Once upon a time finger bowls were routinely presented with the check in expensive restaurants. To the average American, who probably never went to this type of restaurant, they were a great source of humor. Jokes typically involved an unsophisticated restaurant patron drinking water from the bowl or eating the lemon slices floating in it. The funny stories demonstrated the joy Americans take in spearing pretentiousness, a quality which finger bowls epitomized to many.
Like salad forks and menus in French, using finger bowls was an esoteric social custom that was certain to befuddle the average person. How many fingers do you put into the bowl at once? What do you do after you get your fingers wet? Must you use it at all?*
These questions would soon fade from American culture because the finger bowl was about to run afoul of history in the World War I era.
Yet in the decade before finger bowls met their downfall, the number of restaurants providing them actually increased. Live music and finger bowls were two amenities put forward as competitive attractions over places that didn’t have them. Some observers believed that because so many restaurants adopted finger bowls, it deprived them of the eliteness they once enjoyed and that this was a factor in their downfall.
Further warning signs of the finger bowl’s decline in status surfaced as early as 1908 when a veteran waiter confessed to a reporter that wise patrons should demand to witness their waiter filling the bowl. Otherwise, he warned, it was likely they’d get one with wastewater from a previous user fermenting in it.
For reasons that are still mysterious to me, 1913 was a turning point in the fortunes of the finger bowl. The Buffalo NY health department launched an attack on brass bowls, which they claimed were in use in over half of the city’s restaurants. Glass bowls could be sanitized with boiling water but brass, said the health commissioner, could not. Omaha hotelier Rome Miller declared that modern guests were more germ conscious than ever before and wanted everything – tea, coffee cream, breakfast cereal – individually packaged. For guests desiring to wash their fingertips after dining, he recommended silver holders with disposable paper inserts.
Whether due to the influence of Rome Miller or not, the city of Omaha totally outlawed reusable finger bowls in 1915. The ordinance did make one exception – for finger bowls “made from paper or other substance which shall be delivered after being once used and not used or offered for use a second time.” The crusading Mr. Miller was further vindicated a couple of years later when he learned that a New Jersey paper company was supplying 263 leading hotels with sanitary paper finger bowls. “And so the finger bowl marches on,” he wrote, revealing a surprising dedication to its future.
But, for the most part, it was not to be. Glass, brass, or paper, all would be swept aside. World War I delivered the coup de grace when the Food Administration implored restaurants to do away with excess china, silver, and glassware, whether service plates, side dishes, salad forks, or finger bowls. The few straggler bowls that survived that era were wiped out by another such war order in 1943. Since then, high-end restaurants that serve food requiring a clean-up afterwards provide scented towels while lower-price establishments go with packaged towelettes.
© Jan Whitaker, 2011
*Dip one hand at a time and then dry your fingers on the napkin in your lap. Ignoring a finger bowl is a safe course.