Backstory: Mansberger was a 'connoisseur of historical junk'

Arthur G. "Whitey" Mansberger, one of Baltimore's great collectors and dealers of what he called "old stuff" for more than 30 years, was mentioned last week in Jacques Kelly's column.

I became acquainted with Mansberger in the early 1970s, through Earl Arnett, who was then a Sun feature writer.

Earl said that Mansberger was a character, and he wasn't kidding.

He proposed a lunch at the now-gone and much-lamented Schellhase's Restaurant on Howard Street, to talk about the bundles and bundles of old City Hall papers, mainly canceled checks, that Mansberger had purchased for $50 from a foreman overseeing restoration of the building.

It turned out that the restaurant had been a favorite of Whitey's, who was of German heritage and an able trencherman when it came to the challenge of putting away a steaming plate of the restaurant's signature sauerbraten and red cabbage.

When I arrived, I thought Whitey was a traveler from an antique land.

Here was this man dressed in a suit and vest over which a gold watch chain stretched with great ease, wearing a skimmer straw hat (worn year-round) tipped at a rakish angle that would have certainly pleased Maurice Chevalier.

He wore a beautifully starched white shirt with gold cufflinks, and his carefully tied necktie was held down with a beautiful diamond horseshoe-shaped stick pin.

His wide smile was framed by a pair of thick, Barry Goldwateresque glasses, which made his eyes appear larger than they actually were.

He was, from the first moment we shook hands, a very amiable and friendly man, and when he spoke, could have been Jimmy Durante's double.

What concerned Whitey that afternoon were the 40 bags of paper that he had rescued from City Hall. He wondered why such valuable material would be bound for the landfill.

He brought a few samples along, which he gave to me and Earl, and I had to admit they were interesting. It was also very obvious that he had done some historical research into his booty.

They were documents that had all the flourishes of a 19th-century engraving style.

Large, swirling signatures in black ink, now faded to brown, of the authorizing signatory were elegant examples of 19th-century nib and inkwell penmanship.

"Look at this," Whitey said with great enthusiasm. "This is from a smallpox epidermic when the city would go to a house and pay a family who had a smallpox victim for their linens and clothes that were collected and burned in order to stop the spread of the disease."

"Don't you mean epidemic, Whitey?" Earl politely asked.

"Yeahhhh, ep-id-em-ic," he carefully intoned, and then the three of us roared with laughter at the verbal gaffe.

When Whitey got excited, which was often when he was talking about his beloved "old stuff," his mind worked faster than his tongue, explaining his occasional fractured syntax.

He was right: There was a lot of raw history in those yellowing old papers. Whitey then produced a stack of checks made out to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

In those years, Baltimore solved its problem with homeless people by giving them a $10 check made out to the B&O for a ticket that would take them out of town.

He even had the canceled check that paid for the 51/2 yards of black crepe used to drape City Hall after the death of Gen. Robert E. Lee in 1870.

It was very apparent in Whitey's paper detritus that there were lots of historical nuggets covering the daily mundane functions of the city.

I forget now what that final disposition was of the papers, but several visits to Whitey's bungalow in Edgemere convinced me that he was the real thing.

Whitey's modus operandi beginning in the late 1950s and continuing through the 1960s and 1970s was to arrive on the scene before the wrecker's ball and salvage what he could.

Old theaters, hotels, schools, mansions and old houses were his playground.

Whitey's tastes were wide-ranging. He'd go after building interiors, woodwork, stained-glass windows, door knobs, paneling, shutters, flooring, fireplace mantels, winding staircases, Italian marble, chandeliers; about the only thing he didn't take were the shingles and chimney from a building's roof.

"When I leave a house, there ain't much left," he told The Sun in an interview. "I didn't want to see anything destroyed. I'd give it away before I see it busted up."

The yard of his home and his garage were filled with this material, as I remember, carefully stacked and arranged in order for potential buyers.

I remember as we walked along inspecting his treasures, he was carrying a ring filled with jangling room keys from the recently demolished Emerson Hotel.

The keys had a room number on one side and on the reverse was stamped: "Drop In Nearest Mailbox. Postage Guaranteed."

"If I did that, who'd pay it?" I remember Whitey saying, with a big laugh.

Inside his home were curio cabinets and corner cupboards jammed with china figurines, books, dolls, porcelains and other treasures. He also had several pump organs stashed along the wall.

"I like old stuff," he told The Sun in a 1969 interview. "I like history, that's why I'm a poor man. I learned history rather than arithmetic."

Whitey counted among his many customers restaurateur Frances W. Haussner, herself no piker when it came to collecting.

Whitey had the energy and stamina of a middle-aged man, even though when I knew him he was in his 80s. Until retiring in 1964, he had worked for 40 years at Sparrows Point, where he had been a Bethlehem Steel inspector and firefighter.

He stacked cord after cord of wood for his fireplace until he was 95, and only stopped driving when he hit the century mark.

When Whitey turned 100, I was invited to his party, which was given by his son, Glen Mansberger, at his Essex home.

Whitey, who loved popular music from the 1920s and 1930s, at one point in the party decided to serenade well-wishers with a little vaudeville soft-shoe: his rendition of "Baby Shoes."

I can still hear Whitey singing the song's refrain.

"Baby shoes, baby shoes, Mother will never forget them, you have forgotten when your feet were bare, Mother remembers, she still has a pair."

There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Whitey was 103 when he died in 1999.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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