Category: Legacy Businesses

Volunteer Spotlight: Richard Messick

All of our core programs at Baltimore Heritage rely on volunteers to plan them, organize them, and run them. We’d like you to meet some of these great people, and so we’re starting a series called Volunteer Spotlight to share a little about those who are helping us make a difference. 

Our first Volunteer Spotlight features Richard Messick, who has been volunteering with Baltimore Heritage since 2014. When he began working with us, he was first tasked with captioning photos and editing articles for our website. Then Baltimore Heritage received a grant for the Legacy Business Program, and Richard jumped in. To date, he has identified, researched, and written articles on 10 Legacy Businesses that have operated in the city for a century or more. Richard also fabulously leads our tour, Catacombs, 100-Year Vendors and History at Lexington Market, and is a volunteer docent at Evergreen House. 

In addition to our gratitude for all of Richard’s work, here’s what one happy tour participant recently said after taking Baltimore Heritage’s tour at Evergreen: “I recently took a friend to the Xmas tour of Evergreen. It was a first experience for both of us and one not to be missed by anyone interested in art, architecture or design. Our guide, Richard Messick, was excellent and knew the house backwards and forwards.” 

Read the below Q&A session to get to know a little more about Richard.

 

Q: How did you get involved with Baltimore Heritage? 

A: I grew up with Andrew Colletta, a Baltimore Heritage board member, and we cut our tour-guide-teeth exploring Baltimore together. We would take visiting friends on our “Funky Balmer Tour,” a circuit of hidden gems around the city that always ended with a deli stop. Andrew first told me about Baltimore Heritage. 

In fact, Andrew and I became friends because of our mutual love of exploring. Baltimore is our home town. I was born in Baltimore, at the old St. Joseph’s Hospital when it was at Caroline and Oliver Streets. 

 

Andrew (seated, middle) and Richard (seated, bottom) at the Street Car Museum emulating a scene from the recently released Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Also shown are a museum docent (standing, top) and Richard’s brother, Roger (standing, right).

Q: How long have you lived in Baltimore?

A: Besides an 11 year hiatus elsewhere, I have spent my whole life in Baltimore. Both parents were born and raised here. 

Q: Where would you recommend new Baltimoreans go to learn about the city? 

A: Highlandtown would probably be my first stop because its where so many ethnic mixes got their start. It’s still a wonderful mix of ethnicities and still a place to enjoy a variety of foods and meet different people. Food is the start in terms of getting to know another culture.

Q: Favorite Baltimore Heritage tour? 

A: The Gargoyles tour

Q: What’s your favorite place in Baltimore? Why? 

A: The Basilica because the architecture is sublime.

Sanctuary, Basilica of the Assumption (Library of Congress)

Q: Favorite hidden gem? 

A: Evergreen [House]. It has a rich history and is filled with art—Asian ceramics; Japanese netsuke; 20th century paintings, sculpture, and art glass.

Q: What about Baltimore doesn’t get enough attention? 

A: The legacy of slavery in Baltimore. Since I have delved into it, I have been amazed at what I don’t know. I have never considered the enormous market for enslaved people in Baltimore and Maryland during the 19th century. The marketing of people was very large here at that time. The change from raising tobacco to wheat in the region caused a surplus of labor, whereas the South needed more labor due to the invention of the cotton gin. Our country was built with cheap labor–indentured servants, slaves, and prisoners. We don’t give that enough attention.

Q: In one word, describe Baltimore: 

A: Worn–like comfortable old clothes. The people and places are comfortable old clothes to me. My aforementioned life-long friend thinks Baltimore suffers from an inferiority complex, which may be true. We just need to put on our Sunday best a little more often just to remind ourselves of our rich, long and diverse history. 

Legacy Business: A.T. Jones & Sons

Baltimore Heritage’s Legacy Business Program highlights the city’s businesses that have survived for over 100 years and are still going today. Just as much as our harbor and our great neighborhoods, Baltimore’s longstanding businesses are a central part of what makes our city unique.

Imagine a horde of Christmas elves attacking a chorus line of Roman legionaries. Now if you wish to film this fever-dream, go to A.T. Jones & Sons on N. Howard Street. They have a warehouse filled with costumes from any period of history.

Alfred Thomas Jones started renting out costumes in 1868. He arrived in Baltimore from North Carolina in the spring of 1861. He was there to collect a $500 prize for a painting he submitted to a contest sponsored by the predecessor of the Maryland Institute College of Art (Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts). He was unable to return to N.C., however, after fighting broke out at the start of the Civil War. So, he settled into a new life as a teacher at the art school that awarded his prize.

Jones began buying costumes as a hobby in 1868. He purchased Confederate and Union army uniforms as well as parade and masquerade ball costumes. These costumes served Mr. Jones well as he was able to rent them for masquerade balls, a popular form of high society entertainment in the late 19th century. A costume from one season could be altered and rented the next.

Perhaps the largest of the masked balls of the late 19th century was the Oriole Pageant, sponsored by the Order of the Oriole. The first of these pageants was held in 1880 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the settlement of Baltimore. The following year the society outdid itself with a three-day affair that included a parade through the city (illuminated with electric lights), concerts, a parade of boats in the harbor, and, of course, a masked ball. The B&O Railroad added extra cars to accommodate the crowds attending the festivities. All of these events required costumes, some of which were rented out by Mr. A.T. Jones.

The costume rental business included supplying local theatre companies. Many of the famous actors of the 19th century depended on the Jones family. Edwin Booth, the most illustrious of a Maryland family of actors, gave Jones some of his own props and costumes, such as a sword used in Hamlet and pound-of-flesh scales from Merchant of Venice.

The most loyal and long lasting customer of A.T. Jones & Sons is the Gridiron Club, a journalistic organization in Washington, D.C., made up primarily of news bureau chiefs. It was founded in 1885 and has been renting costumes annually since 1888 for their white-tie banquet that includes satirical skits directed at politicians and journalists. Some of the costumes for this event have been worn by John Glenn, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and news reporter Bob Schieffer.

A.T. Jones began by renting costumes for parades, pageants, and theatrical productions, as well as formal wear to young men who could not afford to purchase them. Through the next century and a half, his descendants and successors have adapted to the times and changing demands. From A.T., the shop went to his son, Walter Jones, Sr., then Walter’s widow, Lena, then their son, Walter “Tubby” Jones, Jr. The shop was eventually purchased by a long-time employee, George Goebel. His son Ehrich joined the business and has expanded the market to include opera and theatre companies throughout the United States. The inventory now includes everything from Aida to Elf the Musical.

The one costume that is of great demand every year is for Santa Claus. Ever since the first department store version of the fat, jolly, white-bearded old man made its appearance in the 19th century, there has been a run on large red suits with white trim every December. A.T. Jones is always ready to meet the demand from department stores and charitable organizations for Santa costumes.

By Richard Messick