Between courses: dining with reds

In July of 1928 the Communist Party in the United States opened a public cafeteria on the ground floor of their headquarters in New York City, home also to The Daily Worker. The headquarters, known as the Workers’ Centre, was at 26-28 Union Square East and also contained a cooperative barber shop in which the barbers did not accept tips.

The restaurant was called Proletcos Cooperative Cafeteria. Proletcos was said to be a name created by a garment worker who combined the first two syllables of PROLETarian with the CO of cooperative, then added an S.

It’s not surprising that Communists would select a cafeteria as their preferred format for a restaurant. There is something socialistic about cafeterias, with their self-service and no-tipping customs. They were widely adopted in industrial plants and among working women’s organizations of the 1890s. Two home economists created a chain of cooperative cafeterias in NYC in 1920, called Our Cooperative Cafeterias, which dispersed an annual rebate to customers who were members. Evidently it was unrelated to the Communists’ project. Proletcos, whose prices were about average for a cafeteria, gave a 10% discount to its 600 shareholders. Its workers were guaranteed an 8-hour day and good working conditions.

Proletcos was enlarged in November of 1928 and was able to serve nearly 6,000 meals a day. Artist Hugo Gellert, a lifelong Marxist and co-founder of The New Masses magazine, created a mural for the expanded and refurbished restaurant in which sturdy workers and Communist heros such as Sacco and Vanzetti, John Reed, and Vladimir Lenin, all 10 feet tall, loomed over the dining room (pictured). According to a story in the New Yorker, the cafeteria was quite up to date, with tile floors, brass railings, and modern light fixtures.

The cafeteria had a short life lasting only a couple of years in which it served workers, many of them from the garment district, along with students who liked to hang out, drink coffee, and discuss the issues of the times. It evidently came to an end in 1930 when the CP moved its headquarters from Union Square to East 13th Street.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010


Filed under cafeterias, Offbeat places

7 responses to “Between courses: dining with reds

  1. Fascinating blog!

    My dad used to tell me of a tiny storefront place during the Depression that only served excellent Borscht with your purchased copy of The Daily Worker. It was located in Gary, IN. You sat at a lunch counter read the paper and relished your soup.

    Dad owned a fleet of two dump trucks contracted with the WPA to haul coal and black dirt and traveled all over the Chicago Metro area back then. This Communist run “soup kitchen” was his favorite place for lunch when on the East side.

    • Thanks so much for this. I’d love to know the name — gives me something to search for.

      • I’d like to know its name, too!
        I’ve searched and can’t find anything. Dad never said. But it may not have had a name. Soup kitchens didn’t necessarily have them, did they? Mostly known by what church or community group sponsored them, I think.

      • True, they didn’t have names if they were run by charities, but if he really did sit at a lunch counter it probably was a business with a name.

  2. Mark

    What about John’s of 12th street italian restaurant on 12th street??!! No one ever discusses this place in the NY Times or on blogs because they’re not trying to rob the gliteratti with over priced drinks and stories of some romantic past. Truth is- this place is unchanged since 1908. The food is good but it’s not pretentious and NY’s food snobs can’t believe this is how people in a real neighborhood (East Village when it was Lower East Side) actually ate. Waiters work there for years and it looks as it did in 1908!! This is a REAL old place. Not created by some stage designer. Ah, well. Still a terrific hideaway. Oh, and they take only cash – as it was in 1908. That’s a real step back!!

  3. Barton Byg

    I wonder what the class appeal of cafeterias is, aside from politics. I thought the bare-bones style and modest selecton of the East German “Betriebskantine” (factory canteen) was a product of economic limitations, but find a number of them in the united Germany unchanged since 1989.

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