Cabinets of Curiosities

Vanessa White seems pleased as she stands on the sidewalk outside of 1028 South Charles Street in Federal Hill assessing the window display of her store, Vanessa Vintage Treasures. She usually changes the arrangement of Victorian lace, 1960’s Lucite bangles, and whimsical ceramic plant holders, among other gems, every eight days or so. “I don’t want to be the slob of the neighborhood; your window is your calling card,” she proudly states. “I always like for it to look like a painting.” But inside, she strives for it to have the feel of “your grandmother’s living room” and, indeed, it does. 

It’s a cozy space, one that has similarities to a small museum: the material culture of different time periods jumbled together and, yet, separated from the outside world of nearby bars and their sports-enthusiastic patrons. A dozen cabinets line the walls, illuminated with Christmas lights and all full of unique jewelry from the late 1800s to the 1980s, with piles of textiles, antique dresses, hats, and handbags displayed in between. In the back, there is a large collection of old-fashioned kitchenware that, while still functional, also serves to spark childhood memories of making cookies with mom, or setting the table with granddad. 

“I’m firmly convinced that your childhood shapes your life,” White says. Her childhood was spent right here in Federal Hill, or what was once simply known as South Baltimore. “I love Federal Hill—warts and all. It was always integrated; it was a nice, safe area,” she says. When her parents, who both came from the South, met in the 1950s in South Baltimore, they wanted their children “to have a better life than they had as poor Southerners.” At one point, the family lived on Lee Street, next to where the Royal Sonesta is now and where, when she was 5 years old, rainy weather would bring the edges of the harbor up to their front door. 

White’s mother is to blame for her love of clothing and all things vintage. “She wanted her daughters not to grow up and have to be a maid, like the women of her generation,” she says. As a child, her mother would buy bundles of clothes for White and her sister at the Salvation Army on West Montgomery Street, where they once also lived. Each time they went, White could choose a couple pieces of jewelry from a big can, pieces that remain in her personal collection today. “This is when my love of old stuff grew,” she says. Around the same time, White started sewing clothes for her dolls, and when she showed her parents, they bought her a sewing machine. She has been sewing ever since: “If I was a wealthy woman with absolutely nothing to do, it would be sewing,” she says. “I love to sew.” 

When White was a teenager, her mother worked as an office cleaner to make extra money, bringing home the “fashion magazines that people discarded.” As a result, White developed a deep love for fashion and couture designers, a love that took her to MICA in the 1970s. She studied art history, fashion, drawing, and painting, and also worked in the costume shop of the Maryland Ballet. After college, she continued with a part-time job she had at the Hippodrome, while sewing professionally on the side. A client asked White if she wanted to work in a vintage shop on South Charles Street. She started her own shop in that same location in the early 1990s with her own inventory and $100 that a friend lent her. “I remember my first gas and electric bill. I think it was $25—we will never see those days again,” she says. “I think I still have it somewhere; I’m going to put it in a frame.” 

Last year, Vanessa Vintage Treasures moved from that original spot two blocks north to its current location. “If I don’t go crazy before December, I’ll be going into year 24,” she notes. 

White does not often wear jewelry from her collection, referring to her style as “minimalistic.” 

“People who see me and don’t know that I do this, they would never suspect that I was an antique dealer,” she says. “People still put you in compartments. They always assume that I am a nurse, a teacher, a maid, a singer—I don’t know why because I cannot sing—or the traditional roles they see African-American women doing.” 

But to those in the know, White is a formidable antique dealer, receiving calls about purchasing collections and working with several scouts who do the hunting for her. Still she does most of the work herself. Over the years, she has amassed an impressive collection and sells hard-to-find pieces to dealers from other cities. 

But she doesn’t forget her role in the neighborhood, as is clear when a neighbor and longtime customer comes in, not to buy anything, but to introduce White to her niece and to tell her to have a good weekend. Before they leave, the woman says, “Have you ever noticed how beautiful her windows are?” White smiles.

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