In 1921 a café in Kalamazoo, Michigan, advertised that it would offer a selection of Thanksgiving dinners at different prices. The most expensive was 85 cents, then came a 65-cent dinner, one at 60 cents, and a 50-cent dinner. In today’s dollars, they would range in price from a high of $11.10 to a low of $6.51.
All dinners began with tomato soup. They featured four types of roast meat: beef, pork, turkey, and chicken, with accompanying dishes that were not fancy. Strangely the menus made no mention of dessert. Perhaps it was not included in the price of the dinner. Since selling alcoholic beverages was illegal in 1921, it’s likely that Thanksgiving diners would have had coffee.
The name of the restaurant was the Bon Ton. Its proprietors were the Thenos brothers, Nicholas and George, of Greek heritage. The small restaurant advertised that it was “open all hours” and had moderate prices. It employed women as servers. I have not been able to find a photograph of it, but undoubtedly it followed the typical café configuration of its time with a counter running down one side of a narrow storefront space and tables on the other side, with the kitchen at the rear.
Can you identify the most expensive dinner? Study the four Thanksgiving menus (which I have re-created using menu blanks) and decide which you think was the 85-cent dinner, which the 65-cent dinner, etc.
Answers in the Comments, on Thanksgiving Day.
© Jan Whitaker, 2014
12 responses to “Thanksgiving quiz: dinner times four”
I agree with everything Frank O’Hara said. Also, the invention of refrigeration turned us from a nation of pork eaters to beef eaters. Cattle raising in the West took off when refrigerator cars could carry centrally slaughtered and dressed beef all over the country. Before that, beef had been distinctly ahead of pork in price and prestige. The pig was a much more manageable animal in terms of size and took better to smoking. I’m wondering if this confluence of events c.1920 is what turned us into a burger nation.
Very likely, once they got over their squeamishness about its purity and the opinion that it was poor people’s food. The Depression helped with that. Thanks for your comments.
Everyone correctly put chicken toward the high end and pork toward the low, but only one commenter was 100% correct, that being Frank O’Hara who also supplied an explanation! And thanks for that. The Turkey dinner was the most expensive (85 cents), then the Chicken (65 cents), then the Pork (60 cents), then the Beef (50 cents). But it is harder to determine how accurately the prices reveal the Bon Ton’s costs. And also to know how much the side dishes contributed to the price of each dinner. BTW Kalamazoo County was still the nation’s leading celery producer in the early 1920s.
I think chicken was the most expensive. Chicken was a luxury meat at the time–a chicken in every pot!
From low to high: beef, pork, chicken and turkeys. Reasons: WWI ended, and beef and pork is unloaded into the market due to surplus. Market ready. Turkeys offer a slower growth and is a specialty meat compared to chickens. Beef and pork has extended storage and preservation over chicken and turkey. In 1921, turkey production was less intensive and was very different in how we got our turkey. Greater preparation for a turkey required and emphasis on freshness was important.
Cheapest first: pork, chicken, beef, turkey
My guess is turkey, chicken, beef, and pork in order from high to low price. I would multiply by at least 15 for in 2014 dollars and restaurant prices.
I used Measuring Worth to determine 2013 prices, but I agree that they seem too low.
Indexes (indices?) are problematic because they have to be pegged somewhere, but actual prices prices vary by commodity and service. I’m basing my estimate of current price from about $8-9 to $14-15 on anecdotal evidence. Raymond Chandler described a really bad restaurant catering to the middle class in 1941 by saying he had the 85 cent dinner and it tasted like sawdust, so that still wasn’t cheap then. When I was a college student in Spartanburg, SC in 1975, I could go to the classically Greek-American Piedmont Cafe and get a starter of tomato or orange juice or soup (always the soup; tomato juice had lost its prestige), main courses such as real veal cutlets, fried trout or flounder or six fresh, briny oysters, etc. for $3.50. That included all of the iced tea I could drink and dessert.
You may well be right. I also thought the 2013 Measuring Worth prices were low but I’ve learned it’s really hard to be sure. This was a very humble restaurant. Obviously chains today use frozen convenience food, buy cheaply in huge quantities, and have a high volume of business, but I see that Cracker Barrel offered a turkey dinner similar to the Bon Ton this year that also included a biscuit, pie, and a beverage, all for $10.99.
I agree historical price comparison is difficult, especially since it depends on the commodity. A whole frying chicken was about 29 cents a pound for a long time (30 years or so) while almost everything else went up and up. Hannaford in my area sold turkeys for 59 cents a pound this year. What did Cracker Barrel pay? That’s as hard to compare as Ford selling a Model T for $250 in 1925 and a Focus for $13,000 almost 90 years later. The common thread is mass production taking over what had depended on small farms and factories, but the results are not comparable in the long-term because the commodities aren’t comparable.
I think the indices work better for things like salaries and housing costs and overall purchasing power.
In the Summer, I am a docent at Pownalborough Court House museum in Maine. it was built 1760-61 at a cost of 735 pounds. People ask me the equivalent in modern dollars to erect what was then largest building north of Portsmouth, NH. I multiply pounds by five, because the dollar/pound exchange rate stayed around there until the 1960s, and then I figure that has to be multiplied to come out around $1,000,000, which fails to impress most people.
I looked for what other restaurants were charging around that time and concluded that the Bon Ton was not offering much for the money. Their Thanksgiving meals were awfully plain. There were restaurants offering much more food in 1921 (not for Thanksgiving), dishes that involved greater preparation and charging $1.00 which isn’t that much more than 85 cents. Looks like the Bon Ton had not rolled back prices in the way many other restaurants had done near the end of the postwar inflationary period.