Category Archives: decor

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

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Dining in a garden

Pleasure gardens of the 18th and early 19th centuries, sometimes called tea or mead gardens, typically opened on May 1 and offered relief from summer heat. Garden dining could be as simple as a tent in the back yard of an eating place or as elaborate as a larger garden with walkways, fruit trees, and arbors. A Philadelphia tea garden of 1798 furnished “tables, benches, boxes, bowers, etc.” The “etc.” might have included colored lights, or even small rustic cabins.

Garden guests ranged from families and young couples to “gentlemen farming parties.” In many of the gardens, menus were limited to delicacies such as ice cream, confectionery, lemonade, iced drinks, teas and coffees, and of course wines and liquors.

But others served more substantial food that fell under the heading “relishes.” Today relishes are condiments but then the word referred to a wide range of hot or cold edibles, including steaks and chops, oysters, rarebits, poached eggs, omelets, kidneys, sardines, anchovies, sandwiches, savory patties, tripe, pigs’ feet, and soup. Relishes tended to be salty, no doubt to encourage drinking, and were usually “available any time.”

The early 19th-century gardens were meant to attract genteel folks, though I’ve run across a couple of advertisements suggesting it wasn’t so easy to discourage problem guests. The owner of a garden in Wilmington DE advertised in 1803 that he was opening his “elegant Mead and Flower Garden” for those who would “observe the strictest order and decorum” and not “injure his garden or molest his flowers.” Nicholas Pierson, in 1827, was evidently concerned that unaccompanied women (understood to be prostitutes) would want to enter his mead garden.

Unlike other drinking places, gardens were acceptable for women (if escorted). According to one report, mead — a sweet concoction of fermented honey and spices — was one of their favorite drinks. Mead gardens were more popular before the temperance movement took hold in the 1830s.

Tea and mead gardens were fading when German beer gardens appeared on the scene in the 1850s and 1860s, usually consisting of rows of tables in an open air setting amidst groves of trees, but not really a garden — and not usually providing food.

Dining in a garden once again became popular in the early 1900s, only now, in addition to outdoor gardens such as New York’s Terrace Garden and others on the roofs of tall buildings, there were many indoors, making them available year round. Natural touches included pendulous boughs draped from ceiling lattices, burbling fountains, potted palm fronds that threatened to tickle guests’ necks, and sometimes blue-painted ceilings twinkling with tiny stars.

Department stores adopted garden motifs as did tea rooms where one could dine in an actual garden or, in rural New England, on the front lawn of the proprietor’s home. Tea rooms that chose a garden theme for indoors leaned heavily toward a Japanese style invoked rather simply with flower-strewn trellises and a bit of wicker or paper lanterns, as did Schrafft’s in Syracuse NY and the tea room at the Vantine store in NYC [above photo, 1906]. Actual Asian restaurants, on the other hand, were likely to include the word garden in their name, but that did not necessarily imply they had an actual garden.

Undoubtedly, one of the most flamboyant indoor garden restaurants was Clifton’s “Pacific Seas” Cafeteria in Los Angeles [pictured]. Indoor palm trees are always impressive, as are neon flowers, multiple waterfalls (12), and volcanic rock. Clifton’s was but one of the many restaurants with indoor gardens that proved eye-catching yet less than totally convincing in terms of their relation to nature. [below, Stouffer’s Top of the Mart, Atlanta]

Today a restaurant garden, while in many cases still a popular place to eat in nice weather, is as likely to be a place where vegetables or herbs are grown and harvested.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Sawdust on the floor

Reformers of the 1910s would not have believed anyone who predicted that sawdust floors would make a comeback later in the century. But come back they did.

In the early 20th century, sawdust floors were seen as a vestige of disappearing filthy low-class eating places. Earlier they had been found in a great variety of places – English chop houses, French bistros, German, Italian, and Chinese restaurants, and saloons of every kind. In New York sawdust dealers of the 1880s made daily rounds selling 25-cent barrels to restaurants, saloons, and butcher shops (where sawdust collected blood).

But things were starting to change in the early 1900s as chains of sanitary lunch rooms with scrubbed white tile floors and walls became popular. In 1911, the Edison Monthly – a magazine devoted to promoting the use of bright lighting – confidently declared, “The old hole-in-the-wall lunch room, with its flickering lights, its smoky atmosphere, its greasy walls and sawdust carpeted floor, is a thing of the past.”

City health departments warned that cheap lunch rooms of the old sort rarely replaced sawdust, often covering one dirty layer with another and rarely cleaning the wood flooring below.

Concern with sanitation caused many municipalities to adopt ordinances forbidding the use of sawdust on floors anyplace food was produced or sold. San Antonio’s 1914 ordinance was typical, stating, “No person owning or managing any such business shall permit the use of sawdust, shavings, or other dust-creating or filth-collecting covering on the floor of any such room.”

Nonetheless sawdust had a strange appeal at the same time it was denounced as brimming with bacteria and vermin. Visitors to San Francisco were drawn to places such as Sanguinetti’s where they could earn cultural credits back home for inhaling its wild and crazy bohemian atmosphere. As a 1906 article put it, “No tourist could feel that he had really taken in all the sights of the city until he had sat at one of its tables and eaten of the very indifferent fare served there, and dropped his cigar ashes on the sawdust covered floor.”

And that was another thing about sawdust floors – they tended to catch on fire when cigar and cigarette butts were dropped on them.

Through the decades sawdust floors acquired strong associations with beef and beer – and male patrons. These associations formed a reservoir of meaning that theme restaurants of the future were destined to draw upon.

Steak houses were especially attracted to the winning beef-beer-men combination. The first inklings of sawdust’s return came with the legalization of beer in 1933. The Palm steak house in Manhattan, a man’s restaurant frequented by newspapermen, was one to use it. Steak houses were so strongly associated with men that it was newsworthy in 1947 when a woman restaurateur departed from their standard rough-edged ambiance which she characterized as “A smoke-filled room, too-bright lights and sawdust on the floor.” In order to please women customers, she instead chose oak paneling, sound-proofed ceilings, soft lighting, and window boxes with green plants.

Unsurprisingly, she did not start a trend. By the 1960s, if not earlier, the bad old days had been transformed into cheery “bygone days” when life was truer and simpler. Americans of the era hungered for amusement with their meat. “Historic decor, the chef who cooks his steaks on a bed spring or an anvil, and the place where ‘famous people dine there’ . . . all offer that ‘something extra’ a man needs to draw him out,” observed industry consultant George Wenzel, who also recommended sawdust floors.

Restaurants with sawdust floors proliferated, many adopting other nostalgic (might we say hackneyed?) decor features such as red-checkered tablecloths, gas lights, pseudo-Tiffany lamps, pot-bellied stoves, and elaborate dark wood bars. O’Henry’s in NYC used a “fun” butcher shop theme, with real carcass hooks hanging from the ceiling and butcher blocks for tables. In Phoenix AZ the notion of a “hole in the wall” was redeemed from the ash pit of history by a 1970s resort where everything in sight was designed to appeal to men. At the resort’s café named The Hole in the Wall there was sawdust on the floor, tintypes on the wall, fires in the fireplaces, mugs of beer, and a manly menu of beef and buffalo steaks, rattlesnake meat, “cowboy beans,” and corn on the cob.

Along with steak houses, versatile sawdust floors turned up at Gay Nineties restaurants, English pubs, Wild West eateries, barbecue joints, even Mexican restaurants.

It’s hard to figure just how many states and municipalities issued ordinances prohibiting sawdust floors. In 1976 the federal Food and Drug Administration banned sawdust in restaurants, yet the ban was not universally followed. Sawdust floors were permitted in San Francisco, but not in Washington, D.C., for instance. Some restaurant owners strenuously resisted health departments that advocated for a ban. In Arizona, the battle over sawdust became intense when state and county health departments cracked down on several dozen restaurants in Phoenix. The restaurants countered that they replaced sawdust daily and had never experienced problems with patrons becoming ill.

Today? I believe that restaurants are not allowed to use sawdust on the floors in the U.S. today – but I am not 100% sure about this. It seems that patrons who still long for that kind of atmosphere must content themselves with throwing peanut shells on the floor.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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High-volume restaurants: Hilltop Steak House

Until I moved to Boston in the 1980s and took a whale watch tour I hadn’t heard the boastful term “biggest grossing” thrown around. In pointing out the highlights of the Boston Harbor, the tour operator singled out several booming enterprises including Anthony’s restaurant. Had we been on a tour of Route 1 north of Boston, I’m sure he would have shouted the praises of the Hilltop Steak House, another mega-volume eatery, where a team of in-house butchers carved up millions of steaks a year, the parking lot held 1,000 cars, and customers waited in long lines outside the door.

I never went there. I was not one of the 2,350,000 or so customers who patronized the Hilltop in 1985, for example, one of a number of years when it ranked as the #1 independent restaurant in the USA from a high-grossing perspective, with over $24 million in annual sales.

Established in 1961 with seating for 125, the Western-themed restaurant continued to grow in subsequent years, with more dining rooms brightened with the standard steakhouse blood red color scheme, seating 1,100 by 1970, with an enlarged parking lot, and a huge 68-foot high lighted cactus sign out front.

Dining rooms were adorned with totem poles, reproductions of Remington and Russell paintings, and life-size Indian figures. The rooms had names meant to conjure up the Wild West such as Sioux City and Kansas City. No doubt the names rang true to diners from New Hampshire and Massachusetts but would have amused residents of those Iowa and Missouri cities which are conspicuously lacking in Western symbology.

Guests appreciated big steaks, low prices, and free parking. Prices were premised on sales volume, rapid table turns, cash-only payment, no reservations, and limited menu choices. Steaks could vary in grade, customers could not send back too-well-done steaks, orders could not be split, and there were no tablecloths. There was only one salad dressing and appetizers and desserts were uninspired – Jello was one of the three desserts on a 1981 menu. “I have nothing against lobster thermidor,” owner Frank Giuffrida told a reporter in 1984, “but don’t come to the Hilltop Steak House and expect to find it.”

The restaurant was prominently visible on Route 1’s tacky, wacky restaurant row where other high-grossing restaurants were also located, making the roadway a New England phenomenon in its own right. The Hilltop’s location was conveniently near the Mystic Bridge, the Callahan and Sumner Tunnels, Logan Airport, the Southeast Expressway, and Routes. 128, 28, 3, and 93. Busses were welcome!

The Hilltop’s founder, Frank Giuffrida, owned the restaurant until 1988, retiring as a rich man despite never having attended high school. In 1940, when Frank was 23, he was a butcher in the family meat market. His parents were born in Italy and had once toiled in a Lawrence MA woolen mill. In the 1950s he owned a tavern-style eatery called the Hilltop Lounge not far from where the steakhouse would be located.

Frank sold the Hilltop corporation in 1988 though he held onto the building and the large plot of land it occupied. The sale came with an agreement that the Giuffrida family would eat at the restaurant for free for the rest of their lives and that they would never have to wait in line for a table.

By the late 1990s restaurant competition on Route 1 had grown fierce. Weylu’s, another Route 1 top-grosser serving as many as 5,000 meals a day at its peak, went into bankruptcy in 1999 and closed. The Hilltop shrank its seating capacity to a mere 850 guests, but carried on until 2013. Both Weylu’s and the Hilltop have been demolished.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Americans in Paris: The Chinese Umbrella

“Why do Americans stick to their own kind of food in France?” wondered an American aviator in Paris in 1917.

Good question, given that the Americans he was referring to were able to afford dining in the finest Paris restaurants. And that French cuisine had long enjoyed prestige in large American cities.

Perhaps it was simply longing for home that brought Americans to The Chinese Umbrella in the early 20th century. The Umbrella was a tea room serving American food that was located near the Bon Marché department store on Rue du Bac.

When it opened in 1905 it served only afternoon tea but soon expanded the menu and became a popular lunch spot. Shortly after its debut American newspapers took note and a story traveled around stating boldly that its luncheons “represent the finest cooking that can be obtained in Paris.” Although this seems unjustifiably boastful, The Chinese Umbrella was recommended in Baedeker and other travel guides.

Among its specialties were homey dishes, many associated with the American South where the proprietor’s mother was from. A journalist writing about The Umbrella in 1908 hailed its okra soup, chicken a la king, tomato and cucumber salad, fried hominy, sweet potatoes, roast lamb, corn fritters, cold asparagus, strawberry ice cream, and waffles with maple syrup. He declared, “Not one of these dishes, apart from the cold asparagus, can be had in any of the famous Paris restaurants.” [advertisement from NY Sun, 1907]

The Chinese Umbrella was the creation of Edith Fabris and her younger sisters, born in Shanghai of a father who was a British consul in Tientsin, China. While in China Edith gathered together a collection of Chinese artifacts that included embroidered satin hangings, delicate porcelain, and a four-yard-wide umbrella that formed a ceiling in one room of the restaurant. Her brother, who served with American-English forces to defeat the Boxer Rebellion, “picked up the valuable loot” that formed the tea room’s decorations. “Loot” is the correct word, since the aftermath of the anti-colonial, anti-Christian-missionary uprising has been described as “mad scenes of pillage.” [Douglas Rigby, The American Scholar, 1944]

Perhaps the looted items on display in The Chinese Umbrella explain why China’s ambassador to France who presided over the tea room’s opening was described in one account as seeming “a little bit dubious as to the dignity of the affair.”

Fabris also brought to Paris a recipe for Chinese vegetable curries that she described – with an authenticity claim that may strike us as odd today — as “true English-American colony China curries.” Fabris said that chefs from top Paris restaurants begged for her recipes. When she told them they could not be made without ingredients sent by her brother from China, they came to her tea room to sample curries and try to analyze how they were made.

Although most of the tea room’s customers were apparently American or English it also did a good business selling baked goods such as mincemeat pies, plum puddings, and gingerbread to French families. During World War I Fabris supplied cakes to American soldiers in French hospitals.

At some point the tea room moved to a new location as shown on the blue postcard shown above. I could find no trace of it after 1920.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Reading the tea leaves

Although “gypsy” tea rooms could be found in the 1920s, and occasionally even now, their heyday was in the 1930s Depression.

They represented a degree of degeneration of the tea room concept in that they built their allure on tea leaf reading as much as – or more than — food. The menus in some of them consisted simply of a sandwich, piece of cake, and cup of tea, typically costing 50 cents. A drug store in New Orleans reduced the menu to a toasted sandwich and tea for the low price of 15 cents.

Gypsy tea rooms were often located on the second or third floor of a building, reducing the rent burden. Downtown shopping districts were popular places to attract customers, with about twenty near NYC stores located in the 30s between 6th and 7th Avenues. Los Angeles had a Gypsy Tea Room across the street from Bullock’s department store, while Omaha’s Gypsy Tea Shop, affiliated with another one in Council Bluffs IA, was across from the Brandeis store.

Times were hard, and Gypsy, Mystic, or Egyptian tea rooms, as they were known, offered a diversion from the concerns of the day and a way to prop up tottering businesses.

Usually it was all in fun. Gypsy tea rooms dressed waitresses in peasant costumes with bandana headdresses and adopted brilliant color schemes such as orange and black with yellow candles, and red tables and chairs. Such decor was a formula worked out by a New York City woman who by 1930 had opened 25 such places all over the country. Evidently after opening each one she sold it to a new owner.

Most customers, almost always women, saw the readings as light entertainment suitable for clubs and parties. Sometimes, though, an advertisement suggested that patrons’ reasons for having their tea leaves read were not so happy. A 1930 advertisement for the Mystic Tea Room, in Kansas City MO, asked “Have You Worries? Financial, domestic or otherwise? Our gifted readers will help you solve your problems.”

Many tea leaf readers had names suggesting they were “real gypsies” but that is unlikely, despite the Madame Zitas, Estellas, and Levestas. In fact, the reason that tea rooms advertised free readings was because many states and cities had laws prohibiting payment for fortune telling so as to keep genuine gypsies from settling there. A Texas law of 1909 declared “all companies of Gypsies” who supported themselves by telling fortunes would be punished as vagrants.

New York state passed a law in 1917 that made fortune telling in New York City illegal. In the 1930s police conducted raids of tea rooms advertising tea leaf readings. The raids did little to reduce their ranks and tea rooms continued to announce readings. A “gypsy princess” on site was an undeniable attraction — “Something New, Something Different,” according to an advertisement for Harlem’s Flamingo Grill and Tea Room on 7th Avenue.

In 1936 an attempt was made to organize tea leaf readers but it didn’t seem to amount to much. Members of the National Association of Fortune Tellers were required to be “scientific predictors,” just as good at forecasting as Wall Street brokers. The group’s organizer said she wanted to professionalize fortune telling. Because 32 states had laws against it, she said, tea room readers were forced to work for tips only, to the benefit of tea room owners.

Tea leaf readers seemed to move around quite a bit, perhaps because tea room proprietors wanted to keep things interesting. It was supposed to generate excitement when a “seer” from abroad or a larger city visited a small town tea room. A male clairvoyant such as Pandit Acharjya of Benares, India, was bound to enliven the atmosphere at the Gypsy Tea Room in New Orleans in 1930. And to the River Lane Gardens in Jefferson City MO, even the week-long appearance of “Miss Ann Brim of St. Louis, Famous Reader of Cards and Tea Leaves” was worth billing as a major attraction.

In Boston, the Tremont Tea Room has been doing business in sandwiches and tea leaf readings since 1936. Proving, as if proof is needed, that no “restaurant” concept ever totally dies away.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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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

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