Taste of a decade: 1870s restaurants

Marked by a deep Depression with high rates of unemployment and business failure, the destruction of Chicago by fire, and the world’s most popular international fair to date, the 1870s are a tumultuous time for the burgeoning restaurant trade. On the one hand many restaurants fail, yet the field widens as new types and markets emerge. Despite a 14% unemployment rate, the appeal of dining out grows as many of the nearly 10 million visitors to Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition experience restaurants for the first time. Some of the fair’s restaurants set up permanent businesses when it ends.

The temperance movement introduces innovation with cheap coffee houses that demonstrate how to serve the masses on a strict budget without profits from alcoholic drinks. Under financial pressure American-plan hotels, which formerly provided limitless amounts of food with the price of a room, shut down their dining rooms, expanding the number of customers for outside restaurants. Better restaurants open special rooms and sections for unescorted women in response to growing demand. A Civil Rights Act is passed in 1875 that outlaws discrimination in public accommodations but it is disregarded and has little impact.

Experiencing reduced incomes, middle-class people wish for inexpensive eating places that are clean and have decent food. The NY Times comments, “Gentlemen who a few months ago would spend a dollar or so for a lunch and bottle of ale, now would be satisfied with a piece of roast beef and a glass of lager or cup of coffee…”

The country is primarily rural. As the decade begins only two cities have more than 500,000 population. The big wave of immigration has not yet begun, and many restaurants are run by Irish, English, and German immigrants from earlier decades. Refrigerated railway cars make it easier than ever before to ship dressed meat, oysters, seafood, fruits, and vegetables to all parts of the country, bringing luxuries to the tables of restaurants in out of the way spots.


1870 After dealing in spices, coffee, wholesale liquors, and real estate, and running a beer hall, ball room, distillery, dry goods store, and country hotel, Hanoverian baron Christian Wolfgang von Dwingelo, a refugee of the failed German revolution of 1848, opens a restaurant on William Street in NYC.

1871 Amidst the smoldering ruins of the Great Fire, inventive Chicagoans put their culinary operations on wheels and tour about the city supplying long lines of hungry patrons with fried fish, sausages, coffee, and pie. In a sense these are the first American “diners.”

1873 Harvey & Holden in Washington D.C., which claims to be the largest oyster house in the nation, serves premium oysters from Maryland and Virginia every day from 6 a.m. until midnight. The restaurant is moderately priced, except for black patrons who allege they are charged extortionate prices.

1874 The enterprising Frederick Kurtz, operator of four “Old-Established and First-Class Restaurants” in lower Manhattan advises his customers that he has “reduced the Prices of his Bill of Fare to the most reasonable rates, To Suit the Times.”

1875 At Thompson’s in Chicago, about one third of the patrons are women. Unlike most restaurants, no liquor is served here.

1876 The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia is well supplied with restaurants, among them a re-creation of the world-famous Trois Frères Provençeaux [Three Brothers from the Provinces] which closed in Paris four years earlier. One commentator prays it will influence America’s tough-steak-and-weak-coffee cookery.

1876 Edmund Hill of Hill’s Dining Rooms in Trenton NJ visits the Exposition for the seventh time and has dinner at Lauber’s German Restaurant with a refrigerator salesman. He writes in his diary, “There must have been a thousand persons there at the time I was eating.”

1877 After an editorial appears in the Boston Globe stating a need for decent, inexpensive restaurants, a reader writes in to complain about how “Dirt and democracy seem somehow inseparable” and the only clean restaurants are unaffordable ones such as Delmonico’s.

1878 At the Oyster Bay Restaurant on Alpine Street in Georgetown, Colorado, oysters are served “in all styles and at all hours.”

1879 Journalist and author Lafcadio Hearn starts a cheap restaurant in New Orleans called The Hard Times where all dishes cost 5 cents. He writes to a friend that he is “going to succeed sooner or later, even if he has to start an eating-house in Hell,” but rapidly goes out of business all the same.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; a href=”https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2013/09/24/taste-of-a-decade-1970s-restaurants/”>1970 to 1980


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6 responses to “Taste of a decade: 1870s restaurants

  1. Claire Lovell

    I just wanted to say thank you for your work 🙂
    I came across this site while putting together an exhibit about immigrants in New York and you’ve given me a new lead in Christian Wolfgang von Dwingelo. Thank you!!

  2. Fascinating, thank you! Where did you come across the image? Would be cool to have a hi-res version to print. I grew up in Cincinnati.

  3. Was the St Nicholas Restaurant actually in Cincinnati, or was it just that the image was printed there? Also, how were oysters transported to CIncinnati, or Colorado ( as it also says on this page) in those days?

    COOL site!

    • The St. Nicholas Restaurant was in Cincinnati, dating back at least into the 1850s. Cincinnati received shipments of fresh Baltimore oysters as early as the 1840s. Oysters were shipped to parts of the Midwest via steamboats from New Orleans. I can’t say how far back oyster shipping goes but at least into the 1700s when pickled oysters were packed for ships sailing the Atlantic. Canned oysters became a big part of the Eastern oyster industry as soon as westward settlement began. Fresh oysters could stay alive for a couple of weeks if left in their shells and shipped in barrels in seaweed and brine. Live oysters removed from the shells and packed in ice could be shipped by rail when that became available but that had to be done much faster, in a couple of days. The incentive was that shipping fees were less without the heavy shells.

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