ABOUT THIS TIME of the year I'd make a trip to the Artisans, a little gift store on Hamilton Street just south of the Washington Monument. There sat the estimable Ada Straus, who owned the business and conducted the interrogations that accompanied a visit there.
I was in search of a piece of china for my mother's birthday. Not just any china, but the Royal Copenhagen pattern she loosely collected and stored in a corner cupboard in the family dining room. After Ada and I caught up on all sorts of gossip, the vegetable dish or whatever got wrapped in a silver box and I left her store satisfied that I had my required present.
Birthday gifts - any gifts for that matter - could be a difficult proposition in my family. On the one hand, my family never demanded anything, at all. But woe if you showed up without something, something precisely fitted to the wants and interests of the birthday honoree.
A piece of china in a certain pattern fit the bill. So did silver, silver made only in Baltimore. I think of the trinity of local makers - Samuel Kirk, Stieff and Schofield, which ruled the city years ago. I can still recite their factory addresses, Kirk on 25th Street, Stieff on Wyman Park Drive, near 29th, and Schofield on Charles. When you walked past these workrooms, you could actually hear the craftsmen banging away on the precious metal.
In my lifetime, no dinner china was made in Baltimore. It came from out of town and involved a specialist's knowledge of patterns and varieties, plus a geography of which store handled what line. But, as gifts go, the right platter could slam a big hit at a party or family gathering - providing you bought the right style, not a duplicate, thank you.
My mother's Royal Copenhagen was actually beautiful china, blue and white, and rather exotic compared to the normal stuff found in the other china closet in the old Guilford Avenue home. One of the competing china patterns was a wonderful pattern, too, made by the English firm of Wedgwood. The pattern's name was Killarney and dated from the 1920s, when my grandfather took a job in Florida.
In those days - and do not ask me why - you traveled with your own china. My grandmother actually bought quite a bit of Killarney and shipped it South in barrels filled with flour. When the Florida business was over (being a native Baltimorean, she hated being out of town) she came back with her Wedgwood. But the trip home in the railroad baggage car had been rough; a number of pieces were cracked.
As pretty as the Killarney was, its maker, Wedgwood, yanked it out of production. You just could not buy it any more. So, we had other sets, a nice little set of Royal Doulton and a huge Limoges service decorated with daisies. This time, my grandmother doubled her order so it would never give out, no matter how many extra people showed for a birthday, Thanksgiving or Christmas.
One of the toughest patterns that got dished (Literally. I can recall lengthy discussions of china, its maker, cost, reliability and look) was Cowslip, made by the English potter, Spode. Cowslip is a flower and that was what adorned these plates and teapots sold at the old Baltimore firm of Lycett on Charles Street, not too far from the Woman's Industrial Exchange.
Our Cowslip honoree was Aunt Dorothy, also known as Dorothy Croswell, a dear family friend who also appreciated the occasional bread-and-butter plate. This china was sort of rare,too; it meant a special trip to a certain store and chances were, they were out of whatever piece cost what you wanted to spend. I recall the state occasion when Dorothy finally got the teapot. I think it cost $50, a lordly sum.
But a gift of the right salad plate worked wonders at a birthday celebration. It brought smiles to the face, just as the guests were launching into their third slices of mocha cake, homemade, according to a recipe more complicated than all the china on Charles Street.