If necessity is the mother of invention, then pumice stone is one of its humbler children. A porous form of lava, it is used in solid and powdered form as an abrasive. Any East Baltimore housewife could have told you that once upon a time, if she looked up from her Saturday morning scrubbing of the elegant marble steps leading to her modest, two-story rowhouse.
But as those housewives expired, or moved to the county, such domestic expertise also vanished. Few folks remembered that it took pumice and rubbing powder and warm water to clean white marble. The once lustrous steps leading to plain but immaculate rowhouses in communities throughout Baltimore turned dull and grimy. And a tradition as unique to East Baltimore as painted screens and window bricolage slipped from the city's memory banks.
Now necessity has given birth to a new, mercifully unimproved product guaranteed to make those steps sparkle once again. It's "Baltimore's Marble Step Cleaning Kit," which made its debut last night at Cafe Hon in Hampden. The kit is the joint inspiration of city planners at the Neighborhood Design Center, a non-profit group that helps stabilize city neighborhoods, and a funding friend at the Morris Goldsecker Foundation.
David Collins, director of the center's Neighborly Places program, demonstrated his prowess with pumice last night on a slab of marble. (There are no marble steps in Hampden.) Pumice, he noted, creates more friction than a brush and is more effective. Soon the white marble shines through the dirt.
"I can see that it's becoming cleaner in a short amount of time," he said in infomercial style.
"You can keep it as white as you want," he told the audience. "It's up to you."
The idea for the kit all started with a block-beautification event in August sponsored by the center on North Luzerne Avenue near Patterson Park. There, Collins had offered a primer on marble step scrubbing. With a pumice stone, Bon Ami (a good substitute for rubbing powder), warm water, wash cloth and plenty of elbow grease, Collins transformed a grubby set of steps into a palatial threshold.
"It was amazing how clean it got," said Collins, who has worked at the center for nearly a year. The gleaming results elicited plenty of "oohs and aahs" from the crowd, he said. Subsequent newspaper coverage of the event also elicited a flurry of calls from rowhouse dwellers keen on cleaning their steps.
When Collins and colleagues mentioned the demand for marble step cleansing materials to Sally Scott of the Goldsecker Foundation, she suggested that a kit would be a fun way to promote home improvement and city lore. It was an "off-the-cuff" remark, but "we ran with it," said Mark Cameron, director of the Neighborhood Design Center. "It's not about nostalgia; it's about something real."
So Collins resumed his marble step scholarship, gleaning information from rowhouse experts such as Mary Markey, a curator at the Maryland Historical Society, and co-curator of the "What Makes Baltimore Bawlamer?" exhibit at the now-closed Baltimore City Life Museums.
Collins located pumice stone sources at monument companies and learned that rubbing powder, a loose form of pumice, is in scarce supply. He also discussed marketing possibilities with Mary Pat Andrea, owner of Hampden's Hometown Girl, purveyor of items related to Baltimore .
The kit concept was right down her alley. As a marketable local product, it's a natural, Andrea said. "It is such a perfect match. It's one of those things that there's a renewed interest in, especially as younger people are moving into older rowhouses without their grandmother present to tell them how to [clean their steps]."
Like Collins, Andrea sees the cleaning process as one of the "kinds of small rituals that underlie the stability of a community."
She also impressed upon Collins the need to include a historic narrative in the package to provide value-added meaning to the task. When it becomes available at Hometown Girl in February, the kit will contain instructions, history and marble-step related literature from Baltimore's own Ogden Nash, Mary Carter Smith and H.L. Mencken, as well as travel writer Frances Trollope.
They are "such a symbol of the city," said Collins of the steps, which added a touch of luxury to hundreds of monotonous red-brick rowhouses built in East Baltimore late in the 19th and early in the 20th centuries
He estimates that the cleansing package will sell for about $10, with proceeds split between Hometown Girl and the Neighborhood Design Center. "We're doing it in a very homespun way." In other words, Collins will assemble the kits himself.
Collins has become quite adept at cleaning marble steps. "Depending on how dirty the steps are, it's a good workout," he said. "But I can't imagine doing it in a full housedress."