Beverages have played a big role in the operation of restaurants. I even tend to sort them mentally by what kind of drinks they featured. That is, by whether they had a bar or dealt in alcoholic beverages or were based around coffee, tea, or soft drinks. Throughout history many restaurants began as saloons, coffee houses, or soft drink stands.
Thompson’s Spa, a long-gone chain in Boston that grew to about a dozen units in the 1930s, began as a soda fountain – a “spa” — selling non-alcoholic “temperance drinks.” Open year round, it provided both cold and hot drinks such as these from its 1895 menu:In case anyone wandered in thinking they were going to get a whiskey, a sign hanging on the wall set them straight: “This is a temperance bar.” Not a big problem since they could duck around the corner and into the alley where the Bell in Hand stood, looking to all appearances like an old London tavern.
Before very long Thompson’s proprietor, Charles Eaton, added sandwiches, doughnuts, and pie to the menu, ALL of which counted as basic foodstuffs – not desserts — to Bostonians then.
Eaton was a graduate of MIT who in 1880, after briefly practicing as an architect in his home town of Lowell MA, had invented an electric telephone signaling device that he sold to Bell Telephone. For some odd reason he chucked that career and joined his brother-in-law (named Thompson) in running a wholesale drug store in Boston. Perhaps selling was in his genes; his father had done well peddling snacks to railroad passengers, thereby earning the title “popcorn king of Lowell.” The drug business must have been slow because in 1882 Eaton and Thompson decided to install a soda fountain for non-alcoholic beverages.
The original Thompson’s Spa was located on the corner of Washington and Court streets in Newspaper Row where the city’s newspapers were located and also home to many of their employes. Near Thompson’s was Pi Alley, aka Pie Alley and officially Williams Court, where many printers, compositors, and pressmen lived in rooming houses and, undoubtedly, ate in restaurants. Eating places were accordingly plentiful in the neighborhood, among them Gridley’s Coffee House and Mrs. Atkinson’s.
Thompson’s kept the appellation “spa” even as it gradually expanded into a regulation restaurant. It added a fuller menu plus much-appreciated amenities such as seats for customers, who had previously had to stand while they ate. Women were finally admitted in 1909. [1933 dinner menu shown]
Although Thompson’s had servers, the spa exhibited some of the earmarks of an automat. Like the early German automat which was primarily a delivery system for beverages, Thompson’s had an elaborate piping system to supply chilled liquids to serving counters. With the decision to add ice cream to the menu in 1915, a new soda fountain was installed that permitted syrups to flow through pipes as well. A bonus was that the soda clerks could prepare an entire ice cream soda or sundae while facing the customers rather than turning their backs.
After Eaton’s death in 1917, followed by a bitter battle with his widow, his three sons took over the business and began to expand it beyond the sprawling Washington street edifice it had become. By 1939 it occupied eleven locations in downtown Boston. In addition to soda fountains the Spas had air conditioning, sound proofing, table service, and wall murals. But the company’s finances were not in good shape, due partly to overexpansion during the Depression. In 1946 it was acquired by the Sheraton (hotel) Corporation which daringly installed a cocktail bar at the Washington Street location. In 1949 Sheraton sold the company to New York’s Exchange Buffet Corporation which also failed to make a go of it and began closing units in 1952.
In 1958 the two Spas that remained, one of them on Washington street near the original location, were closed. Former executives and employees tried to carry on at one location for a few years.
© Jan Whitaker, 2014
21 responses to “Famous in its day: Thompson’s Spa”
What a neat article! I was researching some old newspapers (from 1911) and noticed that when the old Boston Globes gave the weather they always gave the temp at “Thompson’s Spa.” I figured there was a story behind that. Thanks for making it easy to find! (I imagine the newspaper reporters —
having lunch at the Spa — found that a convenient spot to check the temp while they ate). I live near Lowell and never heard about Charles Eaton before. Thanks!
Thanks for your comment!
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My sister, Marie Flaherty worked at a Thompson’s Spa near the old Boston Garden in the 1940’s. She said that Walter Brown, owner of the “Garden,” used to give free passes to his favorite server, Mary Flynn. It was a nice place.
My grandfather, John Whitley worked there back in the 40’s. I wish he was around to ask questions… saw on the census where he worked. The menu looked great.
My mother worked at Thompson’s Spa prior to marrying my father in 1939. I know that the girls who worked there were held to a high standard – their aprons were starched and tied in perfect bows in the back. The girls used to tie each other’s bows – for some reason they tied them from the front and reached around their waists – Mom tied my dresses the exact same way, from the front. Thanks for posting this, I googled it out of the blue this morning – Mom’s been gone seven years, but it’s to have this sort of memory come out of the blue.
My Father and another drove a Thompson Spa Delivery Truck back in the 40’s. His name was Lloyd Marshall and other’s was Joe Pimm. I have a snapshot picture of them by the Thompson’s truck I will try to find. Also, we have a few of their heavy ribbed crimson water glasses. My Mom brought me there as a lad to eat one day. Get this, I was in the Navy at the South Weymouth Base in 1985 and guess who I met……Kevin Pimm, Joe’s son!
My family just moved from NY to the Boston area. My mom took my brother and me to downtown Boston for Christmas shopping. She decided to take us to eat at Thompson’s Spa for dinner. It was such a nice place to dine out. Those were the days, great stores, great restaurants.
Read that Leonard Bernstein’s father used to lunch at Thompson’s and wanted to find out what kind of place it was. Thanks.
I am watching “Made For Each Other” and Jimmy Stewart meets Carol Lombard at Thompson’s Spa in Boston and marries her on the spot, so I looked up Thompson’s Spa. Thanks for article
And thanks for that bit of movie info!
hey, that’s exactly why I looked it up! Love that movie.
My GrandFather worked there I think in the 1930s I would love to see any pic of the Spa back then..his name was Charles Daly….
Hi Jan! I’m curious, where did you do your research/find your images on Thompson’s?
Old newspapers and e-Bay. The color image at the top is from a matchcover.
Thank you for your well-researched and beautifully documented essays. I am curious about something. Perhaps you can help: I have noticed on a number of regular (not special-occasion) menus from the late 19th and early 20th c. menus precise dates on them. Are these really daily menus? Weren’t printing costs a consideration at this time? What’s your take on this?
Thanks, Alison. I’m a fan of your book Smart Casual! Aside from lunch rooms that had unvarying “bills of fare,” I think it was the norm to issue a daily menu in that time period. Small table d’hotes usually wrote them out in longhand, while larger restaurants had them printed. I doubt that it cost an exorbitant amount (though I admit I’ve never specifically researched that question). Again, it’s only a suspicion but For some reason I wonder if large hotels may have had their own printing offices.
Fascinating, Jan. Thank you for your reply.
When I first moved to the Springfield, MA, area from NY I wondered what the Court Square Spa was all about. Soon I realized there were spas scattered throughout the city. Now they seem to have all disappeared, but I was never able to determine a definition. Thanks for explaining this New England (Massachusetts only?) curiosity, “spa.”
I shared your curiosity when I moved to Massachusetts too. But it seems the term was used in states outside New England also. I suspect it hung on longer here though, way beyond the time it would have been considered old-fashioned elsewhere.