Taste of a decade: 1910s restaurants

Like the decade following World War I, this was an eventful period in the development of the restaurant. Social and economic changes favored the growth of eating out. Even before the U.S. entered the war in April of 1917 restaurant patronage was on the rise and by the following year the Food Administration, under the direction of future president Herbert Hoover, estimated that more food was consumed in restaurants than in homes.

It was a schizophrenic decade. It opened with an accent on the high life but ended in austerity mode. Luxurious cabarets and “lobster palaces” of the early decade would sink into oblivion near its close. But at the same time urbanized speed-up and intense modern work regimes inclined people to seek more outlets for pleasure. Increasing numbers of single male and female white-collar workers in cities abandoned the old home-based courtship tradition; the new custom of middle-class dating brought a search for entertainment and swelled restaurant going. With better public transportation and the feminization of downtowns, more and more women patronized tea rooms and restaurants in and around department stores.

Due to growing sentiment against drinking, the saloon free lunch was on the skids by mid-decade. State-wide prohibition spread and the majority of the nation’s population soon lived in areas where the sale of alcohol was illegal. Saloon keepers remaining in the larger cities saw that their days were numbered and began to take out restaurant licenses. Authorities suspected that many of the restaurants did not actually serve meals but just wanted to evade laws which forced saloons to close on Sundays. Nevertheless, the trend would increasingly become genuine and bars would be turned into lunch counters and soda fountains.

In a tight labor market accompanied by Food Administration conservation measures that discouraged frills, most of the new restaurants were lunch rooms of the self-service type. In them customers avoided tipping and enjoyed lower prices for simple ready-to-eat meals.

American involvement in the war encouraged anti-ethnic sentiment, particularly toward Germans. Many restaurants took steps to appear more American, such as changing their names. Patrons expressed a wish to see menus with no French or other foreign terms. With the sudden end to European immigration, culinary labor unions took the opportunity to strike for shorter hours and higher wages. Frequently restaurant owners responded by replacing striking male waiters with women, who were believed to be more docile.

Highlights

1910 Measured as a ratio of restaurant keepers to total population, the nation’s top five restaurant cities are: 1) Seattle (1:434); 2) San Francisco (1:449); 3) Los Angeles (1:560); 4) Kansas City (1:580); and Manhattan (1:583)*. Los Angeles claims the reason for so many restaurants is its wealth of tourists and single men.

1911 Until legal counsel advises this would be a discriminatory misuse of police powers, the Massachusetts Legislature bandies about the notion of making it illegal for women under 21 to enter Chinese restaurants.

1912 New York City’s first Horn & Hardart Automat opens. – Speedy service is prized even at Casebeer’s Lazy J Cafeteria in Waterloo, Iowa, where the slogan is “One minute service – We don’t waste your time.”

1913 The diary of an executive secretary in NYC shows her eating in restaurants over 100 times during the year, including her first-ever restaurant breakfast. Among her favorites are Childs, Schrafft’s, The Goody Shop, and The Vanity Fair and The Rip Van Winkle tea rooms.

1913 NYC’s cabarets and “lobster palaces” such as Murray’s, Martin’s, and Shanley’s, formerly open all night, take a hit as the mayor orders 1:00 a.m. closings.

1914 Despite earning only $5.85 a week, a woman working in an Ohio playing card factory spends 30% of her food budget on restaurant meals, most costing 25 cents.

1915 An exact replica of a white-tiled Childs lunchroom is featured in a scene of a Broadway play directed by David Belasco.

1916 On one short block near Boston’s Newspaper Row, twelve restaurants serve 40,000 meals daily. – In the novel The Thirteenth Commandment a young couple gets engaged after a “a typical New York courtship [in which] they visited restaurants of all degrees.”

1917 Although the managers of Chicago’s Bismarck Hotel station an American flag at the entrance to the dining room (the Berlin Room), it is damaged by dynamite just a few months after the U.S. enters war with Germany. — The Kaiserhof Cafe in NYC changes its name to Cafe New York.

1918 Restaurants place glass on tabletops to save linens and laundry for the duration of the war. They remove sugar bowls, take cheese dishes such as Welsh rarebit off their menus, and feature more hors d’oeuvres, fresh vegetables, salads, fruits, seafoods, and organ meats.

1919 In response to labor agitation, restaurant men organize and hold the first National Restaurant Association convention in Kansas City MO. – Louis Sherry announces he will close his deluxe Fifth Avenue restaurant due to hardships imposed by Prohibition and “Bolsheviki waiters.”

* By comparison a recent NYT story reported that the U.S. city with the highest number of restaurants per capita is San Francisco, where the ratio is 1:227. NYC is 1:347.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1850 to 1860; 1860 to 1870; 1870 to 1880; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970

4 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

4 responses to “Taste of a decade: 1910s restaurants

  1. Donald

    I found the 1910 and 1920 Restaurant-ing through history. Are there any more for other decades?

  2. I’m really glad I have found this info. Today bloggers publish only about gossips and web and this is actually annoying. A good website with exciting content, this is what I need. Thank you for keeping this website, I will be visiting it.

  3. EB

    I love this post! I always thought this time was such an interesting one for restaurants.

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