Virginia Jefferson spent the past 65 years putting her customers in the dark. As the proprietor of an old Baltimore awning company, it was her role to spread the shade on the hottest of summer afternoons.
About to turn 89, she is retiring and selling a business founded by her father in 1917. This week, she will leave an office that has never seen a computer and the desk where she has worked since 1946.
She'll surrender her electric typewriter, carbon paper and ledger books filled with the names of the 500 people who have relied on her to screen their homes under one of her tentlike, custom-tailored enclosures supported by pipes and lashed with ropes.
"She made a beautiful awning. You could always tell a Jefferson," said Bryan Loane, who owns a competing business and is acquiring hers. "It had a distinctive scallop edge, which was almost proprietary. They hung perfectly straight and were evenly balanced."
Last week, he toured her cavernous workroom tucked behind rowhouses in the 1600 block of E. Federal St., between Bond Street and Broadway in the Oliver community. He studied her inventory of fabrics, her cutting tables and sewing machines in a setting that is part sailcloth loft and part dressmaking salon. It is a place out of another industrial age, where the floors slope and a winding wooden staircase joins the two floors.
"It's a funny thing about awnings," Loane said. "People who didn't grow up with awnings don't know the benefits of them. A lot of characters still want awnings. They want them because of their function, or that they look good, or they just feel their house should have them."
The bulk of Jefferson's business comes from residential customers who want a porch or patio shaded by yards of an opaque fabric stretched across a metal frame.
She proudly showed off her inventory of striped and solid color fabrics, machines that punched grommet holes and a high loft that held window awnings. She displayed a machine that filled porch furniture pillows with stuffing, left over from the time when her customers outfitted their porches with seasonal decor. She also found the templates used to create the distinctive scallops on a Jefferson awning.
She calls the sewing room Alice's Palace, named after Alice Vaughn, a sewing machine operator who cuts the heavy fabric and runs an industrial-grade sewing machine. She presses a treadle to install the grommet holes for the ropes.
Bolts of fabric line the second-floor sewing room. One side holds a bank of extra-strong Singer sewing machines with needles tough enough to pierce sailcloth. Another section of the building is the storage loft, where her customers store their custom-made awnings when not in use.
Her firm, L.E. Jefferson, was founded in Waverly on Greenmount Avenue in 1917 by her father, Leonidas E. Jefferson, who had been the manager of the old Stewart & Co. department store drapery workroom. A decorator by training, he knew every stitch of the slipcover, curtain and awning field.
"He was good at theater curtains," she said. "He wasn't afraid of heights and was good at his work."
The Jefferson family moved the workrooms to East Baltimore in 1950 and kept a showroom at the southwest corner of 31st Street and Greenmount Avenue for a number of years.
"My father paid $8,000 for this building, land and all," Jefferson said of her Federal Street building. "It was an old veterinary hospital. We had to rip out the horse stalls before we could set up shop."
She joined the family business in 1946, after graduating from Eastern High School five years earlier. As a young woman, she worked for a lumber company and for the Army at Fort Holabird. She credits her Army training with giving her the skills to become her father's office manager. She was the voice customers heard when they called to schedule their annual awning installations. She also broke the news that their old awnings needed replacement.
"I never sewed," she said. "But I do all my own paperwork. We cater to service. We are a little old-fashioned but our customers wouldn't have it another way."
She worked alongside her brother, Lorenz Jefferson, until his death in 2002.
Over the years, she watched styles change and air conditioning arrive. She keeps track of the restrictions that communities such as Homeland and Mays Chapel place on awnings — they are allowed but the color must conform to a standard. Baltimore has retained a preference for a shade of bottle green, Loane said.
Her day begins at 7:30, when she drives to Federal Street. She leaves most afternoons by 1:30.
"I am going to turn 89 and decided it was time to leave," she said. "Maybe I'll have the time to get to a DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution] meeting."