Whiteness in restaurants has had multiple dimensions. When it swept through the lunchroom industry in the early twentieth century the obvious intent was to denote cleanliness through the liberal use of marble and porcelain table tops and counters, and white tile walls and floors.
With names like White Kitchen, Sanitary Café, and Purity Cafeteria, large lunchrooms, led by the Childs’ and Thompson’s chains, advertised not only their cleanliness but their modernity and efficiency with ceramic tile, plate glass windows, and bright electric lights. They sent a message that they could not be more unlike “the old hole-in-the-wall lunch room, with its flickering lights, its smoky atmosphere, its greasy walls and sawdust carpeted floor,” according to Edison Monthly in 1911. Though the story didn’t say so, it’s likely readers would have associated the greasy old days with ethnic proprietors and the reign of the saloon-cum-eatery.
White tile lunchrooms figured as heralds of modernity to critic Lewis Mumford. Although he found them noisy and sterile, he was impressed with their machine age provenance (“If one looks carefully at the floors, the cutlery, the tables, the chairs, and the rest of the fixtures one discovers that there is not an object in the place which is not a machine product.”). In “The Quick-Lunch Counter,” poet William Rose Benét selected them as an exemplary institution of the World War I era alongside movie theaters and skyscrapers, with the lines:
Then a sharp command.
And, starting up, I take in hand
My share of thick white china, holding
Limp bread some limper ham enfolding,
Brown doughnuts, and a liquid less so.
(They call it ‘coffee.’ Well, I guess so!)
At the same time as white tile was being installed to cover up the unsanitary wood beneath it, other kinds of whitenings were taking place in the emerging “quick lunch” marketplace. Demands by the public — made up of growing ranks of male and female white-collar office workers — for greater cleanliness brought rejection of waiters’ European-style black garb which gave way to white uniforms. Many of the wearers of white were women servers who replaced men, oftentimes black men who had long made up the bulk of America’s waiters.
And while white-tile lunchcounters were scarcely the only eating places to refuse service to black patrons, it should be noted that the chains’ progressive attitudes did not extend to equal treatment of everyone who came through their doors. In the same years that the Busy Bee outlets in Columbus OH replaced black waiters with white women the chain grudgingly seated black patrons in the rear of its shiny lunchrooms and charged them higher prices.
The frankly businesslike hustle and bustle of the white tile lunchrooms lost steam in the 1920s and came to a definite close with the Depression of the 1930s. The public had lost their distrust of restaurants and no longer demanded visible proof they were sanitary. But even more significant a reason for their decline was the wish for escape from the tedium and anxiety of everyday life. Bright colors and movie-set interiors became the new order of the day.
© Jan Whitaker, 2011