Category Archives: department stores

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. Fingerbowls 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

11 Comments

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

Higbee’s Silver Grille

higbeessilvergrillemyphoto

Friday the 13th of September, 1935, seemed like an ordinary day at the Higbee department store in Cleveland’s Public Square. Marzipan bon bons were on sale at the store’s first floor candy counter. On the fifth floor women modeled hand-knitted costumes while the ninth-floor employment office interviewed men for part-time furniture and rug sales.

higbeessilvergrillemenufridaysept131935In the Silver Grille on the tenth floor, diners sat down to lunch. Yet, the specials on the 60c luncheon menu that day were a bit dull. The featured dishes didn’t sound especially delicious, but even stranger, there was no listing of the kind of things the Silver Grille usually spotlighted, namely desserts.

Perhaps the unexciting menu had nothing to do with it but it was not, in fact, an ordinary day.

The store’s future hung in the balance. It had just been announced around the country that on September 30 J. P. Morgan would put the Higbee Company on the auction block along with the rest of the railroad and real estate empire of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen brothers. In addition to over 28,000 miles of railroad, the properties to be auctioned were the 52-story Terminal Tower and its associated buildings which included the store as well as the Medical Arts Building, the Midland Bank Building, and the Cleveland Hotel.

higbeediamondjubileadvjan11935Ironically 1935 was Higbee’s 75th anniversary, its diamond jubilee. In retrospect, the drawing that announced the jubilee year in the Plain Dealer on January 1, 1935, looks ominous in the way it yokes the store, one side blacked out, to the Terminal Tower.

Higbee’s was an old Cleveland business that was bought out by the “Vans” in 1930 after they failed to attract other stores to move into their “city within a city” complex then under construction. Exactly who they asked is unknown, except for one outstanding store that turned them down, Marshall Field in Chicago. The new Higbee store opened in September of 1931. Its crown jewel on the top floor was the art deco Silver Grille, designed by local architect Philip L. Small and a prominent Cleveland decorating and interior design firm, the Rorimer-Brooks Studios.

A 1931 Higbee advertisement described the Silver Grille as “modern” and “gracious.” In the center of the room was a rather austere fountain of red Rojo alicante marble, the same red reflected in the room’s columns and carpeting. Grillwork punctuated the walls which were shades of green with silver leaves. From the ceiling hung specially designed light fixtures of bronze. Designers with Louis Rorimer’s studio created the aluminum tables and chairs shown in the photograph at the top of the page taken a few weeks after the store opened.

The tea room’s early, possibly first, manager was Mrs. Kenneth McKay (whose unusual first name was often erroneously taken to be her husband’s). In the 1920s she had been a supervisor for Schrafft’s restaurants in New York and had taught restaurant management at Columbia University. She retired in the 1950s, having established the Silver Grille tradition of serving homey food with occasional exotic touches such as a curried dish or a salad of Puerto Rican mangoes, avocados, and dates.

Miraculously, Higbee’s survived the Depression in fairly good shape. In 1937 the store was rescued by two executives affiliated with the Van Sweringen empire who bought it from a holding company created by the then-deceased brothers. The new owners announced they would keep the store local and under the direction of Asa Shiverick, Higbee’s president since 1913. In another stroke of bad luck Shiverick died three days after the announcement, leaving the new owners to take over.

higbeessilvergrillestove1980sThings settled down then and the Silver Grille grew in popularity, boosted by added attractions such as frequent fashion shows to the music of a resident orchestra. One of its most popular customs was delivering children’s meals in little tin stoves, later replaced with cardboard stoves, as well as cardboard trucks, teepees, and space capsules.

higbeesmenu1938fashionshowOn May 12, 1938, the store presented a summer fashion show and luncheon on a newly constructed runway in the Silver Grille, with a short but sweet menu costing 5 cents more than usual.

Although patrons enjoyed the Silver Grille’s food – and still seek its recipes — it was equally known for its art deco design, which also underwent ups and downs over the decades. Once the Depression ended, the decor fell out of favor. Higbee’s tried to soften the original look by adding banquettes, painting over German silver grilles along the ceiling and floor, and placing a decorative gazebo over the fountain. A 1962 makeover adopted a hideous-sounding color scheme of pink, green, and red.

In 1982 some of the room’s original art deco elements were restored. The grilles were polished and the fountain was repaired and restocked with goldfish. However the gazebo remained and the dining chairs were reupholstered with multi-colored patterned fabric, either an Ikat design or stripes. Gone were the original black marble tabletops, re-topped with what looks in photographs like a white laminate. (Possibly the tables were not original at all or had been altered, as the diagonal struts underneath are also different.) Recessed lighting had replaced the hanging fixtures, either at this time or earlier.

higbeessilvergrilleteepeeA change of a different sort, one that I think took place in the 1970s, was the addition of wine and cocktails to the menu. Traditionally, alcoholic drinks did not appear on the menus of department store “tea rooms” for women, but Higbee’s was not the only store to adapt to modern conditions around this time.

Despite declining business at Higbee’s, the Silver Grille stayed afloat until after Christmas in 1989 when the store was downsized and the upper floors closed off.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

11 Comments

Filed under decor, department stores, food, menus, restaurant customs, women

Department store restaurants: Marshall Field’s

mfwalnutroom092271In 1890 Harry Gordon Selfridge, manager of Field’s in Chicago, took the then-unusual step of persuading a middle-class woman to help with a new project at the store. Her name was Sarah Haring (pictured) and she was the wife of a businessman and a mother. In the parlance of the day, she was needed to recruit “gentlewomen” (= middle-class WASPs) who had “experienced reverses” (= were unexpectedly poor), and knew how to cook “dainty dishes” (= middle-class food) which they were willing to prepare and deliver to the store each day.

sarahharing1894And so — despite Marshall Field’s personal dislike of restaurants in dry goods stores — the Selfridge-Haring-gentlewomen team created the first tea room at Marshall Field’s. It began with a limited menu, 15 tables, and 8 waitresses. Sarah Haring’s recruits acquitted themselves well. One, Harriet Tilden Brainard, who initially supplied gingerbread, would go on to build a successful catering business, The Home Delicacies Association. Undoubtedly it was Harriet who introduced one of the tea room’s most popular dishes, Cleveland Creamed Chicken. Meanwhile, Sarah would continue as manager of the store’s tea rooms until 1910, when she opened a restaurant of her own, patenting a restaurant dishwasher in her spare time.

The store’s first tea room met with success. When Field’s Wabash Street annex opened in 1893, an expansion timed to the World’s Columbian Exposition, the tea room moved into that space, seating 300 and taking up the entire 4th floor.mfmenu229

More tea rooms were added, including the Walnut Room which opened on the 7th floor of the new State Street building in 1907 (pictured, 1909). By this time the store’s restaurants could accommodate 2,500 people. Considering that the holiday season could attract as many as 200,000 shoppers daily, they were all needed. By the 1920s there were seven restaurants altogether: the Narcissus Fountain Room, the North Grill Room, the South Grill (aka Circassian Walnut Room), the Wabash Avenue Tea Room, the Colonial Quick Service Tea Room, the Wedgwood Room, and the Men’s “Grill” in the Store for Men.

mfmensgrill228A graduate of Chicago’s School of Domestic Arts and Sciences named Beatrice Hudson opened the all-male sanctum Men’s Grill (pictured) about 1914 and was responsible for developing a famed corned beef hash which stayed on the menu for 50+ years. Later she would own several restaurants in Los Angeles, coming out of retirement at age 76 to manage the Hollywood Brown Derby and again in her 80s to run The Old World Restaurant in Westwood.

The Depression evidently took a toll on the store’s restaurants because by 1941 only four remained. According to an advertisement customers could enjoy their North Shore Codfish Cakes, Canadian Cheese Soup, French Bread, and Chicken Pie in either the “Stately Walnut Room, picturesque Narcissus Fountain Room, rose-carpeted English Room, [or] serve-yourself Crystal Buffet.” For many years no liquor was served in Field’s restaurants – except for the Men’s Grill. Liquor or no, by 1952 the store’s restaurants sometimes fed as many as 25,000 people a day.

In later years many customers preferred to grab a quick snack and the store obliged. In the 1980s the 7th floor housed three cafeterias, a self-service pizza/pasta/salad bar, and a take-out sandwich stand. The full-service Walnut Room, however, continued, and was especially popular with Chicagoans for whom dining there was a family holiday tradition.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

11 Comments

Filed under department stores, tea shops, women

Department store restaurants: Wanamaker’s

 

Until very recently I thought John Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia had the first in-store restaurant in the U.S. Several scholars have insisted this is true, with the exception of a Macy’s historian who claimed R. H. Macy was first, in May 1878. Wanamaker’s, I’ve discovered, did not install eating facilities until September of 1879 when it enticed a local caterer, Alice Weldon, to run her restaurant inside The Grand Depot, as the store was known then. Weldon, a confectioner born in Ireland, operated a popular oyster-plus-ice-cream café near the store (it sounds like an odd combination but such places were once common). Every day all the shoppers would vacate the store to go eat at Alice’s, so Wanamaker reasoned he had to have her on his side. For about six years she ran the forerunner of The Dairy, an eatery the store created in 1883, one year after installing a soda fountain (another department store first claimed by Wanamaker’s).

The better known restaurant in the Philadelphia store was the Grand Crystal Tea Room which opened on the 8th floor of the new Wanamaker’s completed in 1911. Immense and filled with chandeliers, it was modeled on the tea room in the Philadelphia mansion of Robert Morris, a financier of the American Revolution. Also on the 8th floor, speedily reached by 24 direct-service elevators, were a number of private dining rooms, a men-only tea room, and the store’s ultra-modern kitchens. The Grand Crystal Tea Room survived the demise of Wanamaker’s and the tenure of its successor but finally closed in 1995 and is now a private banquet hall.

The New York City Wanamaker’s, opened in 1896 in the old A. T. Stewart store and closed in 1954, was also well supplied with esteemed eating places. A 1900 menu shows a full complement of delectable lunch choices, including blue points, cream of new asparagus soup, and lamb with mint sauce. The store’s tea room advertised ca. 1908 that its tea was “specially imported,” and prided itself on its “quaint service.” In 1940 the store operated three eating places on the 9th floor: the main restaurant, Green Shutters; a more casual Side Walk Café; and a Men’s Grill decorated with antique French tapestries.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

7 Comments

Filed under department stores, tea shops

Lunching in the Bird Cage

Lord & Taylor’s Bird Cage restaurant and tea room was opened in the late 1930s. It continued on the fifth floor of the Fifth Avenue New York City store until the 1980s when it was updated and renamed Café American Style. Accommodating only about one hundred persons, the Bird Cage was considerably smaller than the main restaurant in Altman’s which held over two hundred, as well as Abraham & Straus’s in Brooklyn which held over four hundred. Until the mid-1970s the Bird Cage was outfitted with armchairs with trays connected to them. In the early years each tray was supplied with a complimentary cigarette. Diners selected sandwiches, salads, and desserts from rolling carts modeled on Italian racing cars. As Lord & Taylor branches were opened after World War II in locations such as Westchester (shown here, 1948), Millburn NJ, Hartford CT, and Washington DC, they too were furnished with their own Bird Cages.

For many years the Bird Cage staff at the Fifth Avenue store provided refreshments to shoppers who arrived before the store opened each morning. Lord & Taylor president Dorothy Shaver initiated the custom and insisted that the coffee, juice (in summer), or bouillon (when temperatures were frigid) be served in china, not paper, cups.

birdcagemilkbarny1950Other well-loved eateries in the Manhattan store were the men’s Soup Bar on the tenth floor and the children’s Milk Bar (shown, 1950). Scotch broth and deep-dish apple cobbler with rum sauce were specialties at the Soup Bar.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

21 Comments

Filed under department stores, tea shops

Department store restaurants

In small cities – and some large ones too – restaurants in department stores were frequently the best places to eat. Often they did their own baking and made desserts from scratch. It was not unusual for them to whip up mayonnaise and produce their own potato chips. Their kitchens were often directed and entirely staffed by women professionally trained in restaurant management. They invariably favored home-style methods of cooking. Dishes popular through the decades included chicken pot pies, tomatoes stuffed with chicken salad, club sandwiches, and frozen fruit salads. The dessert sections of their menus were lengthy — layer cakes, eclairs, and chiffon pies were always to be had. If the diner wanted more sweets at meal’s end, she could always pick up a box of bon bons or chocolate pralines made in the store’s candy kitchen. In the 1950s and 1960s menus cropped up with diet specials such as vegetable plates and cottage cheese salads.

To list the most famous department store restaurants and tea rooms (as they were often called) would be an impossible task, but among those that leap to mind are: Marshall Field’s (which ran 11 restaurants simultaneously at one point and might serve as many as 10,000 meals on an especially busy Saturday before Christmas); Wanamaker’s Grand Crystal Tea Room; Lord & Taylor’s Bird Cage in New York City (liverwurst and lettuce on rye); Altman’s Charleston Garden (“no tipping please”); Rich’s Magnolia Room; Higbee’s Silver Grille; and G. Fox’s Connecticut Room (which served Guernsey milk fresh from the store’s Auerfarm dairy).

By the late 1960s, modernity made department store restaurants obsolete. The times had changed and so had the pace of life. Women no longer had time to linger. Men who had once enjoyed eating in department store “grill” rooms reserved especially for them also moved on to quicker venues. Stores closed or revamped their large, elegant tea rooms, switching to speedier Bite Bars and Cafeterias. An era had ended.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

1 Comment

Filed under department stores