Newcomers to the Woman’s Industrial Exchange might walk right by it. On a corner of North Charles Street, a newly redeveloped thoroughfare of downtown Baltimore, it’s easy to miss the recessed entry and subdued signage.
The women the Exchange was first created to help in 1880 would have liked it that way. Their handmade crafts were put on sale in a store, thereby allowing the women to remain anonymous while earning money.
“It was not considered ladylike to go to work,” says Treena Moore, who sells buttons she makes at the Exchange.
Today the organization continues to help women, especially those who are needy, achieve financial stability.
The Exchange splits sales revenue 50-50 with the 80 consigners who sell wares at the shop, but increases the proportion to 70-30 for low-income women and today, also men.
The organization is working with local nonprofits to develop more formal ways of reaching out to women who could use business training. It teaches basic entrepreneurial skills to women who sell goods through the store. Some didn’t even have business cards or use the Internet when they started out.
The organization took in $142,000 last year—$65,000 from consignment sales, $53,000 in donations (mostly from foundations), and the rest from renting parts of its building. The Exchange’s redbrick home, built in 1815, was a boarding house until the late 1990s.
By then, women had plenty of ways to join the work force, so such Exchanges were no longer very relevant and many of them across the country were shut down, says Kathleen Water Sander, a former board member and author of The Business of Charity, a book on the Woman’s Exchange Movement.
The need for expensive building repairs led the Exchange in Baltimore to start a fund-raising campaign in 1997; $1.2-million was raised for renovations. The organization now rents out seven market-rate apartments and two restaurants, the newer of which serves retro recipes from the eateries run by the Exchange in its earlier years.
“The Exchange was so famous for their lunchroom, and their old-fashioned food,” says Ms. Sander. “Lemon-meringue pies, the tomato aspics, the chicken á la king. Anything with calories, they served.”