THE NEWS that the fabled F.A.O. Schwarz toy business has filed for bankruptcy, in the middle of the gift-giving season, makes me think of some of the champion toy givers in my life.
As a child, I heard incessantly about the Schwarz house of toys, but not the one in New York near the Plaza Hotel. Ours was on Charles Street near the Woman's Industrial Exchange.
What I remember came from my great-Aunt Cora, who before her marriage worked for the Western Maryland Railway in downtown Baltimore. Cora's days in the office were brief, but the work got her out of the house and gave her a little spending money, which she used to buy her infant niece (my future mother) a toy - daily, if the story can be believed. To hear Cora tell the tale, she would walk home along Charles Street and drop into this fascinating toy bazaar presided over by a member of the Schwarz family and pick up a small German doll or piece of dollhouse furniture for my mother, then her only niece. (There was a strong aunt-niece attachment there, one that only ended in Cora's death, 32 years ago this month.) It turns out Cora was absolutely right about the Schwarz store of yesteryear. Baltimore was first in the Schwarz toy trade. The Schwarz family, headed by one Henry, was from the German province 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 advertising copy stated.
Henry's brothers also sailed from Germany and joined him in the toy business. G.A. Schwarz opened a store on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. Richard Schwarz traded on Washington Street in Boston. Frederick August Otto Schwarz - F.A.O. - chose New York.
Henry's Baltimore Street shop became the most celebrated toy store in the city. The Schwarzes went on buying trips to the great toy markets in Germany. They brought back the specialties of the day: dollhouses, pushcarts, rocking horses and hand-carved Christmas garden villages. The goods arrived here 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 Oct. 11, 1903. His son Gustave kept the business and apparently made quite an impression on Aunt Cora. The shop, damaged in the 1904 Baltimore Fire, lasted until 1922. The F.A.O. Schwarz store in New York, meanwhile, flourished, at least until recently.
The name Schwarz did not 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) are named for Henry Schwarz's summer place on Bellona Avenue near Gittings.
There was no Baltimore Schwarz store around when I was a child, but its influence strongly affected my mother's buying habits. Both she and my father appreciated fine toys, often made by artisans in the deeper reaches of Germany. German-made toys were a huge part of the American sales market up through the 1930s.
And when I came along in the 1950s, those toys were still available, often in old-fashioned shops, the kind of retail establishments my mother would have held in high regard. I recall the Party Shop on West Saratoga Street, with its illuminated glass cases of dazzling precious wares. Lycett, on Charles Street, was another shop that could have been at home in a European high street. And didn't Hutzler's, Hochschild's and Stewart's pride themselves on the small lines of exclusive European wares they carried?
This time of the year I like to slip away to Read and Tyson streets in Mount Vernon, where Anne Smith has an antique shop and toy museum. There, Thursdays through Saturdays, she displays a knockout collection of vintage toys seemingly lifted from the pages of a 1905 Schwarz catalog. Her private museum puts me in mind of those days, half a century ago, when I would walk along Charles Street and press my nose against the shop windows.