History & Politics

Scrubbing Baltimore’s Marble Steps Was My Very First Job

Some kids have a paper route. Others shovel snow. But marble step scrubbing in Highlandtown goes a long way back in my family.
—Illustration by J. Marshall Smith

Marble step scrubbing goes a long way back in my family. So, it was no surprise that it was eventually my turn. I know that on my mother’s side, everyone from my great-great-great-grandmother on down all lived in Highlandtown. And they all had marble steps. To not scrub them would have been like walking around with the scarlet letter “S”—for scrubbing—embroidered on their house dresses.

My Polish grandmother, Stella Wojciechowski, was out there every single Saturday morning, scrubbing her steps on Gough Street until you could practically eat off them. Her marble steps looked so good, in fact, that she wouldn’t let us come in the house through the front door. Seriously. We had to go up the little alley next to her home and come in the side door. God forbid we tracked dirt onto those steps.

You would think that Stella, whom I called Busia (pronounced “bushy,” which is what Polish Americans called their grandmothers), would have had the nicest steps that side of Patterson Park. But my grandmother had a nemesis. He was a little neighborhood dog.

Stella liked dogs and even had one herself. But hers didn’t pee on her front steps. “God-dammit! That little bastard pissed on my bottom step again!” she would scream regularly when we were there. I never got why she just couldn’t just keep washing it off. Instead, she actually had my grandfather, John Wojciechowski, remove the bottom step.

Last time I drove through the neighborhood, I could still see the outline in the cement where the step once was. How she thought that made it all look better, I will never know.

Baltimore has been renowned for its white marble steps for more than a century. A 1913 Baltimore Sun story read, “No other city in the country, perhaps the world, has the universal white marble steps as Baltimore has.” It went on to say that the white steps were peculiar not only for their uniformity and their ubiquity, but “because they are always so dazzlingly white.”

At the time, the marble came from the local Beaver Dam quarry and was used to make everything from Baltimore’s iconic marble steps to the George Washington monuments in the city and in Washington, D.C. According to The Baltimore Sun, the marble “was among the purest, whitest marble ever mined in the United States.” The cost then was about $4 per cubic foot.

But the price went up, and by the end of World War II, local builders stopped using the “best” marble and instead used cheaper kinds from Georgia. Some even began using (gasp) bricks to make steps while cutting costs.

When I was nine and ready to make some money—but not old enough to babysit—I did what most girls in my Highlandtown neighborhood (now considered Brewers Hill) did: I scrubbed white marble steps each Saturday morning.

Thinking back today, I can still hear the sounds of step-scrubbing: the scritchy-scratchy whisking sound the scrub brush made on the steps, the swoosh of the rag across the step, and the splash of the rag going into the bucket. If it wasn’t raining or freezing, I was out there. If you washed steps when it was too cold, ice particles would start to form on their surface, which could make the owner of the rowhome potentially slip, fall, and die (at least in my kid’s mind that’s what would happen)—and I knew that just wasn’t good for business.

Despite what Baltimore nostalgia dictates, I did not use Bon Ami. I scrubbed using whatever the person had at home—usually Comet, in the tall, grass-green canister, or Ajax, in the blue canister with red letters.

My husband says that my memory is so good that if Jeopardy! had a Tournament of Champions for everything that no one else remembers, I would be its all-time reigning star. Yet, I can’t remember the first time I scrubbed steps. I’m guessing they would have been my mom’s steps at my childhood home on Foster Avenue. Our home gave me the best lesson in scrubbing: Not only did we have marble steps, but the vestibule was made of tiny black and white marble tiles, and there was even a second marble step that led from the vestibule into the house.

There was also marble on the front of the house, including one long piece that spanned the home under the gigantic front window, one on each side of the small basement window, and another piece that again spanned the house under the basement window. Above all that—classic Baltimore Formstone, of course.

I was expected to scrub all of that marble. When you’re a third grader that’s a lot of work. All for the handsome sum of a dollar bill. (Before you think me a sucker, know that the year was 1977, and back then, you could literally buy penny candy. If I wanted, I could have gone to Cass’s corner store, bought 100 pieces of candy, and been in the process of rotting all the teeth out of my head by nightfall.)

I was an entrepreneur even back then. Scrubbing my mom’s steps wasn’t enough. I soon branched out to scrub more steps, including those of my other grandmother, Theresa Brooks, her next-door neighbor, Miss Bertha, and Emil Goetz, a widower who lived right across the street from us.

Every Saturday, I would come home with $4 burning a hole in my pocket.

My friend Julie did even better. She scrubbed five or six sets of steps every weekend. Occasionally, I’d get some folks who would have me scrub steps for one summer or when their regular scrubber was off or away. But I never hit that pinnacle of six regular sets.

Without a doubt, the most exciting week of the year was when Sacred Heart of Jesus would hold their annual carnival—back then, it was the week after July 4th and ran from Thursday to the following Saturday, for a total of 10 days. That’s when Goetz would give me $2 so I would have more money to spend at the carnival. I felt rich!

Scrubbing steps isn’t rocket science, although over the years, folks have asked what’s the proper way to scrub them. Well, in addition to never using Bon Ami, I also never used a pumice stone. My step-scrubbing arsenal consisted of warm water in a metal bucket, a wooden scrub brush, a rag, and whatever cleanser the client preferred to use.

I’d kneel on the step below the step I was about to scrub. Or, as I got taller, I could kneel two steps below. Dip the rag in the bucket of water and get the top of the step nice and wet. Sprinkle cleanser on it. Plunge the scrub brush into the bucket, and then begin using all the power your little nine-year old arm had to scrub, scrub, scrub…

If someone had marble across the whole house front, you didn’t have to scrub that, per se. I could get away with running the wet—and now completely soapy—rag across it. It’s also how I cleaned the sides of the steps. Again, no scrubbing needed, unless there was dirt on it.

The worst time to scrub steps? In the early spring. You were scrubbing off all the dirt, goop, and salt from the winter. It usually took longer, but I didn’t get paid more.

And where did I put the dirty water when finished? Well, you couldn’t bring that mess into the house, as folks would say. I dumped it into the gutter out front and watched the suds swirl as they ran through the sewer grate. (Remember, it was the 1970s. Environment? What environment?)

When I tell those of a younger generation about scrubbing steps, their eyes glaze over. I might as well have told them I was a charwoman in the Victorian period or a maid emptying the chamber pots of royalty.

Just as I don’t know when I started scrubbing steps, I’m not exactly sure when I stopped either. I know I scrubbed them through age 11. Perhaps I even went to 12. But I’m sure I stopped at 13—because I had become an annoying teen and that just wasn’t cool. Plus, I could babysit.

Although I no longer live in a home with marble steps, to this day, when I see dirty ones, I think my eye twitches—just a little bit.