Restaurant-ing in Metropolis

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In the depths of the Depression, in 1934, Harper & Bros. published a book of 304 photographs called Metropolis. Most of the photos were by Edward M. Weyer, Jr., an anthropologist who wanted to show how people in greater NYC lived. Captions were supplied by the popular writer Frederick Lewis Allen.

In a 2010 NY Times story the book was described as a “romantic masterpiece of street photography” composed of “moody black-and-white coverage of day-to-day life in New York in the ’30s. Beggars, snow-shoveling squads, schooner crews, railroad commuters, subway crowds, tenement life, tugboats, a sidewalk craps game. . .”

I find it particularly interesting that a major focus of the book was to contrast how different social classes lived, illustrated in part by where they ate lunch.

The central narrative follows employees of a company headed by a Mr. Roberts. He lives in a house on a 4-acre plot in Connecticut, commutes to New York, and employs a house maid whose duties include fixing his wife’s lunch each day. On the day he is being profiled Mr. Roberts eats a $1.00 table d’hôte lunch at his club (equal to $17 today). So frugal, Mr. R.

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Mr. Roberts is visited by a Mr. Smith from out of town (shown above looking out hotel window). Mr. Smith “stands for all those who come to the city from a distance,” whether Los Angeles, Boston, or elsewhere. He is “reasonably well off.” Mr. Smith eats a $1.25 table d’hôte lunch – er, luncheon — in a dining room on a hotel roof (pictured). Prices are high there, making his meal a relative bargain. Had he wanted to splurge he could have ordered a Cocktail (.40), Lobster Thermidor ($1.25), and Cucumber Salad (.45) – total $2.10. I would guess that many visitors to New York tend to spend more on restaurants than natives.

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Mr. Roberts’ secretary, Miss Jordan, lives with her mother and brother in an apartment just off Riverside Drive. With a combined family income of less than $4,000 the three can barely afford their $125/month rent. She goes to lunch at a café (pictured) and orders To-Day’s Luncheon Special which consists of Tomato Juice, Corned Beef Hash with Poached Egg, Ice Cream, and Coffee, all for 40 cents. Frankly, I don’t see how she can afford to do this every day.

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Miss O’Hara and Miss Kalisch transcribe dictation from other executives in the firm and each makes about $22.50 a week. Miss Kalisch lives in Astoria, Queens, and is married. Evidently she is pretending to be single in order to hold her job (her name is really Mrs. Rosenbloom). Miss O’Hara lives with her father in a somewhat decrepit apartment costing almost half her wages. Her father has been out of work for three years. The two women eat lunch at a drugstore counter (pictured) where they order Ham on Rye Sandwiches, Chocolate Cake, and Coffee (.30). I fear Miss O’Hara is living beyond her means if she does this often.

Miss Heilman, a young clerk, makes about $16.50 a week and is subject to occasional layoffs. She lives with her brother, his wife, and their two children in a 3-room apartment in Hoboken NJ, for which they pay $15/month. Like the other “girls” at the bottom of the totem pole she brings a sandwich and eats it in the office.

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Mr. Smith, being on his own, must go out for dinner. Once again he chooses a hotel roof garden (pictured), where about half the guests are also out-of-towners. With a live orchestra and dancing, it is undoubtedly expensive. I’m guessing he went for the Cocktail and Lobster Thermidor this time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Restaurant-ing in Metropolis

  1. alan w.

    This blog never ceases to amaze me. Now, I must locate a copy of this book.

    What drew me here, was the item you wrote about Toto’s in Holyoke. I remember Toto’s and, in fact, my family drove by it the day it burned in the early 1960s. I remember it had an ersatz Zeppelin top made of wood and canvas, treated with whatever was used to make aircraft fabric waterproof and then painted. In any event, it was very flammable. The place was gone in minutes and I was witness to the aftermath of the Holyoke Fire Department on the scene, back in the day when Holyoke was still a functional city and there was a civic response to fires within the city limits.

    Too often in studying history, we overlook things like where, how and what we ate and these are as much a part of history as the all-too-frequent wars and politicians who get us into them and/or economic problems. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

    I recall you had some material about Ruth Wakefield and the Toll House, of cookie fame. If you are interested in reading more of my deathless prose, I will gladly share the story of how Mrs. Wakefield threw my paternal grandfather out of the Toll House in 1935. Hilarious it is!

    • Thanks for the wonderful details about Toto’s. I’d love to hear your Toll House story. Sounds like a great one.

      • alan w.

        My paternal grandfather was travelling with his family and they stopped at the Toll House and went in, it being one of the few restaurants in that area at the time. My father, the youngest of three sons, was then all of three or four years old and when it came time for him to order he indicated he wanted a peanut butter sandwich. The young lady taking the order went and got Mrs. Wakefield, who heard my father repeat this and, well, it was just too much for her. She came unglued, released a string of invective that would have done Captain Bligh proud, then finally calmed down enough to catch her breath and tell them to leave and never return. Funny thing is, my grandfather was an eye surgeon, his earnings remained intact through the great depression and he generally carried enough cash on his person to buy the Toll House. In the late 1960s, my family happened to drive by the Toll House and I heard the story. I asked if we would go in and my father remarked that he was probably still barred from entry.

        As I re-read this, it is not much of a story, though I do think it is illustrative of Mrs. Wakefield’s character.

      • Great story — a meltdown over peanut butter. Incredible!

  2. Gary Gillman

    Excellent work, I like the “documentary” tone of your narrative. Intended or no, it reminds me of the 7-Up film series narrations or its (arguable) predecessor, Mass-Observation. Well done.

    Gary

  3. Unbelievable to think about going out for a meal with a view… and I love a maid fixing the wife’s lunch while the husband gets to eat out. Of course, the connection between going for lunch with colleagues vs. staying at one’s desk would then, as now, been part of the “expense” of being an active part of one’s workplace.

  4. Fascinating, love the pairing with pix. Really enjoy your columns, Thanks!!
    Patti “A”

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