Another January, and the annual “great re-start” opportunity for each of us. The time for putting New Years’ resolutions in play—"out with the old, in with the new.”
I recently found myself perusing an old, local newspaper from January, 1914 and saw that a popular department store in downtown Frederick seemed to be practicing this mantra to a “T” as they were promoting a yearly clearance sale. Much like our popular county fair, the importance and scope of this event even included the adjective “Great.”
The peculiar family name of this mercantile establishment is no stranger to Fredericktonians as it has been here since our earliest days. The business, itself, carried on through three generations overlapping two centuries, and is commonly known to many local historians and history buffs.
Of course, clearing out inventory at Christmas and years-end is a goal of most businesses, anticipating new fashions and improved products. The Doll Brothers’ Department Store on North Market Street was something to behold. Whenever I think of it, my mind conjures up a giant dollhouse as a play on the German surname “Dohld” which was anglicized along the way to the English “Doll.”
Speaking of dollhouses, in the heyday of this business, there was a three-act play that gained attention and it was called A Doll’s House, written by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It premiered at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark on December 21st, 1879, having just been published earlier that month. The play is set in a Norwegian town circa 1879.
Although having no close parallel to Frederick whatsoever, the play is significant for the way it deals with the fate of a married woman, who at the time in Norway lacked reasonable opportunities for self-fulfillment in a male-dominated world. This point stood paramount, despite the fact that Ibsen denied it was his intent to write a feminist play. It aroused a great sensation at the time, and caused a "storm of outraged controversy" that went beyond the theatre to the world of newspapers and society. More recently, in 2006, the centennial of Ibsen's death, A Doll's House held the distinction of being the world's most performed play in that year.
A movie version of the play appeared in 1917 and starred the famed actor Lon Chaney, known for starring roles in such silent horror films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Of course, I first heard his name as it was mentioned in Warren Zevon’s 1978 smash-hit song “Werewolves of London.” Chaney's ability to transform himself using his own makeup techniques earned him the nickname "The Man of a Thousand Faces.
I did find mention that Ibsen's play was the center of a dramatic reading at the City Opera House in February, 1914. The woman who did the honors was a talented actress named Madame Harriet Labadie.
I could only imagine if either of the Doll Brothers, Charles Joseph Doll or younger sibling Roger Allen Doll, were in the audience that night in the building we call Brewer’s Alley Restaurant today? Whether they were or were not, their fabled store was only a stone’s throw away.
To give a history on these brothers and the business they ran as third generation operators, I found my answer in T.J.C. Williams’ History of Frederick, Maryland (published 1910). It featured biographies on these brothers, as well as their father (George Joseph Doll) and grandfather (Ezra Doll). Ezra is said to have started the dry goods business.
A search in old newspapers provided me with a very bizarre article about the death of the brothers’ great-grandfather, Joseph Doll (b. 1748) and regarded as an Associator (a member of volunteer military association) during the American Revolution. Mr. Doll was apparently the unfortunate victim of a lethal bolt of lightning and his macabre death was eloquently told in the Republican Advocate newspaper of Frederick in their June 7th, 1805 edition.
Now for the biography on the Dolls found in Williams' History of Frederick County:
“The Doll Brothers, comprising Charles J. and Roger A. Doll, are the proprietors of the leading department store in Western Maryland, located at No. 205-9 North Market Street, Frederick, Md.
Ezra Doll, the grandfather of Charles J. and Roger A. Doll, was for many years a merchant in Frederick City. He was descended from one of the earliest settled families in Frederick County. It was in his store that G. J. Doll, the father of the members of the above firm, received his first practical insight into mercantile methods. He evinced exceptional aptitude for his chosen pursuit from the very outset, and for over forty-five years was one of the most successful merchants of Frederick. He directed the affairs of his establishment with an ability, foresight and sagacity that stamped him as a man of high executive capacity and rare mercantile acumen. To his forceful personality was due much of the prestige and prosperity attained by him, and he became widely prominent in mercantile circles as one of the ablest and most representative men identified with that branch of industry. A merchant of the old school, whose business methods were characterized by the highest principles, he commanded respect and confidence of business and financial circles generally.
I couldn't find much more on Ezra other than he dabbled in politics, and owned property (10 and 12 East 5th Street from 1825-1838) in town. He also owned farms outside town with part of Bear Den (Worman's Mill vicinity) and another property on Old Annapolis Road. Jacob Engelbrecht recorded the death of Ezra Doll in his famed diary on Thursday, September 29th, 1842:
“Died yesterday morning in the 43rd year of his age Mr. Ezra Doll of our vicinity, farmer, son of the late Joseph Doll, Junior, & son in law of the late George Zieler. Buried on the German Reformed graveyard.”
Ezra Doll's body would be removed to Mount Olivet from the German Reformed graveyard (today's Memorial Park) at the time of his wife Harriet's death in February, 1886. Both are buried beneath a sizeable monument in Area C/lot 170.
George Joseph Doll was only 14 years old when his father died in 1842. He had to grow up fast to assist his widowed mother and younger siblings. The 1850 census shows the Dolls living in downtown Frederick. George is referred to by his middle name "Joseph" and is working as a cabinetmaker. His brother Samuel would follow in this trade based at the Doll residence confirmed to be on the southside of E. 2nd Street between Market and Middle Alley as mentioned earlier.
Williams' History of Frederick County says the following about George Joseph Doll:
“G. J. Doll was a native of Frederick County, where he was born in 1829, and died in 1895. In politics he was a Republican, and a Union sympathizer during the Civil War. In religion he was an active and consistent member of the Lutheran Church. Fraternally, he was a member of the Masons and numerous other organizations. Mr. Doll was married to Elizabeth Wisong. They were the parents of nine children, eight of whom grew to maturity: Ellen Virginia, the wife of L. P. Sheerer, of Charlotte, N.C.; Elizabeth W., unmarried, of Frederick City; Charles J., of whom presently; Melville E., office clerk for Doll Brothers; Henry W., employed by the Baltimore Bargain House, Baltimore, Md.; Roger A., of whom presently; George J., in the employment of the Frederick City Brush works; and Frank A., deceased.”
George J. Doll originally went into business with a man named Caleb A. Anders (1828-1888). The earliest advertisements for this partnership were from the summer of 1857. By spring of the following year, Mr. Doll was the sole proprietor. He had quickly built up his reputation after opening his mercantile store of dry goods and groceries. In other pursuits, George J. Doll was quite active with the Junior Fire Company, and possessed musical talents to lead their company musical group named "the American Band."
The Civil War would captivate the minds and lives of Frederick residents over the next half decade. It would also impede commerce and regular business as well. Ironically, I found an advertisement from 1860 in which Mr. Doll was touting extension skirts fashioned by "Southern Belles," although he would prove to be a steadfast Union man. He did not serve in the military because of his business standing, but the Mr. Doll's business was slowed during the period. He also had a large family to tend to as well during this turbulent decade. George J. Doll bought the property that is now 205-207 North Market Street in 1863, the site of his successful store.
George J. Doll bought the house currently sitting at 11-13 West 2nd Street in 1872 for his home (his heirs sold it in 1909). Like other successful businessmen, he had a country home as well. George owned the property originally known as Mount Prospect and later as "Cronise's Prospect" from 1868 to 1872. This is known as "Poff's Prospect" today and is located at 11530 Auburn Road, just south of Springfield Manor on the west side of US 15 north of Frederick west of Lewistown. At the same time, he also owned a 13-acre mountain tract. Mr. Doll also bought a 446-acre property known as "Surry" on the Woodsboro Turnpike in 1893 which his heirs sold in 1910.
George J. Doll did a great deal to improve his business, including a major renovation in 1875. His son Charles Joseph Doll would join him in business around this time at the age of 16.
I couldn't determine who the gentleman, or brother, referred to with the firm's name of G. J. Doll & Bro. in the late 1860s and early 1870s. However, I did find that a few years after the store renovation, it came time for George to groom his heir apparent in the form of his oldest son, Charles Joseph Doll. This occurred in 1889. The firm's name was changed to G. J. Doll & Son at this time.
(Williams' History) “Charles J. Doll, of the firm of Doll Brothers, was born August 14, 1859. In politics he is a Republican, and is a consistent member of the Lutheran Church. He is a director of the Farmers’ and Mechanics National Bank of Frederick. Mr. Doll was married to Mary L. Cramer, of Frederick City, who is descended of an old and respected family of Frederick County. They are the parents of two children: Frank A. and Marianna.
Roger A. Doll, younger partner in the firm of Doll Brothers, was born October 26, 1873. He was married to E. L. Sanders. There is no issue by this marriage."
Just a few years after his official retirement in 1893, George J. Doll passed at the age of 66 on December 1st, 1895. The official cause of death was paralysis from Brights Disease. He would be buried in his father's extended lot in Area C/Lot 172.
Charles and Roger did their father proud and continued to grow the business into the 20th century. The Williams' history continues with a vivid description of their triumphs:
(Williams' History) "In 1893, Charles J. and Roger A. Doll established the present firm of Doll Brothers, at the stand of their father. The business was a success from the start, and continued to grow until their quarters became inadequate and a new building was erected by them in 1906. The edifice is a handsome three-story brick structure, 38 feet in width and 100 feet in depth, finished in hard oak and hard oil finishing. In the construction and design of the building, and adaptation to business, there is evinced an amount of care and study down to the smallest details that is truly remarkable. The first floor is devoted to dry goods, dress goods, notions, etc.; the second floor to carpets, rugs, mattings, etc.; also, ladies’ suits, cloaks, waists and other things in that line. The third floor is for reserve stock. The building is electrically lighted, and the pneumatic tube cash system is used. The firm carries the largest stock of its kind in Western Maryland, and Charles J. Doll, who does the buying, makes weekly trips to Baltimore in order to keep their stock constantly refreshed.”
The firm would continue to prosper in the decades to follow, but a tragic event would occur in 1930. After a lengthy and relaxing vacation in Atlantic City, Charles J. Doll would return to work in the family store, but not for long. On July 2nd, 1930, Mr. Doll apparently became distraught over the death of close friend and fellow Frederick merchant, D. Columbus Kemp. He would surprisingly take his own life on this very day sending shock waves through the community.
Another sad part of this story gleaned through recent research came in finding that Charles' wife, Mary (Cramer) Doll had to endure the tragedy of suicide of loved ones twice in her life. Her father, also a noted businessman in town, took his own life in a similar manner as her husband back in November of 1893. His name was George William Cramer.
Roger Doll would take over the family business with assistance from Charles’ son-in-law, Alvin H. Crawford, Sr. who had married Marianna Doll. Mr. Crawford had been made a partner back in 1924.
However, just over a year beyond Charles’ death, the firm called it quits.
Roger would enjoy his retirement. He eventually died in 1958 and would be buried in the same lot on Area T as his brother and business partner for all those years.
Parsons Store, under the direction of I. Manning Parsons, Jr., would take the place of Doll Brothers in 1931 and had a very successful run in its own right of 53 years. Alvin H. Crawford, Sr. was retained as manager for Parsons Store. I found the old newspapers filled with ads for Mr. Parson's business. I was particularly impressed with ads from the 1950s in which he touted his establishment being entirely air-conditioned.
In 1984, next-door neighbor Connie Cook (of Connies) purchased the building and business from Mr. Parsons. Today the old Doll Building is home to a "home goods store" called Creme de la Creme. Looking at photographs of this latest endeavor online, it's easy to imagine and envision the Doll Brothers Store of a century ago and more.
From the street or sidewalk outside, one can look high atop the north side of the structure (and next door neighbor Bushwallers) and faintly make out the word "cloaks" within the advertising message painted on the facade for Parsons. This message covered up an earlier one for Doll Brothers, or perhaps just the store owner's name was all that changed. What a great business legacy this "dollhouse" has had.