Training department store waitresses

It is said that department stores of the 20th century offered “luxury for the masses.” This was nowhere as evident as in the stores’ tea rooms.

A shining example was the tea room at Younkers Department Store in Des Moines, Iowa. Although residents of large coastal cities might imagine that their stores were the most luxurious and elegant, this was not strictly true. Department stores in smaller cities often had much higher status and influence in the eyes of their customers. In the case of Younkers, the flagship store was located near the middle of the state, making the store accessible to the entire population of Iowa. It is hardly surprising that it adopted the motto “Iowa’s Foremost Mercantile Establishment.”

And so the store’s tea room absolutely had to be a superior eating place, one that drew countless individuals, clubs, families, sororities, and professional organizations from every point in the state.

Although a tea room was first opened in 1913 in the original Younkers building, the one familiar to Iowans living today was opened in the mid-1920s after Younkers acquired the neighboring Wilkins Department store and built a narrow 4-story bridge between the two buildings in 1924. The new tea room on the 6th floor of the Wilkins building had ceilings over 18 feet tall, chandeliers, grand columns, and large arched windows. Patrons sat on federal-style urn-back chairs at tables with white tablecloths and stemmed water glasses. In addition to the main tea room seating 350 persons, there were several party and meeting rooms. A lounge outside the main tea room was decorated in Spanish revival style.

Recently I found a Tea Room Waitress Service Manual for Younkers, probably dating from the 1930s. [part of page 1 shown] It reveals the high standard of service expected from the staff, despite the fact that prices were moderate. Though undoubtedly predominantly white and culturally homogeneous, Younkers patrons represented a cross-section of ordinary Iowans. Yet in many ways the tea room aspired to the quality of appointments and service only found in certain expensive restaurants today.

The manual instructs waitresses that they must wear plain black shoes without “fancy stitching” or buckles. Uniforms were colored and came with a white apron, white collar, cuffs, and headband. Perfect alignment was required in all things. When dressing, for example, the “collar must fit in exact V in front, black bow straight at point of V.” The servers were to stand straight, “never . . . with hands on hips.” Light makeup was permitted but no jewelry other than a wedding ring.

Alignment in setting the tables was equally critical. The two creases of a tablecloth had to “come together in center of table.” Knives were to be placed to the right of the plate with the sharp edge facing inward, “one inch from edge of table.” Salt and pepper shakers were to be “placed straight with lines of table.” When doilies were used for parties, servers were to “Be careful to place linen straight, if round doilies, thread of linen should run parallel to edge of table.” The tip of a slice of pie had to point “directly to customer.”

Of course great care was demanded in all things. Finger bowls were to be presented on a saucer. Dishes were to be served holding a folded towel underneath. After filling water glasses before guests arrived for a party, the waitress was instructed to “Check the chairseats for any drops of water.” And of course, “Make as little noise as possible in handling silverware, dishes, and trays at all times.” To insure silence, trays were to be set down upon pads, particularly in the evening.

It is easy to see why so many Iowans were sad to see Younkers flagship store close in 2005.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017


Filed under atmosphere, decor, department stores, popular restaurants, tea shops, uniforms & costumes

12 responses to “Training department store waitresses

  1. Fascinating read! Thank you for sharing. There was certainly a lot to be embarrassed about from previous eras … but there was a lot of good things we lost, too.

  2. OMG – This brings back memories. I would go with my grandmother to May Co. at the Terminal Tower in Cleveland Ohio. Sometimes we went to the fancy tea rooms but often we ate at the Woolworth counter. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Fascinating stuff! I’m surprised they allowed married women to be waitresses, but perhaps they didn’t have as many single girls to choose from. Thanks for an interesting post, Jan!

  4. This was such a fun description! I was just at the Sears Building in Chicago and passed through the Walnut Room. Simply a different era. Great post!

  5. misenplacememoir

    Ah, the traditional places. In the 1970’s I worked as a prep girl at the Portland Yacht Club in Oregon and they were too steeped in their traditions of their “men’s only” status. So much so, that I had to arrive and leave work by the rear service elevator but the male cooks could walk thru the front door!

  6. I don’t remember anything as fancy as the one shown in the post; but, I do remember the good food, at a fair price. I guess that was one store’s attempt to keep you shopping there, after a break for lunch or a snack, rather than continuing on to their competitor, down the street. But, those days are gone.

  7. Leslie

    Not being from Iowa I hadn’t heard of Younkers, so I looked it up online to see what had become of the flagship store. So sad to discover that it burned in 2014. A late friend of mine from Detroit mourned the loss of Hudson’s original store, of which she had fond memories. I think we are the poorer for the loss of these kinds of stores.

    There was a golf course near my mother’s house that had teas on two Mondays (or maybe it was Tuesdays) of the month; they put pretty covers on the utilitarian chairs; there were tablecloths, Lenox teapots and cups, tiered stands with plates of sandwiches, cakes, etc. It was lovely; groups would make reservations and it was always busy. Even my teenaged nephew enjoyed it the time he went with us (dainty food in quantity is still quite filling!) Sadly, they stopped doing it – I heard it was because they couldn’t get anyone willing to be a waitress or waiter for those few days a month – and later the entire golf course closed and is being turned into a high-end housing development. The clubhouse sits there, empty, for lease, and I so wish I had the wherewithal to reopen it.

    Mandymarie is right: lunching was an event. And people used manners, and were dressed up, and considerate of others. Even at the inexpensive places, even people who weren’t wealthy.

    • Bill Brunia

      Happy to report that the Younkers Tea Room survived the fire! Half the building was destroyed, but the Tea Room has been saved 🙂

  8. mandymarie20

    I miss tea rooms. Classier times. When ladies lunching was an event, not just a meal.

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