Have you ever wondered how many items in a first-class restaurant are placed on and later removed from a table of two diners? Think of tablecloths, napkins, bread plates, water and wine glasses, candles, flower vases, six or more separate pieces of silverware for each, some of them replaced during the meal, salt and pepper shakers, condiment bottles, butter and olive oil holders, bread baskets, not to mention all of the food-bearing dishes in a multi-course meal . . .
In 1929 a highly systematized hotel chain that kept track of these things – probably the Statler – declared the number was 100. Most of the items were brought and removed by the waiter’s waiter, the busboy. (There were no busgirls then, few now.)
The busboy’s job also entailed ferrying heavy loads of dishes, glasses, and silverware – clean and dirty – to and from the kitchen which was often in the basement. And, should anything be broken or spilled by anyone, it was his job to clean it up. And to keep the waiter happy. In European restaurants, and perhaps a few in America, the waiter never entered the kitchen, this being delegated to his busboy.
Omnibus boy was the name of the position in the 19th century, meaning a restaurant worker who does all kinds of menial jobs. Around the turn of the last century it was shortened to busboy, and after World War I the longer word was rarely used. The word “boy” of course is routinely applied to holders of lowly jobs, all the more so if they are black or ethnic minorities as so often happens. Historically many busboys were in fact in their 30s and 40s.
The job can work out as an apprenticeship particularly useful for those who are learning English as an additional language. Many stories tell of those who began as busboys, such as Oscar Tschirky of Switzerland, maître d’hôtel of Delmonico’s and the Waldorf, who rose to high positions in hotels and restaurants. This was unusual. Mere survival was difficult enough in a position so strenuous and poorly paid. A bus boy revealed in 1920 that he received $15 a week plus meals for working an 11-hour shift that ran from 7:30 pm until 6:30 am. Meals were no small thing to busboys, nor to other restaurant personnel. Some hotels and restaurants paid no wages to busboys, considering them in the employ of the waiters. In any case, waiters were, and are, expected to share their tips with busboys.
The classic European uniform for busboys – not often adopted in the US — consisted of a short black jacket, black tie (in contrast to the waiter’s white tie), and a long apron. Over time busboy uniforms have become varied, though usually inconspicuously so. However, in the 1980s busboys at Sonny Bono’s restaurant in Palm Springs wore T-shirts decorated with his picture.
© Jan Whitaker 2013