The word slumming had several meanings when it came into use in the 1880s. Basically it meant visiting the slums. But the purpose for elite and middle-class white Americans might vary, from charity to data collection, curiosity, a sexual escapade, or general entertainment.
Apart from ministers, reformers, and city officials, those who went on slumming tours (with guides) in the late nineteenth century usually were motivated by curiosity or a wish for entertainment.
In 1884, the New York Times ran a story about British actress Lillie Langtry and her party visiting the city’s slums, noting, “So far the mania here has assumed the single form of sight-seeing – the more noble ambition of alleviating the condition of the desperately poor visited has not animated the adventurous parties.”
Following the vogue begun in London, slumming became a mark of worldly sophistication among some Americans in the late 19th century.
Although most newspaper accounts of slumming focused on New York’s Bowery and Tenderloin or San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, there were in fact areas of interest to slumming parties in many parts of the U.S. For example, a group of conventioneers from Omaha visiting Dakota Territory in 1889 took an excursion to Deadwood’s Chinese settlement. They were disappointed it was so tame.
Tours often involved stopping at a restaurant or café, particularly if a group was visiting a Chinese area, as was often the case especially as Chinese populations increased in the Eastern U.S. beginning in the later 1880s. Many of the first white, middle-class customers of Chinese restaurants were “slummers.” Such excursions increased around the turn of the century. A 1900 account described how Chinese restaurant keepers had learned that it paid to accommodate slumming parties who “would spend more money in their places in an hour than their regular customers would spend all day.”
But Chinese restaurants weren’t the only ones “discovered” by slummers. King’s Handbook of New York listed slumming restaurants under the category of “Novelty in Restaurants” in 1892. In addition to Chinese (“dirty, foul-smelling and cheaply furnished”), the handbook mentioned Hebrew restaurants of the East Side, a Japanese restaurant, Russian restaurants, Polish restaurants, a place with Spanish cooking, and “Italian restaurants of a low order” on Mulberry Street. Of a higher order, according to King’s, were Austrian, Swiss, Hungarian, and German eating places.
In addition to Chinese, Italian and Hungarian restaurants were top choices of slummers. Coppa’s, particularly before San Francisco’s great fire of 1906, drew many who were curious about “bohemian” lifestyles.
Postcards from New York’s Little Hungary around 1906-1908 illustrate customers’ thrilled reactions. Anna & Will mailed their card to Arlington NJ, while Marge, who apparently left out a word, sent hers to a woman in Syracuse.
A common interpretation of the appeal of immigrant restaurants was the aridity of mainstream American culture, with its emphasis on the strict rules of proper behavior. Italian and Hungarian restaurants, by contrast, were enjoyed as places where patrons might sing along with the band or talk to their neighbors without being introduced. James Harvey wrote in his 1905 book In Bohemia, “By the time you get to the roast, it is eight o’clock and the evening is in its prime. Everybody seems to love everybody else, thanks to the heavy Hungarian wines.”
In some cases nostalgia played a role. According to a 1997 article by Beth S. Wenger subtitled “The Invention of the Lower East Side,” that part of New York became a destination for Jews who had moved uptown. She quoted a 1926 Jewish Daily Forward story that said “the crowds come nightly to Delancy and Rivington Streets to drink selzer, eat Roumanian Broils and listen to sentimental ballads.” Wenger saw visits to the East Side as symbolizing “the uneasy social adjustment of second-generation Jewish Americans” who were not satisfied with “the ‘strained and sterile’ dining spots in their new neighborhoods.”
Though it was regarded as daring to venture into immigrant restaurants in the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, it became less so as the restaurants responded by exaggerating their “foreignness” to attract suburbanites and tourists. In 1905, according to Town & Country, “to eat spaghetti in the backyard is a pet fad,” especially for wealthy conservatives in search of “thrills at the strangeness of it all.” The proprietor played up to them by dressing as a ferocious bandit, “his head bound up in a gay bandanna with large rings in his ears.”
In a 1914 Sinclair Lewis novel, Our Mr. Wrenn, the protagonist takes a woman to a restaurant run by “Papa Gouroff” who wears a fez in hopes that “the place would degenerate into a Bohemian restaurant where liberal clergymen would think they were slumming . . .”
Menus, too, were tailored to the tastebuds of outsiders, producing dishes such as chop suey and chili con carne.
Slumming really hit the mainstream before and after World War I, probably due to a number of movies and novels whose plots included exciting scenes of people on tours. In the 1913 “New York’s Society Life and Underworld,” a group is set to visit the Port Arthur restaurant in Chinatown [pictured] just as they hear a woman’s scream. Norma Talmadge and Mary Pickford both starred in 1918 films with slumming scenes; Pickford’s included slumming in San Francisco’s red light district, the Barbary Coast.
At this time just about anyone might venture into the slums, whether a group of clayworkers visiting New Orleans in 1914, or soldiers from Seattle on leave in New York. One soldier admitted, “I was never so disappointed in my life as I was in the Bowery. I expected to see several murders and gun fights but all I could see was foreign merchants with hair all over their faces.” Their big thrill, as it turned out, was going to the Automat.
In fact the Bowery wasn’t what it used to be, having been sanitized in the war period. According to the book Slumming (Chad Heap, Univ. Chicago Press, 2008), counterculture tea rooms in places such as NY’s Greenwich Village and Towertown in Chicago became the bohemian “thrillage” sites of the 1920s. [verse from The Quill, 1919]
© Jan Whitaker, 2018