As one year ends and another begins, it’s a good time to think about what’s old and what’s new. For example, talking on a phone at the table in a restaurant seems a new-ish kind of activity. Of course you realize that I’m going to tell you it isn’t.
Even though the telephone was invented in the 1870s, it took a while for it to become an everyday necessity. So it was still newsworthy when restaurants began to provide telephone service at patrons’ tables in the early 1900s. The customer had only to say to the waiter, “Bring me a telephone,” and it would be placed on the table and plugged into a jack.
In the first few years of the 20th century tabletop telephone service was available in Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Boston, and probably all big cities. Chicago restaurants such as Kinsley’s, the Bismarck, and Boston Oyster House (pictured), as well as the tea room at Mandel Brothers department store were outfitted with table telephones. Boston’s R. H. White department store also had phone service in its restaurant. In both these stores the telephones were undoubtedly in the men’s, not the women’s, sections.
Fans of old movies might remember scenes where waiters rush telephones to male VIPs enjoying the evening out dressed in tuxedos and accompanied by mink-clad companions. But, actually, early restaurant phoning was apparently more like today’s: business transactions, usually conducted at lunch. Stock brokers in New York City — who paid a monthly telephone rental fee and might take as many as 30 calls while lunching at a restaurant — were at least liberated from their earlier practice of gulping sandwiches at their desks.
Social commentators worried about the effect on health, how working during times meant for rest would cause “brain fag” and indigestion. The invasion of the restaurant by telephones inspired one journalist in 1902 to imagine how one day “some brilliant genius will invent a telephone that can be carried in the vest pocket and then the hustling American can wire messages to his wife, telling how busy he is while he is crossing the street or going up in the elevator.”
© Jan Whitaker, 2010