If the number of newspaper stories is a reliable index to a trend, then a fad for stealing small items from restaurant tables began in the 1890s. Its continuing incidence is perhaps one reason why table appointments gradually became far less elegant and costly.
A flurry of stories appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries about affluent society people who “collected” cordial glasses, demitasse cups, salt cellars, silver spoons, oyster forks, and nut picks as “souvenirs” of first-class hotel dining rooms and restaurants. Anything small that bore an insignia from an elite establishment sent out an irresistible message: “Take me home with you.” Or, as a NYC restaurant owner would confirm decades later, “Put a spoon on a table with a fancy crest on it and kiss it goodbye.”
The “thieves” – a term pointedly avoided by all – were usually identified as young women from the best families, though men were also known to freely pocket alluring items. It was especially attractive to pick things up while traveling. Women would display their booty in cabinets with little ribbons and tags that gave the date and occasion that each bibelot commemorated.
How cute! A little less cute, though, were college student pranks following athletic competitions. A gang of Amherst College students met with suspension after they raided three railroad restaurants on the return train trip from a Dartmouth football game in 1893. During their “wilding” episode they descended en masse on three successive Vermont depot restaurants, making off with everything they could grab from sandwiches and ginger ale to dishes and spoons to remind them later of their escapades.
Typically souvenir hunters were portrayed as feeling not the least bit guilty about their some-would-say-larcenous activities. “I must steal one of those lovely things,” said a woman at a fashionable restaurant. Her friends merely laughed. Another received encouragement from her luncheon companions when she declared she wanted to snag a silver match case for her husband. “So she tucked it in her muff and went out with the glee of a smuggler,” the story relayed.
Often these activities brought forth a degree of censure among reporters and readers. Was it not true, for instance, that these same people would probably condemn a poor man for stealing food? Was it really a victimless crime? Didn’t waiters have their small wages docked for missing silver?
The moral code, such as it was, decreed that stealing from need was a crime, but stealing something you didn’t need or could easily afford to pay for was not a crime. Plus, as much as restaurateurs hated it, who wanted to accuse wealthy guests of stealing? Prosecution, or even confrontation, was rare though sometimes additional charges – curiously hard to read – were levied on a check. Over time menu prices crept up to cover shrinkage, tableware became ordinary, and pepper mills grew monstrous.
We’d probably hear more on this subject, particularly on the diverse range of things taken from restaurants, but restaurant managers prefer to keep silent. As one confessed in 1976, “We don’t like to talk about this sort of thing. It only gives the public more ideas.” © Jan Whitaker, 2013