Alexandria’s merchants and their shops along King Street and neighboring streets have always been a major influence in this port city - “Artifacts, Advertisements and Archaeology,” Barbara H. Magid
In the 1960s, urban redevelopment in Old Town Alexandria took away every historic and older building along the 300, 400 and 500 blocks of King Street. In its wake, a handful of bronze plaques were erected there, a seemingly over-wrought homage to the elected officials and developers who were involved in the dramatic remake of downtown Alexandria.
Ironically, other than one for the Marshall House, which does not mention its business aspects, no markers have been put up to pay tribute to the businesses that once lined these three blocks in the heart of the historic district.
One such establishment was Shuman’s Bakery. Folks who grew up in Alexandria or came from parts nearby will tell you many a wonderful story about this culinary institution. At a long table in the back of the dining room, businessmen and politicians lunched, blew cigar smoke and drank sodas.
Most famous of all, however, were Shuman's legendary Jelly Cakes. These diamond-shaped morsels satisfied sweet tooths in the seaport city for over 100 years. Even the Queen of England (Elizabeth, then Princess) nibbled on the thin-layered cake lined with red-currant jelly.
After losing its prime location in the late 60s, the family-run outfit moved to the corner of South Washington and Wilkes streets. After closing down in 2004, Shuman’s reopened in 2010 for call-in and on-line sales only.
I sat down with Patrick Hagan, great-great grandson of Louis P. Shuman, the family patriarch who established Shuman’s Bakery in 1876. He recalled memories of the bakery and restaurant, told me stories of the family and customers, and provided an update on a possible transition to a brick and mortar operation.
Louis P. Sherman, the son of a German immigrant who settled in Alexandria in the 1830, opened up a bakery on Fairfax Street in the country’s centennial year of 1876. Sometime in the 1880s, the family patriarch moved the operation two blocks up to The Marshall House, which stood at the southeast corner of King and South Pitt streets (now the Hotel Monaco).
This photo Hagan gave me (taken c. 1890) shows Shuman, to the right, arms crossed. In the middle, the young lad is his son and future partner, Louis E. Shuman (passed away in 1912). The family believes the lady behind him is Louis P.’s wife, Maggie Sullivan Shuman.
While located at the Marshall House, the Shuman’s sold chocolates, candies and other confectionary items. They lived above the bakery. Family members were born the building that had become famous for the “Marshall House Incident” during the Civil War.
Around 1905, the bakery moved one block up to 516 King Street. James H. Devaughn had built the four-story brick building in 1855. The bakery settled into a nearly 70-years stay at this spot, now occupied by the plaza entrance to the Alexandria Courthouse.
Shuman’s Jelly Cakes became de rigueur for birthdays, weddings and holidays. Its unique food product, reputation as a “third space,” and proximity to offices and other business on the busy commercial strip made it one of the city’s most popular places.
Louis P. brought in his nephew, Aubra Shuman, who along with Louis E.'s wife Molly Shuman owned the bakery after Louis P. passed away in 1919.
After Louis P. Shuman passed away in 1919, Aubra N. Shuman, his nephew, and Molly Shuman, the wife of Louis E., owned the bakery. The Alexandria Retail Merchants Association posthumously awarded Aubra their “Retailer of the Year” award for 1956. His obit (Feb 6, 1957) in the Washington Post noted he had sent Queen Elizabeth of England one of the Jelly Cakes. It turn, she sent him some ice cream molds.
In the 1950s and 60s, parts of Old Town Alexandria, some said, were getting too old. Initially, planners targeted over a dozen blocks worth of businesses on King Street and homes on adjoining streets. Lonny Marchant, grandson of Aubra and co-owner of Shuman’s from the 1960s to 2004, fought back. Many homes and buildings were saved, but as mentioned previously, the entire swath of 300 to 500 King, including Shuman’s at 516 and beauties such as Lannon’s Opera House and the Classic Revival Mechanic’s Bank, were not.
516, noted for its “great architectural simplicity,” was torn down in 1969. After a brief period of closure, Shuman’s, under the leadership of Marchant and wife, reopened about a half-dozen blocks away at the corner of South Washington and Wilkes streets. An article in The Post (Stephanie Mansfield, Aug 21, 1978) spoke of its continuing popularity. A long-time regular lovingly called the bakery, “the sans souci of Alexandria.” All good things must pass, however, and the end of the storefront run came to and end in 2004 when the Marchants retired.
Ask ten people in Old Town about Shuman’s and their jelly cakes, and not all will respond with an oh yeah. The ones who do are loyal customers and some have posted their comments at the Shuman’s website. Typical are ones like this one from Shirley Foster.
I grew up in Alexandria and my grandmother lived in old town. Every Christmas we had a jelly cake from Shuman’s. There are a few memories that stick with me and your jelly cake is one of them.
Jelly cake sounds like it would be heavy and too sweet. Quite to the contrary, a bite softly melts in your mouth. Instructions come with the product. The cake can be cut into bite-size diamonds or larger wedges. Powdered sugar is included. Many have frozen the cake and enjoyed at a later date.
“Some of my first memories,” he said, “are going in with my Mom. There’s a unique smell, a mixture of baked goods and breakfast. The jelly cake has a secret spice.”
Hagan and his family partners are contemplating a possible transition to a brick and mortar location. For now, sales will continue on-line. Shuman’s will ship or deliver, or you can pick up at Alexandria Cupcakes, at 1022 King Street. Hagan emphasized that while sales do increase during the holidays, they are always selling.
The City of Alexandria is planning to erect a series of four-sided historical markers along King Street (late summer, early fall?). History buffs like myself hope places like Shuman’s will be included.
If not, there’s always the memories, the photographs, and their legendary Jelly Cakes.