1840 and renamed Loane Bros. by his sons at the turn of the century, has kept afloat by focusing on its three main products: sails, awnings and tents.

After immigrating here from England, Joseph Loane had a prosperous business making and designing sails, including those for the Baltimore clipper ships. The speedy Baltimore clippers helped develop the city into a premier American port.

But after the invention of the steamship cut demand for sails, awnings -- strung on ropes and poles around porches, windows and doors -- eventually replaced sails as the company's primary product.

"It was really the only way to keep a home cool and Baltimore is pretty hot," Bryan Loane said.

But awnings, too, fell victim to advances in technology, decreasing in popularity as air conditioners became common. (Awnings account for 12 percent of Loane Bros.' business today.)

It was not until the mid-20th century, under the leadership of Bryan Loane's father, E. Morgan Loane Jr., now retired chairman and chief executive officer, that Loane Bros. charted its current course.

"My father is the one who decided to make pretty tents that would just be rented for parties," Bryan Loane said. "Before, if people wanted a party tent they'd have to call Philadelphia."

Breaking company tradition and dismaying his father, E. Morgan Loane made a tent out of white canvas instead of khaki. And, responding to the debutante party business, he began to offer tent accessories -- lights, dance floors and decorative linings.

Considered the oldest tent rental company in the country, Loane Bros.' inventory includes more than 400 tents (in clear, white, yellow/white stripes, red/white stripes, green/white stripes and pink/white stripes, and a variety of sizes), 1,800 tables, 3,000 place settings and 7,000 chairs. It employs about 40 people as office staff, awning makers, inventory maintenance and tent crews.

The company primarily serves the Baltimore region, but occasionally provides tents to parties as far as New York.

Its sales are increasing by about 15 percent a year, so when the decision was made to leave its former Union Avenue location in Hampden in March, the company opted for more space in Baltimore County and moved to the Pulaski Business Park in Middle River.

Still, many things about the company have not changed over the years.

"There are lots of traditions here, different mind-sets about the way we've always done things," Bryan Loane said.

Although the company seldom manufactures its own tents anymore, and the tents it rents are made of vinyl instead of canvas, canvas awnings are custom-designed and hand-made.

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