Tag Archives: 1890s

Famous in its day: Thompson’s Spa

thompson'sSpa782Beverages have played a big role in the operation of restaurants. I even tend to sort them mentally by what kind of drinks they featured. That is, by whether they had a bar or dealt in alcoholic beverages or were based around coffee, tea, or soft drinks. Throughout history many restaurants began as saloons, coffee houses, or soft drink stands.

Thompson’s Spa, a long-gone chain in Boston that grew to about a dozen units in the 1930s, began as a soda fountain – a “spa” — selling non-alcoholic “temperance drinks.” Open year round, it provided both cold and hot drinks such as these from its 1895 menu:Thompsons'SpaTemperanceDrinks1895In case anyone wandered in thinking they were going to get a whiskey, a sign hanging on the wall set them straight: “This is a temperance bar.” Not a big problem since they could duck around the corner and into the alley where the Bell in Hand stood, looking to all appearances like an old London tavern.

Before very long Thompson’s proprietor, Charles Eaton, added sandwiches, doughnuts, and pie to the menu, ALL of which counted as basic foodstuffs – not desserts — to Bostonians then.

thompson'sSpaNewspaperRow1929Eaton was a graduate of MIT who in 1880, after briefly practicing as an architect in his home town of Lowell MA, had invented an electric telephone signaling device that he sold to Bell Telephone. For some odd reason he chucked that career and joined his brother-in-law (named Thompson) in running a wholesale drug store in Boston. Perhaps selling was in his genes; his father had done well peddling snacks to railroad passengers, thereby earning the title “popcorn king of Lowell.” The drug business must have been slow because in 1882 Eaton and Thompson decided to install a soda fountain for non-alcoholic beverages.

The original Thompson’s Spa was located on the corner of Washington and Court streets in Newspaper Row where the city’s newspapers were located and also home to many of their employes. Near Thompson’s was Pi Alley, aka Pie Alley and officially Williams Court, where many printers, compositors, and pressmen lived in rooming houses and, undoubtedly, ate in restaurants. Eating places were accordingly plentiful in the neighborhood, among them Gridley’s Coffee House and Mrs. Atkinson’s.

thompson'sSpa783

Thompson’s kept the appellation “spa” even as it gradually expanded into a regulation restaurant. It added a fuller menu plus much-appreciated amenities such as seats for customers, who had previously had to stand while they ate. Women were finally admitted in 1909. [1933 dinner menu shown]

Although Thompson’s had servers, the spa exhibited some of the earmarks of an automat. Like the early German automat which was primarily a delivery system for beverages, Thompson’s had an elaborate piping system to supply chilled liquids to serving counters. With the decision to add ice cream to the menu in 1915, a new soda fountain was installed that permitted syrups to flow through pipes as well. A bonus was that the soda clerks could prepare an entire ice cream soda or sundae while facing the customers rather than turning their backs.

Thompson'sSpa4GuardsmenBillSamArthurGiffordAfter Eaton’s death in 1917, followed by a bitter battle with his widow, his three sons took over the business and began to expand it beyond the sprawling Washington street edifice it had become. By 1939 it occupied eleven locations in downtown Boston. In addition to soda fountains the Spas had air conditioning, sound proofing, table service, and wall murals. But the company’s finances were not in good shape, due partly to overexpansion during the Depression. In 1946 it was acquired by the Sheraton (hotel) Corporation which daringly installed a cocktail bar at the Washington Street location. In 1949 Sheraton sold the company to New York’s Exchange Buffet Corporation which also failed to make a go of it and began closing units in 1952.

In 1958 the two Spas that remained, one of them on Washington street near the original location, were closed. Former executives and employees tried to carry on at one location for a few years.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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The ups and downs of Frank Flower

frank's15HarrisonEveryone knows that being a restaurant proprietor is chancy. This is amply illustrated in the life of Frank Flower, born in England in 1854, and working as a Boston waiter in 1878. He staked his career as a restaurateur on Harrison Avenue in Boston where he ran a restaurant from about 1880 to 1895, moving twice.

The reason for his failure in 1895 is unknown, but it may have had something to do with shifts in the neighborhood beginning just as he opened at 13-15 Harrison in 1880. That was the year that the first property lease was made to a Chinese person in Boston, on Oxford Place, very near to Frank’s restaurant. Frank had catered to patrons whose tastes ran to fish balls and baked beans. But, little by little by the 1890s Harrison would become a business street in Boston’s Chinatown. Boston’s first Chinese restaurant would open at 36½ Harrison in 1890.

In 1882 Frank advertised that he sold a week’s worth of meal tickets to men ($3) and women ($2.50). He also had rooms for rent, both “box rooms” and “side rooms.” I remember some years ago when I read about single working people who rented small kitchenless rooms in Boston’s South End in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While visiting a friend’s apartment in that area one day, I suddenly realized that her cramped and oddly-shaped three-room apartment was in fact made up of one box room and two side rooms.

frank's21Harrison770By 1884 Frank was doing well enough to buy a nearly new 11-room Queen Anne house in Dorchester. He moved his restaurant to 19-21 Harrison about then. That location soon became problematical when the block was sold off to a developer who planned to raze the buildings and construct a large office building.

That same year, 1890, Frank won the contract to feed 10,000 Civil War veterans coming to Boston for a week-long reunion. In other words, he would need to furnish about 210,000 meals in the space of a week, rather than his usual not-too-shabby 10,500.

Though he claimed he nearly went crazy making all the arrangements, Frank felt confident he could handle the job by feeding 2,000 diners in five shifts for each meal. He contracted with a local baker for bread and the all-important baked beans; bought 3,000 new plates; had all the meat delivered to his door in a refrigerated car by Armour Co. of Chicago; bought four immense boilers that would steam 2,400 eggs at a time; hired 100 waiters; found a professional coffee maker who would turn 9,000 pounds of beans into endless streams of hot coffee; and paid 35 scullions to clean up. When the encampment was over the G.A.R. executive committee commended him on how well he had fed the multitude.

Frank'stradecardmenuEvidently the veterans were pleased with what they were served. Nonetheless, Frank’s menu, repeated each day, gives a fair idea of why Boston restaurants of that time were not known for their fine cuisine.
Breakfast: cold meats, baked beans and brown bread, boiled eggs
Dinner: cold meats, baked beans and brown bread, boiled potatoes
Supper: cold meats and doughnuts

Frank’s Dining Room moved to 79 Harrison in the early 1890s, just about the same time that his original location became a Chinese store. But soon he hit the wall, declaring in 1894 that he was unable to pay his bills. His Dorchester mansion went back on the auction block.

Following his fall, he continued in the restaurant business as manager of Munro’s restaurant on Eliot Street. Always fond of boastful advertising, the irrepressible Frank took out newspaper ads claiming “1000 boarders needed” and “dinner, 20c, the finest on earth.”

In the decades after Frank left Harrison Avenue, Chinese restaurants such as the Chinese Royal and The Red Dragon took over several of his locations.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Light-fingered diners

1920sPilferingIf the number of newspaper stories is a reliable index to a trend, then a fad for stealing small items from restaurant tables began in the 1890s. Its continuing incidence is perhaps one reason why table appointments gradually became far less elegant and costly.

A flurry of stories appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries about affluent society people who “collected” cordial glasses, demitasse cups, salt cellars, silver spoons, oyster forks, and nut picks as “souvenirs” of first-class hotel dining rooms and restaurants. Anything small that bore an insignia from an elite establishment sent out an irresistible message: “Take me home with you.” Or, as a NYC restaurant owner would confirm decades later, “Put a spoon on a table with a fancy crest on it and kiss it goodbye.”

1906pilferingThe “thieves” – a term pointedly avoided by all – were usually identified as young women from the best families, though men were also known to freely pocket alluring items. It was especially attractive to pick things up while traveling. Women would display their booty in cabinets with little ribbons and tags that gave the date and occasion that each bibelot commemorated.

How cute! A little less cute, though, were college student pranks following athletic competitions. A gang of Amherst College students met with suspension after they raided three railroad restaurants on the return train trip from a Dartmouth football game in 1893. During their “wilding” episode they descended en masse on three successive Vermont depot restaurants, making off with everything they could grab from sandwiches and ginger ale to dishes and spoons to remind them later of their escapades.

Typically souvenir hunters were portrayed as feeling not the least bit guilty about their some-would-say-larcenous activities. “I must steal one of those lovely things,” said a woman at a fashionable restaurant. Her friends merely laughed. Another received encouragement from her luncheon companions when she declared she wanted to snag a silver match case for her husband. “So she tucked it in her muff and went out with the glee of a smuggler,” the story relayed.

Often these activities brought forth a degree of censure among reporters and readers. Was it not true, for instance, that these same people would probably condemn a poor man for stealing food? Was it really a victimless crime? Didn’t waiters have their small wages docked for missing silver?

orsini'sDishThe moral code, such as it was, decreed that stealing from need was a crime, but stealing something you didn’t need or could easily afford to pay for was not a crime. Plus, as much as restaurateurs hated it, who wanted to accuse wealthy guests of stealing? Prosecution, or even confrontation, was rare though sometimes additional charges – curiously hard to read – were levied on a check. Over time menu prices crept up to cover shrinkage, tableware became ordinary, and peppermills grew monstrous.

We’d probably hear more on this subject, particularly on the diverse range of things taken from restaurants, but restaurant managers prefer to keep silent. As one confessed in 1976, “We don’t like to talk about this sort of thing. It only gives the public more ideas.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Waitress uniforms: bloomers

The bicycling craze of the mid-1890s brought “wheelwomen” dressed in bloomers into public view. It didn’t take long for enterprising restaurant men to latch onto the sensational pants-like garment as a waitress uniform. It was the middle of a nationwide depression and they hoped that male customers would flock to their establishments and the money would pour in. And this proved true, sort of.

Bloomers were originally a pragmatic garment of the 1850s woman’s rights movement intended to permit women to conduct everyday affairs without dragging 50 pounds of skirts and petticoats over filthy floors and streets. They were designed to do this by raising the skirt hem up to the shoe tops — with long gathered trousers worn underneath to modestly hide the ankles. But because of relentless ridicule, prior to the bicycle craze they had been worn only in private or in exceptional situations: doing gymnastics, while housecleaning, or by Westward-bound women crossing prairies and mountains.

The bloomers worn by female cyclists in the 1890s were more daring than those of the 1850s because they ended just below the knee, revealing stocking-covered calves and ankles. When “waiter girls” (as waitresses were known then) wore them, crowds of men gathered on sidewalks outside restaurants, jostling for a view. Although some restaurant owners claimed that bloomers were more practical than long dresses, it was pretty clear that most were motivated by a wish for publicity.

The bloomer uniform typically consisted of full-cut navy, brown, or black serge pants gathered at waist and knees and worn with a short matching vest (pictured on San Francisco waitresses) or “Zouave” jacket, and a colored blouse with leg o’mutton sleeves. Often the outfit was accessorized with black stockings, patent leather slippers, and caps imprinted with the restaurant’s name.

The first restaurant to adopt the fascinatingly curious uniform, in 1895, was the Bloomer Café in San Francisco. It was rapidly followed by restaurants in St. Louis and NYC. In 1896 and 1897 a few more opened in NYC, in Oakland CA, Chicago, and — gasp! — Boston. The police immediately closed the Chicago café on moral grounds. But they all seem to have been short-lived, usually because the crowds stopped coming once the sensationalism wore off.

Waitresses sometimes balked at bloomers because they feared they would be “on exhibit” and treated crudely by male patrons. Those who did agree to wear them, under threat of losing their jobs, reported that although they missed the “swish” factor of layers of starched skirts, they liked the new style because it enabled them to move quickly without trailing hems to get stepped on or slammed in doors.

Restaurant bloomers were an interesting example of a style crossing under coercion from one social class to another. Bloomers were seen as symbolic of the “new woman” – a decidedly privileged, well-educated, independent-minded daughter of the middle class. The new woman loved riding bicycles and engaging in sports. Working class women, by contrast, did not typically ride bicycles, play tennis or golf, or exercise in gyms. More than one bloomer waitress disclosed upon being interviewed that she had never been on a bicycle.

By 1898 the restaurant bloomer fad was over, but the idea of dressing waitresses in eye-catching costumes was only beginning.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Famous in its day: Tony Faust’s

By the 1880s Anthony E. Faust had established quite a culinary empire in St. Louis. He ran a Café and Oyster House downtown on Broadway which had a nationwide reputation. Since 1878 it had featured rooftop dining, uncommon in the U.S. then. From his adjoining “Fulton Market” he also retailed and wholesaled “Faust’s Own” oysters and other delicacies such as truffles, soy sauce, and curry powder which he shipped to Southwestern and Western states. His Faust label beer, made for him by the Anheuser brewery, was also sold in the West.

He didn’t start out in the food business but as an ornamental plasterer who immigrated from the Prussian province of Westphalia at age 17. After being shot accidentally while watching a parade, he gave up his trade and decided to open a café in 1865.

Obviously he had a knack for the new business. And it helped that St. Louis was a booming hub of shipping and commerce positioning itself to dominate commerce with the West. His closeness to the Adolphus Busch family of beer fame was undoubtedly another asset. In 1886 Tony opened a second restaurant in a huge new Exposition Building on Olive Street between 13th and 14th which hosted conventions of architects, music teachers, fraternal organizations, and the Democratic National Convention of 1888.

In the late 1880s he razed his restaurant and replaced it with a finer building. With an interior of carved mahogany woodwork, a tapestried ceiling, and an elaborate mosaic tile floor, the restaurant catered to the fashionable after-theater crowd. At some point, perhaps in 1889, a second story was added, eliminating the rooftop garden (above image, ca. 1906).

Success seemed to mean Tony could do as he wished. Caught serving prairie chickens out of season (under the frankly fraudulent name “Virginia owls”), he freely confessed and flippantly said he’d pay the fine or “break rock” if need be. When the Republican National Convention was held in St. Louis in 1896 he claimed his staff would not prepare or serve meals for Afro-American delegates. Even after the convention’s managers offered to hire a space, furnish stoves, and buy provisions to feed the black delegates if Faust would oversee the work, he absolutely refused to do it. Period.

In preparation for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair (the Louisiana Purchase Exposition), Faust joined half a dozen of St. Louis’s top restaurateurs in a trust, the St. Louis Catering Company, probably designed to buy in large quantities and possibly to set prices too. Faust went into partnership with New York’s Lüchow’s to create a Tyrolean Alps Restaurant at the Fair which seated 5,000 diners and featured costumed singers (pictured). It represented brewers’ interests as well, leading one observer to joke that the enormous beer hall should have been named “Budweiser Alps.” According to the Fair’s Official Program there was also a Faust restaurant in the Fair’s west pavilion on Art Hill.

At the time Tony Sr. died in 1906 the Faust empire included a second Fulton Market location, and another Faust restaurant in the Delmar Gardens amusement park in University City managed by his son Tony R. Faust. Like many a successful businessman in the Midwest, Tony R. went to NYC to see about opening a branch there. There was a Faust restaurant in NYC’s Columbus Circle in 1908 (pictured), but I am not certain whether this belonged to the St. Louis Fausts. In 1911 Tony Jr. was declared insane. After that his older brother Edward, an executive of Anheuser-Busch who was married to a daughter of Adolphus Busch, took over the restaurants and markets. The downtown restaurants in St. Louis and NYC, and probably the others as well, closed in 1915 and 1916, casualties of looming Prohibition.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Banqueting at $herry’s*

In 1898 Sherry’s and Delmonico’s faced off on two corners of Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. Which would win the favor of New York City’s high society whose core membership was known as the Four Hundred? Even before Sherry’s boldly moved onto Delmonico’s turf it had been successfully poaching “Del’s” clientele. For a time there seemed to be enough elite diners to go around, but the days were numbered for both of New York City’s grand restaurants. Before too long each would suffer from the negative impact of Prohibition and World War I on food and drink and social life. Nonetheless many spectacular balls and dinners were still in store at Sherry’s before its demise.

Louis Sherry began his professional life in restaurants in New Jersey and New York in the 1870s, working as a waiter, then steward and head waiter at establishments such as the Hotel Brunswick. In 1881 he started a confectionery and catering business at Sixth Avenue and 38th Street where he supplied ice cream, cakes, and deluxe dinner party staples such as lobster, salmon, deviled crab, chicken salad, and terrapin. He soon opened a restaurant at the casino at Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island. His businesses grew, and he moved to Fifth Avenue at 37th Street, and when that became too small he commissioned Stanford White to design a multi-story restaurant with ballrooms and residential suites opposite Delmonico’s.

Although he has been singled out as one of the few American-born proprietors of a fine NYC restaurant at the turn of the 20th century, it is likely that he was a native of Canada rather than Vermont as is frequently reported. On several passport applications he attests that he was born in Quebec, in 1855.

Sherry was known for getting every detail right, particularly table appointments and decorations which could include everything from asparagus served in a hollowed out block of ice to tabletop forests and lakes (1908 dinner pictured). But from time to time the expense and elaborateness of his dinners prompted critics to call them symptoms of a decadent society. This was especially true of the $250 per person dinner on horseback given by C. G. K. Billings to 36 members of his Equestrian Club in 1903 – and the 1905 dinner for 500 guests costumed as 18th-century French royalty given by James H. Hyde where even the waiters wore powdered wigs.

In 1912 Sherry’s was hit hard by a restaurant workers’ strike which targeted the city’s top eating places. He professed indifference but bitterly cited “Bolshevik waiters” as one of the reasons for closing the restaurant and hotel in 1919 and moving up to 58th Street to continue with catering and confectionery. In 1921 Sherry joined a corporation headed by Lucius Boomer that opened a Sherry’s restaurant and candy shop at 300 Park Avenue. A subsidiary of the corporation owned the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Sherry, who did not seem to be actively involved in these enterprises, died in 1926. Later, under a succession of owners, there were Louis Sherry restaurants in the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic, while ice cream is still (or was until fairly recently?) produced under the Louis Sherry name.

* In The Real New York (1902), Rupert Hughes suggested that because the restaurant was so expensive, it’s name should be written this way.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Who invented … lobster Newberg?

The tale has often been told of Benjamin Wenberg who created a fabulous new dish at Delmonico’s restaurant in NYC sometime in the 1870s. The punch line revolves around how Charles Delmonico changed the name to Lobster Newberg to spite Wenberg after the two men had an argument. Do you believe the story? I am suspicious of it.

As a historian I run across many legends of this type. There is always a delightful little detail that makes the story click and lure journalists into repeating it so often that it becomes undisputed truth. Less catchy, and thus less repeated versions of the Lobster Newberg story, suggested that Wenberg did not want his name used so the name of the dish was altered slightly – or that the Delmonicos named the dish Newberg right from the start out of respect for Wenberg’s privacy.

It’s doubtful that Wenberg invented the dish. A sauce made of cream, egg yolks, butter, and sherry wine – the à la Newberg part of Lobster Newberg – was known as terrapin sauce and was in use before the 1870s.

Did Wenberg have anything to do with Lobster Newburg? Some stories imply he was the first to use the sauce with lobster. To me it seems doubtful that he would be more likely than top chefs to see its wider potential. In fact at least one Delmonico chef claimed to have developed the dish. In yet another version of the story, Delmonico’s named it for him because he ordered it so often.

Maybe. Whatever. As far as I can tell, no one has ever found the name Lobster Wenberg on a Delmonico’s menu. Nor has Lobster Newberg been found on menus from the 1870s or 1880s.

Although Benjamin Wenberg may be altogether irrelevant to the story of Lobster Newberg, he was an actual person, a well-known figure in New York City in the 1850s and until his death in 1885. He was in the shipping business, buying, selling, and chartering sea-faring vessels. At least one of his ships, Panchita, was suspected of engaging in the slave trade in 1856 and 1857.

The dish attributed to him became popular in the 1890s and the legend of its naming was oft repeated in this decade. It was a favorite chafing dish recipe for home entertaining and any restaurant with the least pretensions was bound to have it on the menu. Restaurants occasionally prepared it tableside in a chafing dish. Shrimp, crab, scallops, and sometimes frog legs were also offered à la Newburg.

These dishes were usually spelled with a U on restaurant menus. Which is another oddity since Wenberg’s name was usually spelled with an E.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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