People liked to say that the names of lunch room chains in the early 20th century offered a lesson in geography. There were Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Hartford, Iowa, Manhattan, Maryland, Milwaukee, New York, Pennsylvania, Pittsburg, St. Louis, and Utica Lunches, or Dairy Lunches as some were known. Los Angelenos patronized a New York Lunch in 1905, while customers in Duluth MN, Lexington KY, and San Francisco enjoyed their sandwiches in a Boston Lunch. Detroit had its Manhattan Lunch, while Manhattan had a Detroit Lunch. And so on.
But before the 1920s no lunchroom chain was as popular as the Baltimore Dairy Lunch which at that time outnumbered Childs. Founder James A. Whitcomb began the business in the late 1880s in Washington, D.C., where he was a federal postal clerk, then opening a lunch room in Baltimore. Along with four quasi-franchisers, he controlled about 140 units by 1920. The largest branch, under the ownership of Harry Bowles in Springfield MA, consisted of a couple dozen units. Few large cities were without a Baltimore Dairy Lunch, as Whitcomb’s were named, or a Baltimore Lunch, the name used by Bowles.
Whether they belonged to large or small chains or were independents, Baltimores or Buffalos, all Lunches were similar. As someone put it, “It’s an age of standardization, and one restaurant is now much like every other, barring minor differences.” A humorous story in Everybody’s Magazine in 1914 featured a cranky elderly man who went around from lunch room to lunch room asking the local wits, “What is the difference between a Hartford Lunch and a Baltimore Lunch.” Their answer was always the same, “Search me.”
Regardless of their similarity, dairy lunches were regarded as characteristically and proudly American, so much so that during battle in World War I, after U.S. soldiers took control of an improvised clubhouse used by German troops, they tore down a sign the Germans had posted over the door that said “Hindenburg Rathskeller” and replaced it with “Baltimore Lunch.”
Baltimore Lunches shared many features in common with the fast food chains that arrived in the 1960s. Their offerings were simple and inexpensive. No alcohol was served. Customers got their food at a counter and carried it to their seats. Seating – one-armed wooden chairs — was uncomfortable and did not encourage lingering. Patrons didn’t mind, though, because they were interested in expediting the entire getting and eating process so they could go about their business.
Unlike fast food architecture of the 1960s, though, Baltimore Lunches were built as solidly and luxuriously as Grecian temples. Interiors used marble lavishly for counters and fixtures. Was it because both Whitcomb and Bowles were natives of Vermont, the state where so much marble is quarried? Maybe, but I think that marble was an expression of cleanliness and investment in a growing economy’s ability to efficiently mass produce affordable, nutritious meals. A standard feature of the Baltimore Lunch – a large marble bowl filled with sugar set on a marble pedestal — can easily be seen as a representation of democratic abundance.
© Jan Whitaker, 2014