Tag Archives: 1900s

Before Horn & Hardart: European automats

Note: In preparing for an interview for a documentary on Automats I looked at new sources I wasn’t aware of when I originally wrote this post in 2010, among them a wonderful German trade publication which pictures European Automats produced by the Sielaff company of Berlin. The booklet, from the Hagley Museum and Library’s digital archives, also contains rare exterior and interior shots of NYC’s first Automat, opened in 1902 by James Harcombe. I’ve made modifications to the post and have included some new illustrations.

AutomatKarlsruhe1903

When automats opened in New York and Philadelphia in 1902 many people were convinced they were an American invention. But they were not. A reporter for the New York Tribune captured a conversation between an American businessman and a foreign guest at James Harcombe’s NYC Automat in 1903, shortly after its opening. After examining the place, the American exclaimed, “What a tribute to American inventive skill!” The man at the next table replied, speaking with an accent, “This is a German idea. There are dozens of these restaurants on the Continent and this one was moved bodily from Berlin …” As the editors of the American Architect and Building News had observed in 1892, when it came to “penny-in-the-slot” machines the U.S. was “far behind the rest of the civilized world.” Even though Americans detested tipping, admired gadgetry, and loved fast service, for some reason the US lagged in the area of automated restaurants.

AutomatDortmund1902BSlot machines actually go back to antiquity. The first may have been a holy water dispenser in Egypt over 2,000 years ago. But it was Germany that developed the first automatic restaurant, applying electricity to the idea of self-service. Germany was also responsible for the term “automat” which in German usage applies to any type of coin-operated dispensing apparatus. The world’s first automatic refreshment dispenser appeared on the grounds of the zoo in Berlin in June of 1895 and was considered a “howling success.” On its first Sunday in operation it sold 5,400 sandwiches, 9,000 glasses of wine and cordials, and 22,000 cups of coffee. The first “automatisches restaurant,” providing hot meals as well as sandwiches and drinks was also designed by Max Sielaff of Berlin. It was presented to the public at a Berlin industrial exposition in 1896.

AutomatWurzburg

The fame of automatic restaurants spread rapidly in 1897 when one was installed and won a gold medal at the Brussels world’s fair. That same year an announcement was made that a similar restaurant would open soon in Philadelphia and in St. Louis – as far as I can determine neither of these became a reality at that time. In 1900 Paris had ‘buffets automatique’ — which resembled automats — all along the boulevards. Automats appeared in London a bit later. Around this time a visitor to St. Petersburg, Russia, found an automatic restaurant by the name of Quisisana, which evidently was the name of a Sielaff competitor in the European automatic restaurant industry. (pictured: top, Karlsruhe, 1903; middle, Dortmund, 1902; bottom, Wurzburg).

© Jan Whitaker, 2010, revised 2013

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Busy bees

A 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Nick of Time,” was set in a restaurant outfitted with a devilish fortune-telling device. The restaurant, supposedly in Ohio, was ordinary and undistinguished, with booths and laminated table tops.

The story’s writer chose a common name for it, one found in practically every city and small town across the entire United States: the Busy Bee.

I “collect” this name. To me it resonates with the typical 20th-century eating place. Judging from advertisements for eateries called The Busy Bee, they staked their reputations on being clean, economical, briskly efficient, and friendly.

I also find the name interesting because it is entirely divorced from place, proprietor’s ethnicity, and type of cuisine. Yet I’ve found that many restaurants of this name had proprietors who were of Polish, Italian, or Greek ethnic origins.

In the 19th century it was typical for restaurants to go by their proprietor’s surname. Over the 20th century, by contrast, many restaurants adopted “made up” names that were intended to suggest something positive, appealing, or at least memorable. I suspect that one of the factors propelling this change was the chance to background the ethnicity of the proprietor, particularly around World War I when much of the country became intolerant of those not native born. Busy Bee became one of the most common names around.

Also, restaurants owned by Greek-Americans, of which there were very many, were often run by multiple partners. It would be somewhat unwieldy if, for instance, the proprietors of the Busy Bee in Monessen PA in 1915 had decided to call their restaurant Chrysopoulos, Boulageris, Paradise, & Lycourinos. They might have taken the liberty of dubbing their establishment Four Brothers from Mykonos but they chose Busy Bee instead. [pictured: Busy Bee in Winchester VA -- its proprietor, James Pappas, was born in Greece ca. 1889]

I have yet to find a Chinese restaurant called the Busy Bee but I’ll keep looking – I know there had to be a few.

Among many locations, I’ve found Busy Bees in Mobile AL as early as 1898, in Bisbee AZ in 1915, and in New York City’s Bowery, for decades presided over by Max Garfunkel. It was at Max’s Busy Bee, in 1917, that alumni of the Short Story Correspondence Schools of North America convened to greet the author of “Ten Thousand Snappy Synonyms for ‘Said He.’” Many Busy Bees became headquarters for meetings of business, civic, and social clubs.

Busy Bees were not known for any particular culinary specialties, offering instead home cooking favorites plus the inevitable chili and other Americanized foreign dishes such as spaghetti and chop suey. The four popular Busy Bees in Columbus OH, nonetheless, had an attractive array of warm weather choices on their June 29, 1909, menu which included Spring Vegetable Salad (10 cents), as well as Blackberries or Sliced Peaches in Cream (10 cents) and Fresh Peach Ice Cream (15 cents).

The Busy Bee name lives on even today, though perhaps less robustly. I was surprised there was not a single Busy Bee mentioned in Joanne Raetz Stuttgen’s books on contemporary “down home” cafes in Wisconsin and Indiana.

Is there a common restaurant name all around us today that will come to characterize the 21st century?

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Dipping into the finger bowl

Once upon a time finger bowls were routinely presented with the check in expensive restaurants. To the average American, who probably never went to this type of restaurant, they were a great source of humor. Jokes typically involved an unsophisticated restaurant patron drinking water from the bowl or eating the lemon slices floating in it. The funny stories demonstrated the joy Americans take in spearing pretentiousness, a quality which finger bowls epitomized to many.

Like salad forks and menus in French, using finger bowls was an esoteric social custom that was certain to befuddle the average person. How many fingers do you put into the bowl at once? What do you do after you get your fingers wet? Must you use it at all?*

These questions would soon fade from American culture because the finger bowl was about to run afoul of history in the World War I era.

Yet in the decade before finger bowls met their downfall, the number of restaurants providing them actually increased. Live music and finger bowls were two amenities put forward as competitive attractions over places that didn’t have them. Some observers believed that because so many restaurants adopted finger bowls, it deprived them of the eliteness they once enjoyed and that this was a factor in their downfall.

Further warning signs of the finger bowl’s decline in status surfaced as early as 1908 when a veteran waiter confessed to a reporter that wise patrons should demand to witness their waiter filling the bowl. Otherwise, he warned, it was likely they’d get one with wastewater from a previous user fermenting in it.

For reasons that are still mysterious to me, 1913 was a turning point in the fortunes of the finger bowl. The Buffalo NY health department launched an attack on brass bowls, which they claimed were in use in over half of the city’s restaurants. Glass bowls could be sanitized with boiling water but brass, said the health commissioner, could not. Omaha hotelier Rome Miller declared that modern guests were more germ conscious than ever before and wanted everything – tea, coffee cream, breakfast cereal – individually packaged. For guests desiring to wash their fingertips after dining, he recommended silver holders with disposable paper inserts.

Whether due to the influence of Rome Miller or not, the city of Omaha totally outlawed reusable finger bowls in 1915. The ordinance did make one exception – for finger bowls “made from paper or other substance which shall be delivered after being once used and not used or offered for use a second time.” The crusading Mr. Miller was further vindicated a couple of years later when he learned that a New Jersey paper company was supplying 263 leading hotels with sanitary paper finger bowls. “And so the finger bowl marches on,” he wrote, revealing a surprising dedication to its future.

But, for the most part, it was not to be. Glass, brass, or paper, all would be swept aside. World War I delivered the coup de grace when the Food Administration implored restaurants to do away with excess china, silver, and glassware, whether service plates, side dishes, salad forks, or finger bowls. The few straggler bowls that survived that era were wiped out by another such war order in 1943. Since then, high-end restaurants that serve food requiring a clean-up afterwards provide scented towels while lower-price establishments go with packaged towelettes.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

*Dip one hand at a time and then dry your fingers on the napkin in your lap. Ignoring a finger bowl is a safe course.

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Chin Foin

In the early 20th century Chin Foin was considered Chicago’s foremost Chinese restaurateur, being affiliated with four of the city’s leading Chinese restaurants: the King Yen [above] and King Joy restaurants and the Mandarin Inn and New Mandarin Inn. His exact degree of ownership and management of the four over time is difficult to determine but it’s clear that his participation was significant. He also ran an import business in Chicago called Wing Chong Hai & Co.

His first restaurant King Yen Lo began inauspiciously in 1902 upstairs from a saloon, the notorious establishment of alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna on the corner of Clark and Van Buren. Operating above or behind a saloon was not uncommon for Chinese restaurants and may reflect difficulties the Chinese encountered in renting property. Additionally, having a restaurant nearby or physically connected may have served the interests of saloon keepers who wanted to evade early closing laws by funneling drinks through an eating place.

Whatever the case, the King Yen restaurant was better than it had to be. Like the other restaurants Chin Foin would run, it appealed to the non-Chinese after-theater crowd and featured orchestral music and steaks and chops alongside chop suey and “Mandarin” dishes. The kitchen was open for inspection and a special section was reserved for women unaccompanied by men, important since women shoppers were known to be fond of Chinese food. It’s not clear how long he was actively involved with King Yen but he was still an owner in 1907 when a Chinese envoy attended a formal dinner held there for the christening of Chin Foin’s infant son Theodore.

The King Joy restaurant on W. Randolph [pictured, ca. 1910] was a much bigger venture. It was a component of an international Chinese organization meant to raise funds for political and economic modernization in China. Investors included Chinese living in China and America as well as non-Chinese Chicagoans who supplied $125,000 [more than $3M today] to build the thoroughly modern restaurant. It opened in December of 1906 with Chin Foin as manager.

The investors in China must have heard that running restaurants in America was very profitable because little more than a year after the restaurant’s opening they began to complain about not receiving any dividends. I don’t know how all that was sorted out but clearly Chin Foin’s personal wealth was growing, enabling his family to move to a posh neighborhood in 1912. The newspaper reported he was a wealthy Yale graduate, which brought a grudging acceptance from a non-Chinese woman who said she could hardly object to a Chinese neighbor since, she observed, “We have Negroes out here now, and a few Goths and Visigoths.”

The very Americanized Chin Foin had ambitions of running a type of restaurant that was scarcely Chinese at all. After opening the Mandarin Inn in 1911 and the New Mandarin Inn in 1919 [pictured], both on South Wabash, he announced he had taken a 25-year lease on a Wilson Avenue property formerly occupied by a car dealer. To be called the Mandarin Gardens, the restaurant was supposed to open in 1921 but never did as far as I can tell. Reflecting on the upward arc of his restaurant career, he said in 1920, “Now we’ve cut out the far east features and operate a strictly American restaurant, and that’s what the Mandarin Gardens will be.”

The New Mandarin Inn had also shed some of its Chinese-ness. Since its opening in 1911 it had broken with Chinese restaurant tradition by using linens on the tables and serving European wines. Although it served Chinese dishes, it also offered Sunday chicken dinners and, in 1921, served a high-priced Easter dinner with choices such as Blue Points on the Half Shell, New Orleans Gumbo, Lamb with Mint Jelly, Whipped Potatoes, and Strawberry Shortcake.

Sadly, Chin Foin’s plans were abruptly terminated in 1924 when he stepped into an empty elevator shaft at the New Mandarin Inn. The subsequent owner of that restaurant, Don Joy, added “Chinese” features such as dragons on the front and a simulated temple roof. Don Joy’s Mandarin Inn closed in 1928, later to become a nightclub (Club Royale) and, eventually in 1959, Jimmy Wong’s Cantonese restaurant. The building occupied by King Yen was razed in the teens for a new location of the John R. Thompson’s lunchroom chain, while King Joy became the Rialto Gardens (Chinese), and then one of Dario Toffenetti’s cafeterias.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Early chains: John R. Thompson

Although it is largely forgotten today, the Chicago-based John R. Thompson company was one of the largest “one arm” lunchroom chains of the early 20th century. We so strongly associate fast food chains with hamburgers that it may be surprising to learn that Thompson’s popular sandwiches included Cervelat, smoked boiled tongue, cold boiled ham, hot frankfurter, cold corned beef, cold salmon, and Herkimer County cheese, served on “Milwaukee Rye Bread” baked by the chain’s bakery. Thompson was proud that his meals were suited for sedentary office workers of the 1900s and 1910s. A 1911 advertisement claimed that lunch at Thompson’s “won’t leave you logy and lazy and dull this afternoon.”

Thompson, an Illinois farm boy, ran a rural general store as his first business. He sold it in 1891, moved to Chicago, and opened a restaurant on State Street. He proved to be a modernizer in the restaurant business as well as in politics.

He operated his restaurants on a “scientific” basis, stressing cleanliness, nutrition, and quality while keeping prices low. In 1912 he moved the chain’s commissary into a premier new building on North Clark Street (pictured, today). Thompson’s, then with 68 self-service lunchrooms plus a chain of grocery stores, became a public corporation in 1914, after which it expanded outside Chicago and into Canada. By 1921 there were 109 restaurants, 49 of which were in Chicago and 11 in New York (with a commissary in NYC). By the mid-1920s Thompson’s, Childs, and Waldorf Lunch were the big three U.S. chains, small by comparison to McDonald’s but significant nevertheless.

In politics Thompson served as a Republican committeeman and managed the campaign of a “good government” gubernatorial candidate in 1904. A few years later he failed in his own bid to run for mayor, promising he would bring efficiency to government while improving schools and roads. In the 1920s he financed a personal crusade against handguns.

Despite John R. Thompson’s progressive politics, his business would go down in history as one that refused to serve Afro-Americans. Or, as civil rights leader Marvin Caplan put it in 1985, “If the chain is remembered today, it is not for its food, but for its refusal to serve it.” J. R. died in 1927. Where he stood on the question of public accommodations is unclear but the chain faced numerous lawsuits by blacks in the 1930s. However the best known case occurred in 1950 when a group of integrationists led by Mary Church Terrell was refused service in a Washington D.C. Thompson’s. The group was looking for a case that would test the validity of the district’s 19th-century public accommodations laws. After three years in the courts the Thompson case (for which the Washington Restaurant Association raised defense funds) made its way to the Supreme Court which affirmed the so-called “lost” anti-discrimination laws of 1872 and 1873 as valid.

Over the years the Thompson chain absorbed others, including Henrici’s and Raklios. At some point, possibly in the 1950s, the original Thompson’s concept was dropped. By 1956 Thompson’s operated Holloway House and Ontra cafeterias. In 1971, as Green Giant prepared to buy Thompson’s, it had about 100 restaurants, including Red Balloon family restaurants, Henrici’s restaurants, and Little Red Hen Chicken outlets.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Christmas feasting

Last year, thanks to a travel screw-up, we found ourselves eating Christmas dinner at a San Francisco hotel. It was new and chic, with a highly rated chef, so we could have fared much worse … and yet we were dissatisfied. There was something pompous about how dramatically the waiters poured soup from pitchers into bowls which had been daubed artistically with creme fraiche. Not to mention all the other absurd ceremony that surrounded the meal yet failed to prevent orders from being mixed up and food from arriving burnt or cold.

Anyway, this got me wondering about eating Christmas dinner in hotels roughly100 years ago, around the turn of the last century when lengthy formal dinners were still in vogue. Even though hotels were the best places other than home to have a holiday dinner then, I’m not sure we would have liked that experience any better.

For one thing, who could eat all the food hotels piled on? The menu shown here represents my distillation of the most typical dishes from about 20 Christmas dinner menus of American hotels from 1898 to 1906. I’ve selected only one dish for each course, whereas the actual menus often had three or more and diners could choose as many as they wanted! Though the number and sequence of the courses varied somewhat from hotel to hotel, the most common arrangement was as shown here. The meal began with Oysters (a course all their own in the U.S.), then Soups, Relishes, Fish, Relevé (featuring a roast despite a later Roasts course – I don’t get it), Entrées, Vegetables, Roasts, Game, Salads, Desserts (which could be subdivided, with hot desserts coming first, under Entremets), Cheese, and ending with Coffee. Strictly speaking the Relishes, Vegetables, and Salads are not separate courses as they would be served with other dishes. So I believe the sample shown here would be an 8-course dinner. Each course would have been accompanied with wine and brandy may have been served with the coffee.

There were some interesting regional dishes on the menus I looked at. The Hotel Metropole in Fargo ND offered Saddle of Antelope; the New Century Hotel in Union SC had Pompano and Carolina Quail; while the Tulane Hotel in Nashville had Stuffed Mangoes*, Fried Hominy, and Dew Drop Corn. The Hollenbeck Hotel in Los Angeles mentioned that its Turkey was “Pomona Farm Fed” and featured a salad of Monk’s Beard greens. Two hotels, in Alabama and Michigan, presented Suckling Pig that had been barbecued. Without doubt the most unusual menu was that of Jack H. Clancey’s Hotel Mabson, primarily accommodating traveling salesmen in Montgomery, Alabama. In addition to Pompano and Barbecued Suckling Pig, its Christmas menu – the only one entirely devoid of French – introduced dishes seen nowhere else such as Stuffed Tomatoes, Scrambled Calf’s Brains, and Grandma’s Fruit Cake.

Whatever kind of dinner you eat on Christmas Day, enjoy it!

* Thanks to food historian Gary Allen for decoding stuffed mangoes as stuffed bell peppers.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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