From the vault: Scrubbing Baltimore’s white steps

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How one artist recaptured Baltimore’s lost tradition of scrubbing the white marble steps.

Before it was “the city that reads,” Charm City was known for its staircases. “Baltimore is known far and wide as the city of white steps,” The Sun reported in 1947. A 1913 story proclaimed “No other city in the country, perhaps the world, has the universal white marble steps as Baltimore has.” The white steps were peculiar not only for their uniformity and their ubiquity, but because “they are always so dazzlingly white.”

“Sometimes blindingly so,” recalls Allan Starkey, 74, who scrubbed the white steps of two homes in Baltimore as a child, one in Northeast Baltimore and the second in Highlandtown when his family moved. Once a week, typically Saturdays when he was off school, Starkey broke out a bucket, some Spic and Span, and maybe some steel wool, and got to scrubbing. “Sometimes you had to use a little more elbow grease,” he says. The whole process took around 20 minutes. When he finished, he’d receive his allowance (about 50 cents) – and the satisfaction of a job well done.

There was a time when the scrubbing of one’s marble white steps was seen as practically a religion in Baltimore. In 1963, The Sun reported that every week, “like devoted worshipers, a crusade of kneeling women armed with scrub buckets and soapstone act out the ritual of their row.” In earlier years, people cleaned them up to once a day, perhaps even more. If cleanliness was next to godliness, then gleaming white steps were the path to redemption and middle-class respectability.

“There was a sense of pride in how clean and snowy white you kept your steps,” Starkey says. “It just made for an attractive appearance in a row house that otherwise had no distinguishing feature.”

Though the tradition — or religion — of regular step washing has all but died out in Baltimore, some have tried to bring it back.

One was artist Megan Hildebrandt, who spent one year going door-to-door in East Baltimore, dressed as a 1940s housewife and bearing a bucket and some Bon Ami, offering to wash people’s steps.

Hildebrandt, who now lives in Michigan, laughs at her younger self. “I was just walking around like stupid Cinderella just walking around knocking on people’s doors.” But the practice – which she did for three hours every Saturday before heading to work at the Walters – “gave me a way to talk to people.”

Some people slammed doors in her face, some thinking she wanted money. Others offered constructive criticism. One Patterson Park resident named Annabelle, whom Hildebrand describes as “the matron of the neighborhood” – was horrified by her scrubbing technique, and instructed her on the correct, circular motion, which Hildebrandt then adopted.

As Hildebrandt kept scrubbing, conversations naturally began flowing. Residents shared memories of having washed their steps as children — and then, just as universally, not continuing the tradition.”People remembering doing that as a child, and not remembering when they stopped or why they stopped. There was kind of this category of conversations – the women and the children and they all had to do it every Saturday, people remembered their mothers doing it and they hadn’t told their children to do it.”

Then there were a few others who stood out. Hildebrandt remembers a veteran who had recently returned from Afghanistan and had just purchased his first home.

“And he really wanted to know exactly how to clean it. And he was very – ‘Am I doing it right?'”

Hildebrandt says those were the best moments.