Category Archives: technology

Toddle House


The Toddle House chain occupied “cozy cottage” style buildings that were quite popular as restaurants, gas stations, and cabin camps in the Depression. On the outside Toddle Houses projected an exaggerated Colonial doll-house version of domesticity, with two oversized chimneys and a primly manicured lawn.

toddlehouseinteriorca1939Inside, though, a very functional, almost clinical interior greeted customers: A back wall of stainless steel kitchen equipment, a counter with a dozen comfortless, backless stools (“in and out in 12 minutes”), bare windows, bathroom-tile wainscoting, and NO fireplaces. Open 24 hours, their menus were limited and featured hamburgers and breakfast at all hours.

ToddleHouseStedmanpatentAdding another touch of no-nonsense modernity was the “cashier machine” invented by founder and co-owner J. C. Stedman. Designed to keep the countermen (later women) from handling money, a mechanical box near the door received meal checks and payments in coins. After a counterman observed, via a mirror inside the box, that the customer had deposited the correct amount, he lifted a treadle behind the counter and the money and checks fell through trap doors into locked bins below (nos. 14 and 15 in the patent diagram).

As awkward as the contraption was – not giving change, easily circumvented by cheating employees, etc. – it remained in use at least until the 1940s and customers liked it. In Evanston IL customers felt let down, their trustworthiness in doubt, when the cashier machine was replaced by a standard cash register in 1945. Today, the old drop box system — in my view mistakenly considered an honor system — has become an object of nostalgia.


The first Toddle Houses were opened in Southern states, principally Texas and Tennessee, in the 1930s. The chain never made it farther west than Omaha. In 1945 the company expanded northward with the acquisition of 46 Hull-Dobbs Houses, which resembled Toddle Houses to a remarkable degree. Toddle Houses built later were larger and of a style referred to as “New South” shown here that was plainer and even more symmetrical. Some had dining rooms and the front entrances with copper-clad canopies were enclosed by glass vestibules.

In 1946 Toddle Houses created Harlem House, for Black customers who were not otherwise welcome. Eventually there were 12 such units in Memphis, the company’s headquarters. An Atlanta Toddle House was the site of a prominent civil rights sit-in demonstration in December of 1963, in which demonstrators including comedian Dick Gregory were taken to jail.


The original 24 × 12-ft Toddle Houses were prefabricated and shipped to their sites on flatbed trucks. It has been reported that their exteriors were of porcelain-coated steel for portability. Since this material is inappropriate for Colonial architecture and they do not appear to be shiny in pictures, I find the description given in Philip Langdon’s Orange Roofs and Golden Arches more convincing. He says that some Toddle Houses were “veneered with a cement coating scored to resemble brick.” Others were built of brick on site. Langdon also observes that because early Toddle Houses could be transported so easily, the possibility of moving them presented advantages when negotiating land leases. I discovered a number of them that were in fact moved.

In 1962 the Toddle House company was bought by Dobbs House which turned most of them into Steak N Egg Kitchens. In the 1980s, after another company, Carsons, bought out Dobbs, an attempt was made to revive the Toddle Houses, which by 1984 had dwindled to 11 units. Carsons built at least 45 new Toddle House units.

Though Toddle Houses no longer exist, many of the buildings continue as eating places or have been adapted for other uses, as shown in a blogpost by Dinerhunter.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under chain restaurants, racism, technology

Dining in summer


For most of restaurant history proprietors watched their business drop off drastically in summer.

Not only did patronage decline but those who showed up ate less. In the 1890s many asked for crackers and milk in place of the usual steaks and chops. Orders for hot coffee fell off by a third or more. Around 1911 lunch rooms had become used to customers who ate nothing but a dish of ice cream. In the 1920s sandwiches and salads were popular. An August 1925 restaurant journal bewailed “the diner who doesn’t eat enough,” typified by the man whose cafeteria tray held only a measly dish of cottage cheese and a corn cob.

ACFanLeaderRestaurantFood did not stand up well to the heat. Salt shakers became clogged, butter melted, oils turned rancid, and vermin multiplied. In 1882 a Chicagoan was disgusted by “butter the consistency of salad-oil, dotted with struggling flies.” Restaurants that put food on display, as many once did, were in danger of turning their patrons’ stomachs with what in effect had become an advertisement for not eating there.

People’s moods were likely to sour along with dairy products. Servers were surly and the kitchen received more complaints than usual from dissatisfied customers.

It’s hard to imagine sitting in a stifling dining room wearing a suit and tie but that was the requirement for men in most restaurants before World War I. In 1911 it took a dire July heat wave in Cleveland for downtown eateries there to permit men to dine in shirt sleeves.

Restaurants tried all kinds of things to deal with the summer doldrums. In 1797 Boston’s Julien offered a range of (dubious?) remedies “calculated for strengthening and invigorating the system of nature, during the heat of Summer” which included vinegars and white wines. Another solution was to open a summer garden. Before the Civil War Delmonico’s opened a garden attached to their Brooklyn vegetable and dairy farm. Other restaurants took to the roof for a whiff of breeze.

Restaurants might shut down their city restaurants or open seasonal branches in resort areas. Brooklyn’s Gage & Tollner had a custom of closing up for summer altogether. Portland’s Exchange Restaurant in Maine opened a branch on the city’s Long Island in the 1890s where it hosted clam bakes and shore dinners. The English Tea Rooms near the Waldorf in NYC migrated to Newport and Northampton’s Rose Tree Inn moved to Maine while its principal customers, Smith College students, took summer vacation.

ACFanfanIn the 1880s the more modern restaurants were equipped with fans driven by steam or electric dynamos in the basement. The New York Kitchen, a mass feeding establishment serving up to 2,000 meals a day, advertised in 1888 that it was the coolest restaurant in Chicago “made so by our steam exhaust fan, which introduces 15,000 cubic feet of fresh air every minute.” The so-called “quick lunch” eateries of the 1890s – forerunners to today’s fast food establishments – led the way with modern methods of buying, food preparation, and facilities equipped with ceiling fans. But the average, undercapitalized restaurant could not afford such luxuries and made do with paper fans. (Um, and pretend it’s electric?)

Movie theaters, passenger trains, and restaurants were among the first businesses to install air-conditioning in the late 1920s and 1930s, but it was still fairly rare in restaurants before WWII. The largest restaurants and chains such as S&W cafeterias and Toffenetti’s were in the lead. In New Orleans, Gluck’s (“serving more than 10,000 meals a day”) was air-conditioned by 1930. In the mid-1930s federally backed modernization loans helped, but it was still common to see restaurants in smaller cities at the time advertising that they were “the only” air-conditioned restaurant in, say, Lexington KY or New Bedford MA.

There can be little doubt that air-conditioning was attractive to customers. During WWII Gimbels in Philadelphia, where all six of its restaurants and private dining rooms were air-conditioned, was serving up to 23,000 meals a day. Needless to say, today it is considered a must.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013


Filed under technology

Before Horn & Hardart: European automats

Note: In preparing for an interview for a documentary on Automats I looked at new sources I wasn’t aware of when I originally wrote this post in 2010, among them a wonderful German trade publication which pictures European Automats produced by the Sielaff company of Berlin. The booklet, from the Hagley Museum and Library’s digital archives, also contains rare exterior and interior shots of NYC’s first Automat, opened in 1902 by James Harcombe. I’ve made modifications to the post and have included some new illustrations.


When automats opened in New York and Philadelphia in 1902 many people were convinced they were an American invention. But they were not. A reporter for the New York Tribune captured a conversation between an American businessman and a foreign guest at James Harcombe’s NYC Automat in 1903, shortly after its opening. After examining the place, the American exclaimed, “What a tribute to American inventive skill!” The man at the next table replied, speaking with an accent, “This is a German idea. There are dozens of these restaurants on the Continent and this one was moved bodily from Berlin …” As the editors of the American Architect and Building News had observed in 1892, when it came to “penny-in-the-slot” machines the U.S. was “far behind the rest of the civilized world.” Even though Americans detested tipping, admired gadgetry, and loved fast service, for some reason the US lagged in the area of automated restaurants.

AutomatDortmund1902BSlot machines actually go back to antiquity. The first may have been a holy water dispenser in Egypt over 2,000 years ago. But it was Germany that developed the first automatic restaurant, applying electricity to the idea of self-service. Germany was also responsible for the term “automat” which in German usage applies to any type of coin-operated dispensing apparatus. The world’s first automatic refreshment dispenser appeared on the grounds of the zoo in Berlin in June of 1895 and was considered a “howling success.” On its first Sunday in operation it sold 5,400 sandwiches, 9,000 glasses of wine and cordials, and 22,000 cups of coffee. The first “automatisches restaurant,” providing hot meals as well as sandwiches and drinks was also designed by Max Sielaff of Berlin. It was presented to the public at a Berlin industrial exposition in 1896.


The fame of automatic restaurants spread rapidly in 1897 when one was installed and won a gold medal at the Brussels world’s fair. That same year an announcement was made that a similar restaurant would open soon in Philadelphia and in St. Louis – as far as I can determine neither of these became a reality at that time. In 1900 Paris had ‘buffets automatique’ — which resembled automats — all along the boulevards. Automats appeared in London a bit later. Around this time a visitor to St. Petersburg, Russia, found an automatic restaurant by the name of Quisisana, which evidently was the name of a Sielaff competitor in the European automatic restaurant industry. (pictured: top, Karlsruhe, 1903; middle, Dortmund, 1902; bottom, Wurzburg).

© Jan Whitaker, 2010, revised 2013


Filed under lunch rooms, technology

Celebrity restaurateurs: Pat Boone


Few celebrities become deeply involved in the restaurants that bear their names. That was true of the singer Pat Boone, who was known to visit his namesake restaurants occasionally and to sing and sign autographs at openings. How much good his – or any celebrity’s – connection does for a restaurant is debatable. Neither Pat Boone’s success as a performer nor his pro-family, clean-cut, Christian image saved the ventures he lent his name and money to.

Pat Boone’s Dine-O-Mat appears to have barely gotten off the ground despite what publicity referred to as its “space age” design. “This . . . new type of fully automatic roadside restaurant is destined to be an important landmark on highways all over America,” boasted a 1963 advertisement aimed at investors. The initial plan was to build 100 of the restaurants by summer of 1964, but few seem to have been constructed.

PatBooneCountryInn1959An earlier disappointing experiment in restauranting, Pat Boone’s Country Inn, in Denton TX, closed a mere four years after opening in 1958, even though Boone was connected to the town because of attending North Texas State College there.

While the Country Inn was a conventional restaurant, Dine-O-Mats were designed to be “revolutionary.” Perhaps the New Jersey entrepreneurs who cooked up the Dine-O-Mat concept were inspired by Stouffer’s 1961 foray into selling frozen food from vending machines to Ohio turnpike motorists who reheated it in microwave ovens.

Little could Pat Boone and company know when they launched Dine-O-Mats in 1962 that Stouffer’s would announce less than a year later their intention to phase out the roadside restaurants after realizing that travelers only wanted “speed and price.”

Both Stouffer’s highway restaurants and Dine-O-Mats might be called automats. But unlike Horn & Hardart automats, coins put in a slot did not call forth ready-to-eat selections. Dine-O-Mats had only one employee on the premises, an attendant whose job was to keep the machines loaded with frozen food. Rather comically, the postcard above shows customers (and Pat) dressed in their Sunday best, yet they are “dining” in a dismal geodesic-domed hut surrounded by vending machines and two microwaves sunk into an imitation hearth.

Similar to Stouffer’s restaurants, Dine-O-Mats were to be located near “motels, service stations, shopping centers, bowling alleys, country clubs, amusement parks, factories, air and bus terminals and along major highways,” according to a 1962 prospectus. How many were ever built, other than the prototype on Route 46 in Little Ferry NJ, is unclear. There may have been a few additional ones in New Jersey and Georgia.

Since kitchenless Dine-O-Mats relied on cooked food supplied by an offsite commissary, the scheme made sense only if deliveries could reach multiple outlets easily. In 1964 construction was to begin on a unit in Augusta, Georgia, but the project was delayed because of company “reorganization.” It was to be part of a group of Dine-O-Mats in Albany, Macon, and Savannah, but whether any of the Georgia restaurants opened I cannot determine.

PatBooneDunkinDonutsNPlainfieldNJIn 1965, when the Augusta construction was slated to begin, a newspaper report announced, “The Pat Boone Restaurant Corp. has revised all plans and has just now completed reorganization with new, modernized plans for its restaurants.” Though it’s hard to imagine what could be more modern than “space age,” it’s possible the geodesic dome had been scrapped and that the North Plainfield NJ Dunkin Donuts pictured here was once a Dine-O-Mat as some people believe.

The company’s confusing advertisements for prospective investors required differing minimum investment amounts ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 for a “limited (inactive) partnership” in April of 1963, to $15,000 to become an “area controller” in October, then asking $10,000 for an “investment opportunity” in March of 1965. Did anyone ever get the 10% to 13% returns that were estimated?

© Jan Whitaker, 2013


Filed under chain restaurants, proprietors & careers, roadside restaurants, technology

Music in restaurants

Because they traveled quite a bit musicians must have made up a notable percentage of early patrons of public eating places. It’s easy to imagine them playing a few tunes in return for their dinner, but if this happened I’ve found no trace of it. The first mention of music I’ve discovered was in 1866, in a description of a small French restaurant in New York with an oyster-shell framed alcove where “sometimes a boy with a violin will seem to afford music to the feast.”

Note the negatively tinged words “seem to afford.” Throughout history there have been plenty of critics of musical “din” in restaurants.

Music in restaurants was apparently a continental custom that migrated to these shores. At first it was highly associated with German restaurants such as Lauber’s at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. But by the late 1890s musical accompaniment with dinner became quite popular and all kinds could be found. “Wild” gypsy music as was played at NYC’s Café Boulevard was a favorite at Hungarian restaurants. Such places were known for their bohemian atmosphere — Why, people even talked to strangers! Later in the evening, the combined effect of food, wine, beer, and strolling musicians would have everyone singing choruses.

Orchestras of young women were also popular. In Boston, D. S. McDonald’s on Tremont  Street served dainty chafing dish specials such as Lobster a l’Americaine and Oyster a la Poulette en Blazer to the tunes of such a group. “This is a touch of Bohemia right in the heart of Boston,” proclaimed a 1903 advertisement.

American restaurant-goers of the turn of the century were evidently longing for the music of exotic others to invigorate and entertain them. On the West coast that often meant Hawaiian hulas. Everywhere else it meant the music of African Americans, especially ragtime.

The naysayers pleaded for quiet with their dinners. Articles in 1904 and 1905 issues of Town and Country, noting that potted palms and Hungarian bands expressed “the spirt of the age,” nonetheless complained that even the Third Avenue Delmonico’s had become “a hall of artificial palms, red paper, gilding and ragtime.”

Some hoped the early, pre-WWI tea room would provide a haven from the “garishness of strong lights, deafening music,” and restless thrill seekers found at the average restaurant. Instead music spread everywhere. Chinese restaurants installed Chinese orchestras which played all the latest rags. Even cafeterias joined the bandwagon.

It wouldn’t be long before clever minds figured out how to automate music in cafes and restaurants. At NYC’s Kalil’s in 1909 recorded voice of Caruso and other famous singers could be played on the Victor Auxetophone loudly enough to be accompanied by a live orchestra. The jukebox would not be far behind. In 1927 an advertisement advised cafeteria owners that the colorful Electramuse stimulated people “to have a good time – to spend MORE money!”

But jukeboxes ran afoul of polite society in short order. They were popular in teen hangouts – and that was part of the problem. Adults shunned these cafes, and neighbors complained about loudness. Fights broke out over musical selections. The jukebox took on associations of low life, not helped one bit by stories like the one that appeared in 1954 about a feuding North Carolina drive-in restaurant operator blasting super-amplified “Shake, Rattle and Roll” at an evangelical meeting across the street. The final straw for the jukebox was its takeover by racketeers.

Muzak fared much better in the restaurant industry than did jukeboxes. It started operation in NYC in 1936 with 40 restaurants as clients. Among its early customers were the dining room in the Algonquin Hotel and the Kungsholm Swedish restaurant on E. 55th Street. At first limited to large cities, technical advances in 1954 permitted Muzak franchises to spread to smaller towns throughout the country.

Today we have the full panoply of music. Rarely do we hear orchestras, but string quartets, harpists, strolling musicians, and canned music are plentiful. Even jukeboxes have been scrubbed clean of their dark past to the delight of patrons of retro diners.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012


Filed under restaurant customs, technology

Washing up

“Please don’t make me a pearl diver,” begged ruined Chicago restaurateur John Raklios as he entered debtors’ prison in 1939. As someone who had worked his way up in the restaurant world, he knew there was no job lower than washing other people’s dirty dishes.

In restaurant kitchens dishwashers were long considered “life’s wreckage,” people so reduced by circumstances, drugs, and drinking that they could find no other work. In the 19th and early 20th century dishwashers worked up to 12 hours a day for a free meal and very little money. In addition, they were often tormented by cooks and others in the kitchen.

A stark portrait of the life of a dishwasher, based on the author’s firsthand experiences, is painted by George Orwell in his autobiographical book Down and Out in Paris and London. Luckily, at its best dishwashing could produce a zen-like state in which the mind is untethered  from mundane matters.

The origins of the slang term “pearl diver” are as murky as dishwater itself. According to one historic account washers would clean dishes by feeling rather than sight. They would reach down into deep sinks “sorting the dishes into rows, washing them with a wave-like motion through the water” and then scooping huge piles onto a drain board. During busy periods when dirty dishes flowed into the kitchen “like lava from a volcano,” pearl divers quickly learned to “manipulate thousands of dishes at lightening speed.”

In literary and journalistic portraits, dishwashers were typically males unused to the better things in life and therefore relatively unbothered by floating scum, filth underfoot, rats, taunts, or low pay. Despite Orwell’s claim that the dishwasher “has no escape from this life, save into prison,” there were numerous stories of men who worked their way into careers as successful restaurateurs, such as Vincent Sardi, Morris Schwartzer of the NYC Biltmore Cafeteria chain, and Philippe Mathieu, purveyor of acclaimed French dip beef sandwiches in Los Angeles.

Afro-Americans or new immigrants who didn’t speak English often became dishwashers mostly because of their reduced job prospects generally, and were thus less likely to be from the ranks of the truly down and out. The same may have been true of women who washed dishes. Until 1911, when labor laws reduced the number of hours women could work, many dishwashers were women. Evidently they continued to work as dishwashers after reforms too, because state inspections of Michigan restaurants in 1918 revealed that for every two male dishwashers there were three women doing that work. Their pay, $1.20 a day, was rock bottom for restaurant workers then.

Mechanical dishwashers were invented in the 19th century, but were not electrified or widely used until well into the 20th. Though not the first female dishwasher inventor, Josephine Cochran is credited with devising the first truly practicable dishwasher, which she patented in 1886 [illustrated, 1912]. From a comfortable home with servants who performed kitchen labor, she was driven by a wish to prevent breakage. But her invention, which led her to form a company called Garis-Cochrane, ended up in hotels and restaurants rather than private households.

Before being electrified, generally during the teens and 1920s, mechanical dishwashers were manually operated, some requiring two people to turn handles that swished baskets of dishes through suds. The heavy baskets were lifted out of the water by pulleys which required considerable strength, sometimes resulting in the replacement of women dishwashers by men.

Despite strides in kitchen mechanization in the 1920s, it is notable that a survey of Rockford IL in 1929 found that only 16 of the city’s 179 restaurants had mechanical dishwashers. Even as late as the 1940s many restaurants still washed dishes by hand, often inadequately. Health department crackdowns following World War II found that scalding hot water and/or chlorine rinses still were not employed in many of the smaller restaurants across the country.

Though it’s unclear how many worked in restaurants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there were 522,900 dishwashers making an average of $8.19 an hour in 2008.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011


Filed under proprietors & careers, sanitation, technology

Flaming swords

When I was researching my last post on knights-and-castles restaurant themes I discovered that this kind of theatrical decor was often complemented by flamboyant food presentation, especially the kind that mixes weaponry and meat. Specifically sticking meat on a sword, setting it aflame, and rushing it toward your guests.

If you like that and had been looking for a fun night out in the vicinity of Reno, Nevada, in 1960, you might have turned up at The Lancer, “home of the flaming sword” and Glen Relfson at the organ. The Lancer’s advertisement showed a knight charging forward on his horse with lance in hand — yet, disappointingly, the food came on an everyday sword. Why not a lance?

I’ve searched U.S. patents and the reason why meat was not served on a lance is because no one thought to invent a lance — or a gun, why not? — that could go on the grill loaded up with shish kebab. But they did invent several very practical-minded swords, either with detachable handles (permitting the handle to stay cool while the skewered meat cooks on the grill), or with the hand protector turned upward to catch dripping grease when the sword is held upright (pictured). As the patentees methodically argued, these features are important to restaurant managers.

Many municipalities have enacted fire regulations that do not permit restaurant employees to carry flaming objects across a room. This has cut down the number of restaurants that offer this service today as compared to the peak in the mid-20th century and through the 1970s.

It’s possible the custom began in restaurants with Russian themes. In the 1930s there was a place in San Francisco called the Moscow Café which had Cossack dancing, entertainment with flaming swords, and a specialty of flaming Beef Stroganoff. (Presumably the sour cream was added after the flames subsided.) Los Angeles’ Bublichki Russian Café also offered beef on flaming swords in the 1950s. And a patent was granted in 1965 for an item called a “shashlik sword.”

How does the flame work? I always wondered. As a patent applicant explained, “this is usually accomplished through igniting, immediately before serving, a piece of cotton which, first dipped in alcohol, is wrapped around the base of the sword near the hilt thereof.” However if you adopted another design you could have a wick holder built into the grease drip cup “so that when the skewer is carried in an upright position with cooked meats or other food articles impaled thereon, the wick, previously soaked with rum or brandy, may be ignited, providing a dramatic torch-like effect as the skewer is carried from the kitchen to the table.” Quite frankly, that would be my preferred sword because I like the way it catches grease and eliminates cotton wads thereon.

You may be thinking that only corny restaurants in mini-malls featured food on swords but you’d be wrong. For instance, the menu at NYC’s Forum of the Twelve Caesars in the early 1960s included, perhaps for lighter appetites, Wild Boar Marinated and Served on the Flaming Short Sword. And, starting in the 1940s, flaming swords were practically synonymous with the fabulously funky Pump Room in Chicago’s Ambassador East Hotel. The Pump Room’s manager Ernie Byfield laughingly referred to the action there, consisting of costumed waiters weaving through crowds of guests with “flaming gobbets of lamb,” as being “like Halloween in Hell.” I don’t believe anyone was immolated.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011


Filed under restaurant customs, technology

“Waiter, telephone please!”

As one year ends and another begins, it’s a good time to think about what’s old and what’s new. For example, talking on a phone at the table in a restaurant seems a new-ish kind of activity. Of course you realize that I’m going to tell you it isn’t.

Even though the telephone was invented in the 1870s, it took a while for it to become an everyday necessity. So it was still newsworthy when restaurants began to provide telephone service at patrons’ tables in the early 1900s. The customer had only to say to the waiter, “Bring me a telephone,” and it would be placed on the table and plugged into a jack.

In the first few years of the 20th century tabletop telephone service was available in Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Boston, and probably all big cities. Chicago restaurants such as Kinsley’s, the Bismarck, and Boston Oyster House (pictured), as well as the tea room at Mandel Brothers department store were outfitted with table telephones. Boston’s R. H. White department store also had phone service in its restaurant. In both these stores the telephones were undoubtedly in the men’s, not the women’s, sections.

Fans of old movies might remember scenes where waiters rush telephones to male VIPs enjoying the evening out dressed in tuxedos and accompanied by mink-clad companions. But, actually, early restaurant phoning was apparently more like today’s: business transactions, usually conducted at lunch. Stock brokers in New York City — who paid a monthly telephone rental fee and might take as many as 30 calls while lunching at a restaurant — were at least liberated from their earlier practice of gulping sandwiches at their desks.

Social commentators worried about the effect on health, how working during times meant for rest would cause “brain fag” and indigestion. The invasion of the restaurant by telephones inspired one journalist in 1902 to imagine how one day “some brilliant genius will invent a telephone that can be carried in the vest pocket and then the hustling American can wire messages to his wife, telling how busy he is while he is crossing the street or going up in the elevator.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2010


Filed under restaurant customs, technology