Dirty by design

Given the general fear of unclean restaurants, it’s hard to understand the fascination with cobwebs and dirt in eating and drinking places of the 19th century and early 20th. File this under “the past is a foreign country.”

One of the famous places known for its decades’ worth of dust and grime was Old Tom’s in New York City. In the judgment of its fond patrons, it only got better with time.

According to witnesses, the shabby building that housed Old Tom’s on Thames Street a block west of Broadway was dark and dingy and its windows had never been washed. In the corners were stacks of boxes and barrels. Its walls were adorned with dusty letters from old patrons, ancient notices for boxing matches, and somewhat repulsive relics such as a mummified bat and “a pair of shoes taken off a little forlorn waif found wandering in the streets.”

Although customers liked Old Tom’s chops, Welsh rarebits, and ale well enough, the fame of the place rested on its cobwebs (barely visible in this 1872 illustration). By the 1870s they had been allowed to grow quite luxurious for at least 30 years. One visitor compared them to an “air-plant” which absorbed fibers and floating dust along with ale fumes and the aroma of cooking. The webs hanging from the ceiling were so long that the owner trimmed them “like a garden hedge” so they didn’t catch on men’s hats. If the restaurant had wanted to move to a new location, it would have failed. Without Old Tom’s cobwebs “the soul of his business would vanish,” said a newspaper story in 1877.

Old Tom’s went out of business in 1880 but the name was so famous that another Old Tom’s popped up nearby. It was dowdy, but sadly lacking in cobwebs.
Old Tom’s had its match in San Francisco, at a dive known as the Cobweb Palace, established in 1855. Such places were as much saloon as eating place, yet the Cobweb Palace, located on Meigg’s Wharf (now the site of Fisherman’s Wharf), was known in its better days for its clam chowder, cracked crab, and mussels. By the time it was demolished in 1893, it was a near-total wreck.

The Cobweb Palace was decorated with spider webs, South Sea island clubs and masks, and a totem pole, among many other curios both valuable and worthless. Though it was hardly a family spot, children liked to stop by and see the parrots, magpies, and parakeets flying around. Roaming monkeys greeted patrons while outside the door was a caged bear.

Old Tom’s and the Cobweb Palace lived in lore long after they were gone, but many other cobwebbed saloon-style eateries disappeared into the mist and little is known but their names.

There had been a place called Cobweb Hall in New York and another in Detroit, both operated by men from Scotland. The owner of the New York saloon/chophouse on Duane Street died in 1868, putting an end to his menagerie of spiders, Siberian wolfhounds, and canaries. In Detroit, Tom Swan’s Cobweb Hall began in 1869, lasting into the 20th century. He attracted business men and actors to his web-filled restaurant whose walls were also adorned with old playbills.

The West had quite a few Cobweb Saloons, some serving food or adjoining a restaurant whose cook often was a Chinese immigrant. Some were in mining towns such as Prescott AZ, where Ben Butler’s Chop House, run by Fong, Murphy & Co., “the Finest Restaurant in Prescott,” was next to, or connected to the Cobweb Saloon.

I’ve also found Cobweb Saloons in Las Vegas NM, Lincoln NE, Spokane and Tacoma WA, San Antonio and Beaumont TX, Albany OR, New Orleans LA, and Honolulu HI [advertisement, 1905].

Alas, I don’t know whether these saloons and cafes were draped with cobwebs. Seems like those in the West would not have had enough decades to grow them. I’m guessing it was more of a declaration of manly, no-frills comforts.

The patrons of cobweb cafes, saloons, and chop houses were regarded as victims of the devil by Christian preachers and their flocks who thought the name Cobweb Saloon was just about perfect for a place that entrapped heavy-drinking men. In 1903 a Sunday School group in Roswell NM planned a temperance discussion to include topics such as “Do men drink whiskey for the taste or effect?” and “‘Cobweb Saloon’ – Why is this an appropriate name?”

© Jan Whitaker, 2018


Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, decor, odd buildings, Offbeat places, sanitation

9 responses to “Dirty by design

  1. Alichael

    Restaurants in the late 1800s and early 1900s were divided into two main categories, from what I’ve read. Restaurants for the elite, and the middle/working classes.

    The elite restaurants were either French cuisine or fancy high quality roast beef, roast chicken, salmon, duck, quail, or rabbit. Almost always served with fancy styled potatoes and rich tasty deserts. Food was largely fresh at these elite restaurants since only these places could afford the best quality ice boxes or the first real refrigeration. Only the elite were welcome, hosts and waiters had formal butler appeal. Dress code was mandatory, men in fine suits and women in fancy floor-length gowns and dresses. Customers as well as staff had to follow very refined etiquette.

    For more middle and working classes, restaurants were usually combined saloons with food service. Much more rowdy and lacking etiquette from the customers. There was a lot of drinking along with the eating. The food were things like beef, chicken, eggs, rabbit, pork, stews, and potatoes. But unlike the elite restaurants, food was lower quality, less fancy, and less fresh due to not having as quality food preservation, usually using cheap ice boxes and methods like brine to help keep food from spoilage. But the food often didn’t taste or smell as fresh as the elite restaurants or restaurant food today, but the staff wouldn’t serve food completely rotten since that would create illness to the customers, but even then, nobody would eat very spoiled food with maggots or covered in mold. However, if one of us from today went back in time to the 1880s the late 1910s or sometimes even the 1920s to 1930s era and walked into one of those places, we would would notice a partially or semi-spoiled food odor in the air (coming from the kitchen and the food on people’s plates).

    • Yes, but. . . Probably the elite weren’t all that grand plus there really weren’t very many elite restaurants. America was not a glamorous culture. Most restaurant goers ate in restaurants for practical reasons, not for entertainment. If you were rich, you treasured living a private life. You entertained at dinner parties in your home, with servants. Chicken was quite expensive and not found in lower-priced restaurants. Game was the most esteemed meat for those who could afford it. And glad you touched on sanitation because I suspect there was a lot of food-borne illness, not mainly due to spoilage but mishandling, poor employee hygiene, and as you said, lack of good refrigeration.

  2. Sandra Hunter

    Always awesome

  3. OK Jim

    In Chicago we had “Bucket ‘O Suds”, run for decades by Mr. Joe Danno. Any cobweb aficionado would have felt at home in Joe’s place.

  4. Kathryn McKeen

    The appeal is similar to that of the “dive bar” in current times. I myself have been known to visit such insalubrious and dank taverns…. Perhaps the past is not such a foreign country after all.

  5. Fascinated, as always, Jan. Thank you!

  6. Jan Woodside

    Jan, I love reading about life in the late 19th century though I seldom think that I’d like to actually live in that time. Your blog stories are always interesting but this one takes the cake!

  7. The ancient soot on the ceiling of the Griswold Inn’s tavern in Essex CT is reminiscent of this “authentic grime” — without seeming to imply an unsanitary kitchen.

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