Category Archives: history

Farm to table

farmtotableWashingtonMarket

We might imagine that in the past the food served in restaurants was grown or raised fairly close to where it was consumed, perhaps that it came from farm to table without delay. Undoubtedly this was true in much of the 19th century when sellers brought their produce as well as live animals to city markets. [NYC’s Washington Market above, ca. 1850s]

Also, some 19th-century restaurants obtained fresh foods directly from farmers and hunters. A Detroit proprietor solicited suppliers with an advertisement in 1861 that said, “Farmers, hunters and others with game of any kind will please call upon William Carson, Carson’s Dining Saloon.”

Yet people living in cities still longed for food grown and raised in front of their eyes. They loved vacationing at country resorts that grew their own food. In 1858, for example, a typical notice appeared in a Baltimore paper about The Seven Fountains in the Blue Ridge Mountains where “The Table is abundantly supplied with Vegetables, Butter and Milk fresh from our own Farm and Dairy.”

Dairy products were perhaps the least satisfactory foods for city dwellers who did not keep their own cows, mainly because of the threat of sick cows kept penned up in cities and fed with swill. Milk that arrived from afar also presented dangers since there was always a good chance it might not be fresh.

Dissatisfaction with the milk supply opened up opportunities for dairies near cities. In the 1870s some began to operate urban “dairy lunch” rooms which became quite popular in the following decades. Washington, D.C., was full of them. One near the Treasury building adopted a decorating scheme with hanging baskets of plants, cages of canaries, and papier mâché cow heads. In Boston, the new Oak Grove Farm café seemed almost too good to be true. A reporter admitted he thought at first it was “a con.” But the café was indeed supplied by an 800-acre farm with 150 cows, as well as hothouses where lettuce and tomatoes were grown.

farmtotableChildsBaltimore

Childs, the first sizable chain of restaurants in the US, built its reputation on its dairy farms in New Jersey. Started by six farm-raised brothers in 1889, three ran the lunch rooms while the other three managed the chain’s dairies and truck farms.

In the late 19th-century some Americans balked at the modern food system altogether. Food traveled great distances by rail, much of it ending up parked for indefinite periods in cold storage warehouses. In them it suffered from fluctuating temperatures that damaged taste and texture, as well as sometimes causing the growth of bacteria. A prominent NYC physician declared that when he ordered game in a restaurant, “I make the waiter interview the chef to make sure that no cold storage game will be sent to fill my order.”

As the century turned, people were paying more attention to where their food came from. Due to the growth of the meat packing industry, factory production of butter and cheese, improved transportation, and cold storage facilities, traditional farm industries had largely disappeared. Despite seemingly positive pronouncements such as, “It is to the modern methods for the preservation of foodstuffs that we owe in great measure the lengthy bills of fare provided by our hotels and restaurants,” many people felt food had lost something. Some had come to fear it.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 addressed impurities in food, but critics wanted more. A few years later efforts were mobilized to subject cold storage warehouses to periodic inspections, to label all food with the date it arrived, and to set limits on how long food could be stored. Foreshadowing the “Truth in Menu” laws of the 1970s, which wanted to bar restaurants from claiming that frozen food was fresh, some laws demanded that restaurants inform patrons if food had come from cold storage.

farmtotableAug1911DenverIn this context restaurants supplied by their own farms proudly proclaimed that fact. A restaurant operator in Harrisburg PA who used home-grown food hit upon a novel slogan: “Farm to face.” In Denver a café advertised that its farm food cost no more than food that had been stored. In NYC the Craftsman restaurant promised that patrons would enjoy “all the wholesome products people crave in a city” delivered daily from their farm.

During World War I, eating places linked to farms served all social classes — from the quick lunch in Flint MI that promised lower prices by “cutting out the middle man” to fashionably smart tea rooms such as “At the Sign of the Golden Bull” in Boston. Its tea room, grill room, and affiliated Deerfoot Farm store were designed by Tiffany Studios, and outfitted with Grueby tiles, Flemish oak tables, and leather benches.

FarmtoTableKolb'sSept111921Starting around 1915 and lasting into the early 1920s, a US Post Office-backed “Farm to Table” movement encouraged consumers to have farmers ship them fresh food via parcel post. Its goals were to lower food costs while aiding farmers. In November of 1919, the B. F. Goodrich company supported a Farm to Table week in which consumers were to drive to rural areas to buy provisions from farmers. At least one restaurant which ran a farm, Kolb’s in New Orleans, adopted the slogan. In the late 1920s the Miami FL chamber of commerce encouraged restaurants to buy local, arguing that it was not only healthy to serve more fruits and vegetables but good for farmers and the Dade County economy.

Although there continued to be some restaurants that grew their own food throughout the US, the movement petered out in the Depression. A 1932 correspondence course for those interested in opening a rural inn warned that growing one’s own food or buying it in the country did not pay. Instead, it advised, it was best to buy groceries, meats, and dairy products from city wholesale dealers. Greater status was attached to having foods available year round. According to Susanne Freidberg’s book Fresh: A Perishable History, in the 1930s the Schrafft’s chain listed how many miles the food they used traveled. Freidberg writes that “the makings of a vegetable salad together racked up 22,250 miles,” demonstrating “technology’s conquest of borders, distance, and seasons.”

After the Second World War, industrial food production grew rapidly as did the restaurant industry which turned increasingly to convenience food products made specifically for commercial and institutional meal service. By the 1960s frozen foods included pre-prepared heat-and-serve entrees.

farmtotablefarmhouserestaurantBanningCA

In the 1970s convenience foods became controversial as their use spread. The decade saw the advance of farm-themed restaurants using convenience foods, on the one hand, and, on the other, a growing number of restaurants and consumers rejecting factory food. In 1973 architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable expressed displeasure with “the unfulfilled promise [of] the American way of life,” one symptom of which was “the oversize restaurant menu suggesting farm-fresh succulence and delivering precooked food .” Meanwhile, even as farm-theme restaurants hung farm implements on their walls of recycled barn siding, Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and other California restaurateurs were buying produce from local farmers, leading a movement that would burgeon in the 1980s and continue into the 21st  century.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Between courses: masticating with Horace

fletcherismlargeteethCaption

Having made a lot of money in the importing business early in life, Horace P. Fletcher [1849-1919] retired and became a popular health guru known as the “Great Masticator.” He let people know how they could eat less and reduce their food budget, have better digestion, and get more enjoyment out of eating. His ideas attracted quite a bit of attention in the early 20th century.

Not that everyone agreed that chewing food to pulp – at least 30 chews according to the scientific system of Fletcherism — was how they wanted to experience the joys of degustation. Nor would everyone want to witness someone Fletcherizing.

Take oysters. Who would want to go to a restaurant with someone who chewed oysters until all that remained was pulp? And then see him remove the residue from his mouth saying, “The juice is all out of this. The stomach does not need it.” This uncomfortable moment might well take place in an elegant dining room such as at New York’s Waldorf Astoria.

fletcherismhoraceDairy lunch rooms — with their simple a la carte menus of cereals, milk, potatoes, and other starches – were his favorite places to eat. But, he often stayed at deluxe hotels and ate in their dining rooms. Throwing aside their sumptuous menus, he had no qualms at all about ordering highly irregular – not to mention cheap — meals, often omitting meat or anything resembling a main dish.

In 1904, in a hotel dining room, he ordered hash brown potatoes, which he ate with a spoon, and half a French roll. He used the other half for dessert, after pouring over it a mixture of cream and sugar he whipped together. His waiters undoubtedly got small tips but at least he gave them something to talk about for months afterward.

A lunch room repast might be something such as a leaf of lettuce with only oil for dressing, two pancakes, and a cup of custard. He drank coffee slowly, taking a sip and holding it in his mouth for 30 seconds.

In 1912 he ate nothing but potatoes for 58 days. Testing by scientists showed that his strength and endurance did not suffer as a result of his diet.

Despite his extremism – and his fondness for potatoes and candy – his stress on eating less meat, eating more slowly, and not swallowing barely chewed food may have served  his followers well. He was a hero to many people, particularly dentists who were overjoyed with his appreciation of teeth.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Restaurant-ing with Mildred Pierce

mildredpierceaswaitress

Many Americans are familiar with the story of the fictional Mildred Pierce, the mid-century wife and mother who kicks out her unemployed, philandering husband and becomes the family’s breadwinner so she can support her two daughters, especially her musically talented older daughter Veda.

Mildred Pierce was the main character in James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, the star of a melodramatic 1945 black & white film-noir with Joan Crawford, and the protagonist in a color HBO miniseries with Kate Winslet.

Lacking experience other than housewifery, Mildred turns to restaurants for work. Starting as a waitress, she builds a home-based business as purveyor of pies to restaurants, then opens a restaurant of her own, building it into a small chain in greater Los Angeles.

Although the three renditions of the story differ, they all feature Mildred’s restaurant career. Why did Cain choose this line of work for Mildred? I suspect he wanted something that readers would believe a woman could succeed in. Though I have no direct evidence, I feel sure he based Mildred’s career on that of the much-publicized Alice Foote MacDougall of 1920s fame whose success story was told repeatedly in magazines and syndicated newspaper columns. In the 1927 column “Girls Who Did,” MacDougall, then pushing 60, was headlined as “A Girl Who Never Expected to Enter Business and Who Has Become a Dealer in Wholesale Roasted Coffee and Owner of Four Restaurants.”

But – oh dear – MacDougall’s empire went into receivership in the early Depression, shortly after Mildred Pierce launched her restaurant chain. Of course most movies demand suspension of disbelief on the part of viewers, but let’s just admit that 1931 was not a favorable time to go into business. The 1935 National Handbook of Restaurant Data dismally reported that “75% of the women who open restaurants fail within the year.” Mainly, it said, due to lack of capital and knowledge of business management.

mildredpierceherrestaurarantMaybeCain, who stuffs his novel with copious details about running restaurants, must have been aware of this problem because he had Mildred, er, entertain her husband’s former business partner Wally to insure a favorable start-up. In the book she builds up to a total of three restaurants. The first, located in a house and specializing in chicken and waffles, actually conforms to the path many women of the 1920s and 1930s took starting small restaurants and tea rooms that served home-like dishes in domestic settings. Her second, a luncheonette in Beverly Hills, is somewhat believable despite being in a high rent area. Her third, on the other hand, a swanky beachside resort, is a reach.

Advancing farther on the unlikelyhood scale, the 1945 movie threw caution aside and had Mildred with five restaurants in only four years. Even the fantabulous Alice took 10 years to get to four! What’s more, all but one of Mildred’s had drive-in curb service, even though women rarely owned drive-ins. Plus, many drive-ins closed during the war because of gasoline rationing that limited driving.

Of the five restaurants depicted in the 1945 film, three are identifiable as actual restaurant locations, while the identity of the other two is unclear.

MildredpierceDoloresdrive-inInset#1 – the new Dolores drive-in on Sunset Blvd. & Horn (inset top left; movie still in b&w)
MildredPierceexteriorofRestaurant4#2 – supposed to be Beverly Hills, but location unknown and possibly not an actual restaurant at all (movie still)

mildredpierceExteriorofRestaurant3 – unidentified but appears to be a real drive-in (movie still)

MildredPierceexteriorofrestaurant5#4 – exterior shot filmed at Carl’s Sea Air on the Pacific Coast Highway (movie still on left; Carl’s postcard on right)

mildredpiercecarpenter'sGlendale1938E.Colorado#5 – Carpenter’s restaurant on Glendale & Colorado shown fleetingly (not a movie still)

The slow-moving HBO series follows Cain’s book more closely than the 1945 movie. (As in the book, there is no murder.) There are only three restaurants, all movie creations: 1) the model house from the Pierce Homes development once owned by Mildred’s ex-husband; 2) the Beverly Hills luncheonette; and, 3) a seaside estate which doesn’t look a bit like it’s in California.

In the book and at several points in the 1945 movie Mildred, who we are told comes from the lower-middle class, runs up against the upper class, always getting bruised in the encounters. As a restaurant historian, one of the most interesting lines to me occurs when she meets the snobby mother of her daughter’s boyfriend. Mildred recognizes her but forgets that she had once interviewed to be her housekeeper and was humiliated by the woman. She tries to place her, asking if she has ever been to her restaurant and the woman replies haughtily, “But I don’t go to restaurants, Mrs. Pierce.” It would have been more believable in the East, around 1900, but still an interesting comment on the unexalted status of restaurant-ing.

Cain, who was also a gourmet, an amateur cook, and a magazine food writer on topics such as “Midnight Spaghetti,” “Crepes Suzette,” and “Carving Game Duck,” befriended Alexander Perino when he was headwaiter at The Town House and suggested Perino open his own restaurant which he famously did in 1932. Restaurants also figured in Cain’s books The Postman Always Rings Twice and Galatea, both of which involve the betrayal and murder of husbands.

In Cain’s Mildred Pierce, Mildred ends up broke, restaurantless, alienated from Veda, and living with her ex-husband, both of them ready to pursue a life of heavy drinking.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Greeting the New Year

newyear1950s

For the longest time in the history of this country New Year’s eve and New Year’s day counted for very little as far as celebrations went. Restaurant-going didn’t come into the picture until the middle 19th century, and then only in a few selected places.

Charting the development of the holiday is no easy task, but one thing is clear: it was first celebrated in New York, beginning in the Knickerbocker era. Dutch communities introduced the custom of visiting on New Year’s Day. It was a home-based holiday, with women hostessing afternoon open houses with cakes, cordials, wines, and lemonade and men paying short visits.

In Boston, on the other hand, January 1 was just another day. Children went to school while adults worked, shopped, and went about their business. This pattern still held true there in the 1880s and even in 1919 Massachusetts was the only state that had not declared the day a legal holiday, although by then it was generally celebrated.

Gift giving on New Year’s was common elsewhere too, and it would appear that New Year’s day rivaled Christmas for gift exchange through much of the 19th century.

The 1850s saw an advancement in New Year’s day festivities, New Year’s eve still being mostly an occasion for rowdies to bang pots and pans in the streets. Washington DC and parts of California were beginning to celebrate with open houses and New Year’s cakes. Meanwhile, in New York City there was diminished enthusiasm about New Year’s. An editorial in the New York Herald complained of drunken men stumbling from house to house while hostesses had to put up with obnoxious strangers barging in. “They break the crockery, deface the plate, spoil the carpets, spill wine upon the ladies’ dresses, and altogether make beasts of themselves,” raged the writer, while the “lower million” brawled in grog shops where free drinks and food were on hand.

Through the 1860s and 70s celebrations slowly gravitated outside homes and into hotels, taverns, and restaurants. In Denver people gathered at the Tremont House and the Union Hotel on New Year’s eve for dining and dancing, and again the next day at the St. Louis Hotel for a “sumptuous dinner” and more dancing at residences and hotels. In Oakland CA, women received guests on January 1, 1874, while some men paid visits as others resorted to the free lunch tables such as that at Fennessy’s billiard parlor where a well-known restaurateur furnished a feast of “turkeys and truffles, Westphalia hams, elegantly garnished salads . . . and every appetizing substance imaginable.”

New Year’s day was also a time for reunions with fellow countrymen. In Rockford IL, those of Scottish descent gathered at Billet’s restaurant on New Year’s eve in 1891 for a 10:30 p.m. supper.

newyear'sMartin's1908New Year’s 1900, signaling the change of a century as well as a year, marked a stepping up of celebrations, both on New Year’s day and, increasingly, on New Year’s eve. In Charleston SC, New Year’s day dinners in hotels and restaurants were said to equal Christmas feasting. In Portland OR in 1903 the day’s offerings included a 50-cent dinner at Rath & Sandy’s with raw Olympia Oysters; Consomme and Clam Broth; Boiled Halibut with Egg Sauce; a choice of Chicken, Duck or Roast Turkey; Shrimp Salad with Celery; and two kinds of dessert.

At San Francisco’s Techau Tavern, the 1909 menu for New Year’s Eve was considerably more fashionable, and rather than coffee or tea as in Portland, it was accompanied by Champagne.

newyearTechauTavern1909
Every year 20th-century celebrations in big cities seemed to get wilder, inspiring clergymen to denounce the festivities from the pulpit and call for police crackdowns on how late cafes and restaurants could serve drinks. [See Martin’s, NYC, ca. 1908 above]  The words “orgy” and “Bacchanalian” appeared in headlines. Chicago’s mayor in 1911 irritated a Sunday School Association by his refusal to enforce early closing laws, as well as his quip that he felt “only a slight tingling” from all the prayers offered for him. In 1912 New Year’s eve fell on a Sunday night, increasing protests from reformers. In San Francisco, some wondered, “Will the wild spirit with which San Francisco celebrated on Sunday night New Year’s eve be curtailed in the future, or will the Bohemians be allowed to ramble about at will on this one night in the year?” In Butte MT the warning went out in 1913 that anyone dancing the tango on a table top would be dragged off to jail.

newyearmenuEXT1926Where law enforcement failed to put a damper on New Year’s celebrations, World War I and local, then national, Prohibition succeeded. Guests at the Buffalo Hotel’s New Year’s eve dinner in 1926 had a choice of mineral water, ginger ale, or lemonade with their Kennebec Salmon and Breast of Long Island Duckling. Chicago kept its bootleggers busy on New Year’s eve as revelers crammed into the Midnight Frolics and the Trocadero, but headlines no longer screamed orgy.

As the American population went out to eat in restaurants more frequently after WWII, New Year’s eve dinners lost some of their attraction, especially as word spread that it was the worst night for food and service. Though I’ve found no figures on this, it seems to me that dining out on New Year’s day (apart from brunch) fell off even more, leading many restaurants to close on that day.

Wherever you eat on the last day of 2015 or the first of 2016, best wishes to you!

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© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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On the 7th day they feasted

Sundaydinner1966In the weekly schedule of meals through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Sunday dinner was the peak in terms of the costliness of the food and the elaborateness of preparation. By the 1890s and early 20th century it became clear that more people were choosing to have Sunday dinner in a restaurant, a trend that appears to have begun in the Western U.S.

Earlier in the 19th century most Sunday restaurant goers were travelers staying in hotels or denizens of boarding houses that did not provide meals on Sundays. Otherwise, Sunday was not a busy day for eating places as far as is known. In 1853 Putnam’s magazine reported that although many New Yorkers patronized restaurants during the week, on Sunday they did not.

SundayDinneratGrandma's1942So the fact that people in full-service households began to eat Sunday dinner in a restaurant was a big change considering that it was largely regarded as a home-based meal often celebrated in the style of holiday meals today. Sunday dinner in the home was enough of a big deal that small town newspapers in the early 20th century were in the habit of reporting the names of guests who had been invited to the Smith’s or Wilson’s, etc.

The acceptability of Sunday meals in restaurants went hand in hand with restaurants becoming respectable to mainstream Americans, especially temperance advocates. Traditionally most eating places were also drinking places. In the 1870s some cities and towns went so far as to shut down restaurants on Sundays to stop drinking on what was generally regarded as a holy day. Philadelphia’s “Sunday Laws” closed saloons, but also restaurants, ice cream gardens, and confectionery stores. People who lived in rented rooms in New Hampshire had no place at all to eat after restaurants were ordered to close on Sundays. Although the West was generally more tolerant of drinking, Tacoma WA closed restaurants on Sundays in 1891, leaving hotels as the only eating places open for business.

A more common prohibition strategy in the early 20th century was to allow restaurants to remain open on Sunday but to make it illegal for them to sell alcohol that day. Another tactic had been tried, that of closing saloons on Sundays and only allowing drinks to be sold at places selling meals, but it didn’t take long before saloons began claiming restaurant status. NYC’s experiment with permitting only hotels to sell alcoholic drinks resulted in restaurants adding bedrooms on their upper floors, often devoted to illicit trade.

SundaydinnerclevelandJan61912In Washington DC, where the sale of alcohol was illegal on Sundays in 1905, restaurants that had bars and wanted to serve meals on that day were allowed to stay open if they completely enclosed their bar with wooden partitions running from floor to ceiling.

Sundayfinley'sphalansterie1908One effect of the separation of drinking and eating was to broaden the base of restaurant customers. Restaurants began advertising that they were home-like and welcoming to families. To the middle class, homelike definitely implied alcohol-free in the early 20th century (only during Prohibition did drinking in the home become normalized). A correspondence course in advertising in 1905 recommended the following copy, aimed at women, to attract restaurant customers: “After Church . . . You’ll hardly want to go home, doff your good clothes, and cook a big dinner. We can save you all that trouble. Just induce your husband to bring you here for your Sunday dinner.” [see advertisement for Finley’s, Cleveland, 1908]

Tea rooms were at the forefront of the home-like restaurant trend. They specialized in what had become the most popular of Sunday repasts, the chicken dinner. As Americans acquired cars, drives into the countryside with a stop at a tea room, inn, or restaurant for a Sunday chicken dinner became irresistible to city dwellers.

sundaydinnerPierceMillsundaydinnerPierceMillBACK

By World War I it was old-fashioned to eat dinner in the middle of the day, with the custom living on mostly in rural areas. But, as is true of holidays now, Sunday remained an exception for many people. Even into the 1970s many restaurants that specialized in Sunday dinner offered it both around noon and in the evening. It even became fashionable to eat in a restaurant or hotel dining room on Sunday evening, as a 1920 headline in a Milwaukee paper attested: “Dine Out on Sunday. Once Famous Repast is Delegated to Restaurants.” The story reported that it was the biggest night in the week for restaurants there.

In a sense Sunday brunch, whose popularity grew in the 1960s, replaced mid-day Sunday dinners offered by restaurants. Another blow against Sunday dinners in restaurants came when Christian religionists took a stand against restaurant-going on Sundays, seeing it as a violation of the Sabbath. The status of Sunday dinners in restaurants today is unclear.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Find of the day: Wayside Food Shop

WaysideFoodShopCov990The historic Wayside Inn in Sudbury MA, a national landmark operating as an inn and restaurant, was memorialized by Longfellow and became famous throughout the world. Less famous was the other Wayside Inn in business in West Springfield MA from 1932 to 1967.

It was established as the Wayside Food Shop and Terrace Gardens by the head of a wholesale baking company, Colonial Fried Products, that came to Springfield in 1921 as a branch of a Worcester business called Edgerly Crullers.

Howard S. Edgerly opened the Wayside Food Shop at 1363 Riverdale Road on a site that was previously occupied by a diner. At the time Riverdale Road had not been developed commercially and was still mainly farmland and residences.

WaysideFoodShopCov995

This past weekend at the Northampton Book and Book Arts Fair held at Smith College I found the impressive 18-page brochure from the Wayside Food Shop whose pages are shown here. It dates from around 1935, about the time the business was awarded a full liquor license.

WaysideFoodShopCov993

WaysideFoodShopCov994

The Wayside was elaborate and designed to host up to 600 people simultaneously in its facsimile Colonial inn (did it serve Colonial doughnuts?). It contained a dining room, an outdoor terrace and garden, a tap room, a dance salon, a banquet room, a soda fountain/bar room, and a club room for card parties.

WaysideFoodShopCov991

Next door, at 1353 Riverdale, was an associated ice cream and sandwich stand in the shape of an ice cream freezer, known as the Algonquin Freezer. In May of 1933 the ice cream stand advertized that its 30-piece Algonquin Boys’ Band would give two evening concerts. It’s not clear whether this was an ongoing feature or a grand opening event.

WaysideFoodShopCov992

The Wayside hosted wedding parties, clubs, and business and alumni groups. The brochure shows an 8-piece orchestra led by Ray Deleporte, whose nightly performances were played on WBZ radio. Alice May was the group’s “radiant songster.” Over the years many orchestras played there. The Wayside also hosted “New York floor shows” that included striptease acts, yet retained its reputation as a place ideal for family Thanksgiving and Sunday dinners.

In 1938, song writer Irving Berlin sued the Wayside Food Shop for copyright violations, asking $250 in damages for each of three of his songs: Goody, Goody; Let Yourself Go; and, Is It True What They Say About Dixie? Not long after this Howard Edgerly, who was not in good health, sold the business.

The business then passed through a number of hands. In 1957 its owner announced that the Wayside would close in early 1958 and be demolished to make way for a motel. Yet, though it did close in January of 1958, it was refurnished and in December it re-opened under new management. It continued in business until April 1967. The building was razed in 1968.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Cooking up Thanksgiving

pumpkinpieturkey20thcentury

The history of Thanksgiving is much more interesting than the mythical Pilgrims and Indians tale we all learned in grade school, even though restaurants actually have played only a small part.

For much of the 19th century Thanksgiving was considered a predominantly Yankee holiday, which to Southerners implied domination by the North, particularly when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 to honor the Union victory at Gettysburg.

Previously, Thanksgiving holidays were proclaimed by governors, who also set the date each year. In 1815, however, President James Madison declared a Thanksgiving Day to celebrate peace with England. Still, it retained strong association with New England and a Thanksgiving dinner in Philadelphia that year was composed of New Englanders “got up in Yankee style, and finished with a compliment of Yankee toasts and hymns.” In 1821 a state outside New England, New York, officially recognized the holiday.

Thanksgiving spread slowly in the 1820s and 1830s. By 1839 the holiday was celebrated in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. Homecoming was a popular theme, especially in Massachusetts where abandonment of rocky farms was a growing trend. By 1858 it was reported that in New York City alone at least 10,000 New Englanders had returned home for Thanksgiving.

pumpkinpieDave'stableThe holiday spread faster in the 1840s and 1850s. The New York Times reported that by 1859 all the Eastern and middle Atlantic states, and the Western territories, plus five Southern states celebrated Thanksgiving.

But the spread was uneven. Although the governor of Missouri proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving in 1843, it was observed only seven times over the next 20 years, and many citizens of that state knew nothing of Thanksgiving until after the Civil War, despite President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday to occur on the last Thursday in November.

So, although by 1890 Thanksgiving was officially recognized by 42 of 44 states and territories then part of the United States, it is unlikely that people of all regions, social classes, and religions celebrated it to an equal degree.

According to historian Elizabeth Pleck (“The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States,” Journal of Social History, Summer 1999), many working class men regarded Thanksgiving as a holiday like any other, that is, a time to drink, parade noisily through the streets, and demand treats from the gentry. In 1859 the board of aldermen of the District of Columbia refused to set a date for Thanksgiving because it had become an occasion for widespread lawbreaking. In the late 19th century the rowdiness tradition was channeled into Thanksgiving Day football matches. In the West, Pleck writes, Thanksgiving dinner tended to be  simple and the day largely devoted to hunting.

pumpkinpie1874VirginiaCityNVNor was it a big restaurant day in the 19th century, though I have found a few advertisements for Thanksgiving dinner in the 1850s, and more after Lincoln’s proclamation [above, menu from Virginia City NV restaurant, 1874]. Restaurants also supplied cooked food to homes and catered philanthropic dinners for the needy. Edmund Hill, a New Jersey restaurateur and caterer, wrote in his diary: Thanksgiving, Thursday 30. 1882: Busy sending out orders all the morning. – Closed store at noon. Dinner at two. Mother improving, for which we give thanks. – We furnished a newsboys’ dinner – fifty at the reading rooms. The Trenton Times paid for it. Lots of fun.”

Pleck suspects that “Thanksgiving celebration was most common among the middle and upper classes in New England and the middle-Atlantic states, and among Protestants.” The job of integrating everybody else was a task for late-19th-and-early-20th-century patriotic societies, public schools, and popular magazines. Immigrants were subtly encouraged to see themselves as modern-day Pilgrims being welcomed by the natives. The strategy worked.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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