Believe the stories your elders pass down.
Do not doubt the truths of the senior generations. I once doubted a story I had heard as a child but disregarded as being just a corrupted version of the real thing.
As a child in the 1950s, I listened to my family members praise the fabulous toy stores that Baltimore had. My father related the fall arrival of the new Lionel trains and colorful catalogs at French's on Baltimore Street near the Arena. My mother gushed about a little emporium called the Party Shop on West Saratoga Street near Park Avenue.
Then Great Aunt Cora chimed in, "But nothing was as great as the old Schwarz store on Charles Street."
You can only imagine her extreme disdain and put-downs of the chain toy stores that were arriving in Baltimore at that period.
In Cora's version of what constituted an excellent toy store, the Schwarz shop in the 300 block of N. Charles St. was a treasure house of Old World doll houses, lead soldiers, miniature villages, stuffed animals, wind-up Titanics and fragile bisque dolls. Its chief ornament, of course, was Mr. Schwarz himself -- courtly, courteous and ready to serve.
Cora, not too long out of Eastern High School, was working for the Western Maryland Railway in its accounting department. She said that every evening she dropped in at the Schwarz shop and bought a miniature chair or small doll for her niece.
This act seemed a little too much to believe. Even in a household where all the children were spoiled, a toy a day seemed too kind.
Then came Cora's final line. Not only was Schwarz's the unequaled toy shop of the ages, but it was also superior to the fabled F.A.O. Schwarz store in Manhattan which was run by the same family. When I heard this story -- and it was repeated often -- I thought the old girl was really dipping into the exaggeration bin too deeply. F.A.O. Schwarz seemed as much a part of New York as the Empire State Building.
Baltimore, I thought, didn't have a claim on that store.
Now, some 72 years after one Gustave Schwarz closed his Charles Street shop, the facts emerge. Aunt Cora was dead-on accurate. Baltimore was first in the Schwarz toy trade.
The tale goes like this:
The Schwarz family, headed by one Henry, was from the German area of Westphalia. He emigrated to the United States just before the Civil War and initially settled in New York. There's a story that he didn't like the city, traded a piece of property in lower Manhattan for a piano and moved to Baltimore.
Henry Schwarz went into a partnership in a toy store here with another German named Schwerdtmann. By 1872 that union was over and Schwarz was off and running on his own. "The assortment is the most complete ever assembled in this city and imported especially for this market," his Christmas 1873 ad copy stated.
After a time, his brothers sailed from Germany and joined him in the business. There were G.A. Schwarz, who opened a store on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia; F.A.O. Schwarz, who chose New York; Richard Schwarz, who traded on Washington Street in Boston.
Soon, Henry Schwarz's Baltimore Street shop was the most celebrated toy store in the city. The family went on buying trips to the great toy markets in old Nurenburg and other cities.
They brought back all the specialties of the day -- the dollhouses, push carts, rocking horses and hand-carved Christmas garden villages. The goods arrived in Baltimore at Locust Point via the North German Lloyd steamships each summer.
"These German toys were noted for their finished workmanship and the same thoroughness prevailed in the manner of packing. . . . No serviceable material was thrown away by Schwarz; the cord and string was wound in balls and used for mending dolls," said a 1932 Sun article on the master toy seller.
Henry Schwarz died on Oct. 11, 1903. His son Gustave, who had a long dark beard that resembled that of a Russian czar, kept the business. The shop, damaged in the 1904 Baltimore Fire, lasted until 1922. The F.A.O. Schwarz store in New York, now operated by Henry's nephews, flourished.
The name Schwarz did not completely disappear from Baltimore, though we did spell the name wrong. Schwartz Avenue and park, off the 6300 block of York Road (adjacent to the Pinehurst neighborhood) is named for Henry Schwarz's summer place on Bellona Avenue near Gittings Avenue. His winter address was 904 N. Fulton Ave. in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.
The chain of F.A.O. Schwarz toy stores, by the way, returns to Baltimore this month. A branch is opening in Towson.