It would be unusual to find an advertising card from an American restaurant with such a humorous attitude toward rats as shown on this French postcard. Here we see the “rat who is not dead,” a play on The Dead Rat, a famous bohemian café in 1920s Paris. In this country, restaurants would rather their customers never think about rats or other vermin. Their customers also prefer to put the subject out of mind.
As a consequence, researching this topic is not so easy – BUT it is possible. Even the impeccable Delmonico’s, at its peak in the 1850s, used the historic version of Roach Doom, also lethal to rats. Cheap restaurants of the 1870s were known familiarly as “cockroach dens” and one New York place was dubbed Cockroach Hall, all very funny until rumors circulated that cockroaches were regularly seen floating in the minestrone. Bohemian joints in San Francisco were renowned for keeping monkeys and parrots and winking at the roaches swarming the walls. Over time patrons became less tolerant of these conditions. Really, who could disagree with the journalist of the 1890s who wrote, “A dining room that smells of grease or mold or stale cookery, or that has cockroaches in the wainscot that peep out at the customer as he sits at dinner … is not a desirable place to go”?
The real crackdown came in the early 20th century after exposés described unhygienic kitchens to a public already queasy from revelations about Chicago stockyards. Cities enacted tougher sanitary laws and sent out inspectors with the power to shut down filthy eateries. Still, I recall the large rat that glanced at me as it went about its business a few years ago in New York lunchroom late at night. The truth is they will never totally go away.
© Jan Whitaker, 2008