Category Archives: uniforms & costumes

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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Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, decor, Offbeat places, restaurant controversies, tea shops, uniforms & costumes, women

Carhops in fact and fiction

The word “carhop” is almost certain to bring to mind a teenage girl dressed in a brief costume, possibly on roller skates. Ever since the George Lucas movie American Graffiti in 1973, the female carhop has become an icon. She is an object of nostalgia, even for those too young to have experienced drive-ins with carhops.

It’s not certain when she appeared on the scene. Curb service, usually for soda fountains in pharmacies, goes back to the turn of the 20th century. Usually boys were hired to rush orders while the driver of a car, or horse-drawn wagon, waited impatiently along the curb in front. In the 1920s Pig Stands selling sodas and sandwiches in Texas offered the same service. The Hot Shoppes also came along in the 1920s. In 1931 they advertised in Washington, D.C. for “girls for tray service.” In 1933 a Miami Beach drive-in looked for an “attractive curb waitress.”

By the late 1930s teenage girls and young [white] women (25 at the very oldest) were commonplace in Texas and California drive-ins and were the subject of quite a bit of turmoil. They worked long hours, often until late at night. In many cases, they not only delivered sandwiches to customers, but also beer, sometimes working for drive-ins that were more tavern than restaurant.

Issues surrounding female carhops came to a head in Texas and California in 1940. In January California’s chief of the Division of Industrial Welfare ordered 30 drive-ins to pay carhops the state’s legal minimum wage for women which was $16 a week. The drive-ins reacted negatively, being accustomed to paying no wages at all – carhops worked for tips only — as well as charging carhops for uniforms and meals. The Industrial Welfare head, a woman, threatened to arrest drive-in operators who failed to comply.

Meanwhile, in Texas the press was aglow with publicity about its carhops in LIFE magazine. The magazine’s cover showed an attractive teen dressed in a drum majorette outfit with what were then considered very short shorts. Stories in the Dallas press about carhops at that time were flippant, like one about the couple thrown out of a surrey. The sheriff, the story related, said “the horse probably had shied at the girl carhops in shorts who are employed at a near-by beer tavern.”

 

Although the drive-in featured in LIFE was in Houston, I wonder if all the publicity generated by that story was responsible for the blossoming movement of Dallas women who objected to carhops dressed in “scanties.” One letter-to-the-editor charged that if drive-in owners had to rely on “cheap chorus comedy cavortings” then the carhops “should be paid show house wages.” But when another letter writer suggested male carhops should also be dressed in short shorts and boots, the drive-in burlesque heated up as a few roadside places complied, attracting mobs of women. [illustration shows carhop interview]

Over time the campaign for modest dress for carhops met with more success than did the attempts to win wages for California carhops, or to unionize carhops in Dallas. In Texas, the state Restaurant Association denounced skimpy outfits and declared bare skin a violation of the state’s sanitary laws. The public, led by women and church leaders, grew more supportive of reform. With drive-ins in Houston and Dallas, one of the state’s largest operators, Sivils, agreed in 1942 to abandon shorts and bare midriffs for knee-length skirts and waist-long jackets. Other drive-ins followed their example, many dressing carhops in blouses and slacks. Meanwhile, drive-in owners in California went to court for a permanent injunction against the minimum wage order issued by the Industrial Welfare Commission. A judge ruled in their favor after they brought in more than a dozen carhops who testified they made from $25 to $70 a night in tips. A campaign to organize carhops at Sivils in Dallas likewise met defeat. Although the carhops voted for unionization, demanding a salary of $3 a week, a daily meal, and free uniforms, Sivils flatly rejected their vote.

In the course of the struggles new facts about carhops emerged. Far from carefree many of them were parents who, even if married, needed to work to support their families. A bitter letter testifying to this appeared in May, 1940, signed “two former carhops.” The women wrote that carhops dressed in shorts and grass skirts “are at least coming nearer to making a living wage than at any other time of their existence” while the women who complained about their outfits did not have to work for a living. They argued that without big tips, some carhops would become streetwalkers.

Big tips or not, serving customers in cars could be a trying experience, and the turnover rate among carhops was high, with many lasting only a few weeks. A 1957 column in Drive-In Restaurant, a trade magazine, revealed how carhops characterized customers: The Food Refuser, The Horn Blower, The Souvenir Seeker, the Breakage Fiends, The Deadbeats, The Wolves. As the last implies, attention from men was not always enjoyable, and sometimes it was dangerously hostile. In 1953, there was an instance of boys driving by a drive-in pelting girl carhops with gravel in Sacramento CA. A few carhops even met their deaths from obsessed customers.

By the mid-1950s, some drive-ins looked for ways to speed up service with automated ordering, usually from intercoms mounted on poles. Carhops’ only job then was to deliver food. Other drive-ins eliminated car service entirely, requiring customers to walk up to a window to order their food and carry it back to their car. When Ray Kroc took over the McDonald brothers’ drive-ins, he continued their practice of walk-up service. In the late 1950s Kroc reportedly attributed his company’s expansion to “no tipping, no jukebox, and no carhops.”

Although drive-ins with carhops can still be found today in some places, elegies for them began in the 1970s, American Graffiti being a prime example. Carhop fiction is more entertaining, but recognizing the difficulties carhops experienced in doing their jobs is, in my opinion, a better way to acknowledge them.

© 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. 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

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

A hair in the soup

hairinfoodUntil the 1920s the catchphrase “hair in the soup” referred to something that was a trivial problem. In other words, just remove it and keep on eating.

And then women started wearing their hair short.

Manufacturers of hairpins, barrettes, and hairnets felt desperate as sales of their products fell off drastically. But Edward Bernays, a pioneer in the new field of public relations, had an idea of how to revive business. He found safety experts who warned of the dangers of women working without hairnets and getting their hair caught in machinery. Also, under his guidance health experts emerged who recommended hairnets for waitresses to avoid contaminating food.

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State legislatures and municipalities began to pass laws and ordinances requiring servers, mainly women, to wear hairnets or headbands [shown above, 1920s]. In Richmond VA the health commissioner advocated a hairnet requirement, saying he had witnessed waitresses with bobbed hair shake their heads to get hair out of their eyes, risking loose hair falling in food.

hairnets1967greensboroncIn the decades that followed consumers became hairnet watchdogs, sending off letters to newspapers asking why waitresses weren’t wearing hairnets or restraining hairbands. Newspapers took up the role of consumer protectors, asking health departments to investigate. Health departments around the country responded to complaints by making special visits to targeted restaurants.

Did the agitation about hair in restaurant food result in more sanitary conditions? Probably not, and not even when it resulted in waitresses covering or restraining their hair.

The reason was that special visits to restaurants interrupted the regular health inspection work by strapped health departments, stealing time from monitoring more serious issues.

In 1967 a Greensboro NC paper’s “Hot Line” surveyed 19 restaurants and found widespread noncompliance with state regulations calling for head coverings. In this case, however, the county health director said he felt head coverings were a minor health concern compared to issues such as improper refrigeration or spoiled food. In fact, he said, in annual restaurant inspections the absence of head coverings accounted for only a 10 point loss out of a total 1,000-point perfect score. He concluded that it was a misuse of time for his department to make special visits to check for head coverings.

Today, in fact, the federal Food and Drug Administration does not generally require restaurant wait staff to adopt hair restraints, though it does require restraints for those who prepare food. And there is the question of whether there are actually any negative health effects of swallowing a stray hair. Probably not.

hairnets1971nancyOn the other hand, there is little doubt that most Americans find it disgusting.

Usually when diners find a hair in food at a restaurant, they immediately stop eating it. Researchers have found that “contamination psychology” is deeply irrational and not influenced by logic. Experiments in which a cockroach was brought into contact with food resulted in disgust so deep that subjects could not overlook even the briefest contact. If the food was later decontaminated they still would not eat it, even if they recognized that all traces had been removed. According to Richard Beck in Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, “The rule seems to be “once in contact, always in contact.’”

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A significant aspect of the disgust reaction to hair in food seems to be that it was once part of someone else’s body. (One’s own hair does not elicit the disgust response.) The reaction may be stronger if the body or behavior of the other person is viewed as socially unacceptable. In the 1920s some people disapproved of bobbed hair on women; in the 1960s there were people offended by long hair. Take the woman from Pulaski IL who wrote to a newspaper about the lack of hairnets in 1968: “When we enter a restaurant and notice a loose long-haired employe we leave. There is no law YET that we have to eat hair, nor eat with the Hippies, nor anything that resembles them.”

In the 1970s male servers were also sometimes the target of complaints if they had long hair or bushy beards.

But times change. Some restaurant patrons did not object at all to servers with long hair, especially if they were young and attractive like the “Grog Shop girls.” Grog Shops were part of the Stouffer’s company, a restaurant chain that had a history of strict policies on waitress garb, banning seamless hose and requiring waitresses to wear lace-up oxfords, girdles, and hairnets. However, when the Grog Shops opened in 1970, Stouffer’s dressed waitresses in micro-mini skirts, boots, and blouses with plunging necklines and asked them to wear their hair long and loose. I seriously doubt that health departments got a lot of complaints about the absence of hairnets.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Famous in its day: Aunt Fanny’s Cabin

auntfannyscabinouthouse

Famous, but also infamous in its day because of how it portrayed the South before the Civil War and Emancipation as a world of smiling slaves who loved serving the kindly white people who held them captive.

Beyond its costumed mammy servers and the Black children who boisterously recited the menu, sang, danced, and proclaimed the South would rise again, the proprietors of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin restaurant in Smyrna GA created a legend regarding its name and building which appropriated and falsified the life story of a living woman.

According to an oft-told tale, the restaurant’s core building was a relic of the Civil War era and the home of a former slave, Fanny Williams, who spent her last years sitting on the restaurant’s front porch telling of the war and its aftermath. At her death in 1949 legend had it that she was very old, her age ranging from somewhere in the 90s to much older. She was “about 112 years old” when she died, restaurant owner George Poole told a reporter in 1982.

Indeed there was a real Afro-American woman named Fanny Williams. However it was revealed after the restaurant closed in the 1990s that she was born after the Civil War and had never lived in the cabin, which itself dated from the 1890s. Poole’s estimate of her 112 years had been preposterous – only a few dozen people worldwide were known to have attained that age — but newspapers had been much inclined to lax reporting when it came to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin. Far from an ancient rural yokel, she was about 81 when she died, a city dweller in Atlanta, and active in raising funds for her church there. How willingly or why she adopted the ex-slave persona is unknown.

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Fanny Williams was a servant to a wealthy Atlanta family named Campbell. She was in service to socialite Isoline Campbell McKenna in 1941 when McKenna opened a tea room-style eating place on family property near their summer home. She named it Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, hosting ladies’ luncheons, bridge clubs, and bridal showers. She leased the business in 1947, selling it to lessees Harvey Hester [pictured above instructing his employees] and Marjorie Bowman in 1954. They elaborated the Aunt Fanny legend, enacted in what are known as “Blacks in Blackface” scenes where cheerful servers sang, danced, and even joined patrons in singing “Dixie,” the anthem of the ante-bellum South. The restaurant’s third owner, George “Pongo” Poole, continued the tradition into the 1980s, although when a cabaret tax was demanded, dancing by the Black boys stopped. However, they continued to carry yoke-style wooden menu boards around their necks while they shouted out the menu offerings [child waiter shown below in 1949 before the menu boards were used].

The restaurant drew Georgians from Smyrna and Atlanta, as well as visitors from all over the country and the world. It was a tour bus stop, and a favorite of President Jimmy Carter and conventioneers such as members of the American Bar Association. Those who complained about the roles played by Black servers and the implicit celebration of slavery were characterized by proprietors as “Northern liberals,” though there is evidence that some Southerners and Westerners were also critical.

auntfannyscabin1949lifewoodburysoapadvIt became standard procedure when reporting on the restaurant to quote Poole about how his staff loved working there and was part of a big happy family. When interviewed, Black women servers would invariably attest to their love of the job and how they never felt insulted. To what extent this was a genuine expression on their parts is unknown.

What is known is that many of the elements that characterized the restaurant had been subjects of contention for a long time. A 1964 survey by Wayne State University researchers showed that most Black respondents found terms such as Sambo, Aunt Jemima, auntie, mammy, spook, and darkie offensive. Many white people, especially in the South, did not understand this, and thought that calling an elderly Black man or woman Uncle or Aunt/ie was a mark of respect. As for “mammy,” despite the affection many Southerners felt for the Black women who had cared for them when they were children, it had been rejected by many Americans long before the 1960s. In the 1920s the National Organization of Colored Women’s Clubs mobilized massive opposition to a Washington, D.C. memorial to mammies proposed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. “One generation held the black mammy in abject slavery; the next would erect a monument to her fidelity,” said the club women’s official statement in 1923.

Georgia Senator Julian Bond said in the 1980s that he had little attraction to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin but could imagine that younger Blacks might find it “cute.” A journalist with the Atlanta Constitution who visited the restaurant in 1984 reported that he saw numerous Black patrons.

So, what’s the story? Did the degree of tolerance or even liking that some Black people expressed for Aunt Fanny’s Cabin mean that it held no offense to people of color? Did it mean that those who complained were thin-skinned trouble makers with an elevated sense of their own dignity who couldn’t take a joke? Did it mean, as a 1982 Washington Post story argued, that the years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were part of a post-racial age in which slavery, forced segregation, and lynching had largely ended and any remaining blatant prejudice was due simply to a few “obnoxious rednecks”?

mammy1959milwaukeeI think not.

I cannot be absolutely certain that there has never been a Black-owned restaurant that celebrated plantations, “pickaninnies,” and “mammies” of the Old South, but all the mammy restaurants I know of, mostly in business from the 1930s to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, were white-owned. And dressing Black women servers in mammy get-ups was so commonplace back then that at times I’ve wondered if wearing that costume was a waitressing job requirement for dark-skinned women.

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After the death of owner George Poole, Aunt Fanny’s Cabin struggled and subsequent owners could not revive it. It closed for the last time in 1994, sometimes recalled as partly a victim of “political correctness.” Based on the understanding that the original portion of the restaurant’s building had been a slave cabin, the city of Smyrna proposed to move it downtown to be used as a visitors’ center. After a historic structures report revealed it dated from the 1890s, the city decided to go ahead with the project on the grounds that the restaurant had itself been a significant part of the city’s history.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under odd buildings, Offbeat places, popular restaurants, racism, restaurant decor, uniforms & costumes

Dining for a cause

SanitaryFairKnickerbockerHall

During the Civil War, fairs were held in over twenty Northern cities to raise funds for the United States Sanitary Commission, a private organization that supplemented the Union Army Medical Corps’ efforts to care for wounded soldiers.

New York state held five fairs, in Albany, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Brooklyn, and New York City. The Brooklyn and New York City “Sanitary Fairs” were massive endeavors resulting in donations of enormous amounts — $300,000 and $1,000,000, respectively — to the Sanitary Commission.

SanitaryFair1The fairs featured music, displays of art and curiosities, tableaux vivants, and other entertainments. Restaurants were an especially popular attraction. This week, a friend whose ancestors were involved with the Brooklyn fair gave me a wonderful printed-in-gold bill of fare from that fair’s Knickerbocker Hall Restaurant.

There were two main eating places at the two-week-long Brooklyn & Long Island fair, the larger one located in the temporary, specially built two-story Knickerbocker Hall located next to the Brooklyn Academy of Music [shown above]. The other restaurant, The New England Kitchen, occupied another temporary building across the street [shown below].

SanitaryFair2The Refreshment Committee in charge of the two restaurants was quite successful in getting donations of food supplies, including almost $20,000 worth of wine. But public opinion nixed serving wine, along with holding raffles, as improper for a fair in the “City of Churches.” So the wine was given instead to the New York Metropolitan Sanitary Fair which was held about a month after Brooklyn’s, in April of 1864.

Despite the absence of wine, the Brooklyn fair outdid the Metropolitan NYC fair in how much money its SanitaryFair3eating places cleared. Compared to the Metropolitan NYC fair, the Brooklyn menu was simplified, with no relishes or fruit, and few soups, cold dishes, or pastries. Brooklyn netted $24,000 for the cause, while the Metropolitan fair cleared only a little over $7,000 because, unlike Brooklyn, they received little donated food (uh, what happened to the wine?). Brooklyn’s New England Kitchen added perhaps as much as another $10,000 for the Sanitary Commission.

SanitaryFair4Brooklyn’s Knickerbocker Hall Restaurant, which could seat 500 at a time and took in about $2,000 a day, was under the direction of the men’s refreshment committee, while the New England Kitchen was run by a committee of women. The Kitchen was tremendously popular, serving 800 to 1,000 persons daily. But it occupied too small a space and, as the commemorative volume issued by the fair noted, would have made a greater profit had it been able to accommodate larger crowds.

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Unlike the Knickerbocker, the Kitchen’s bill of fare did not replicate that of a fine restaurant. Nor did the Kitchen follow the prevailing custom of hiring Afro-American men as waiters. The Kitchen used (white) women volunteers who served meals dressed in mid-18th-century costumes that visitors found ugly yet fascinating. For a set price of 50 cents, considerably less than a typical dinner composed from the Knickerbocker Hall’s a la carte menu, they served a down-home meal of such things as pork & beans, brown bread, applesauce, baked potatoes in their jackets, hasty pudding, and cider. Food was eaten from old china with a two-tined fork. The Kitchen also hosted events such as spinning wheel demos, apple paring bees, and an actual wedding.

Though it’s hard to draw a straight line from The New England Kitchen to women’s tea rooms of the early 20th century, it is notable how many tea rooms adopted a similar theme, right down to the old-style cooking fireplace and spinning wheel. It was also significant that so many women assumed executive and managerial positions on fair committees, especially in the New England Kitchen, and it’s probable that many of them remained active in public life after it ended.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under alternative restaurants, menus, odd buildings, Offbeat places, proprietors & careers, uniforms & costumes, women

Waitress uniforms: bloomers

The bicycling craze of the mid-1890s brought “wheelwomen” dressed in bloomers into public view. It didn’t take long for enterprising restaurant men to latch onto the sensational pants-like garment as a waitress uniform. It was the middle of a nationwide depression and they hoped that male customers would flock to their establishments and the money would pour in. And this proved true, sort of.

Bloomers were originally a pragmatic garment of the 1850s woman’s rights movement intended to permit women to conduct everyday affairs without dragging 50 pounds of skirts and petticoats over filthy floors and streets. They were designed to do this by raising the skirt hem up to the shoe tops — with long gathered trousers worn underneath to modestly hide the ankles. But because of relentless ridicule, prior to the bicycle craze they had been worn only in private or in exceptional situations: doing gymnastics, while housecleaning, or by Westward-bound women crossing prairies and mountains.

The bloomers worn by female cyclists in the 1890s were more daring than those of the 1850s because they ended just below the knee, revealing stocking-covered calves and ankles. When “waiter girls” (as waitresses were known then) wore them, crowds of men gathered on sidewalks outside restaurants, jostling for a view. Although some restaurant owners claimed that bloomers were more practical than long dresses, it was pretty clear that most were motivated by a wish for publicity.

The bloomer uniform typically consisted of full-cut navy, brown, or black serge pants gathered at waist and knees and worn with a short matching vest (pictured on San Francisco waitresses) or “Zouave” jacket, and a colored blouse with leg o’mutton sleeves. Often the outfit was accessorized with black stockings, patent leather slippers, and caps imprinted with the restaurant’s name.

The first restaurant to adopt the fascinatingly curious uniform, in 1895, was the Bloomer Café in San Francisco. It was rapidly followed by restaurants in St. Louis and NYC. In 1896 and 1897 a few more opened in NYC, in Oakland CA, Chicago, and — gasp! — Boston. The police immediately closed the Chicago café on moral grounds. But they all seem to have been short-lived, usually because the crowds stopped coming once the sensationalism wore off.

Waitresses sometimes balked at bloomers because they feared they would be “on exhibit” and treated crudely by male patrons. Those who did agree to wear them, under threat of losing their jobs, reported that although they missed the “swish” factor of layers of starched skirts, they liked the new style because it enabled them to move quickly without trailing hems to get stepped on or slammed in doors.

Restaurant bloomers were an interesting example of a style crossing under coercion from one social class to another. Bloomers were seen as symbolic of the “new woman” – a decidedly privileged, well-educated, independent-minded daughter of the middle class. The new woman loved riding bicycles and engaging in sports. Working class women, by contrast, did not typically ride bicycles, play tennis or golf, or exercise in gyms. More than one bloomer waitress disclosed upon being interviewed that she had never been on a bicycle.

By 1898 the restaurant bloomer fad was over, but the idea of dressing waitresses in eye-catching costumes was only beginning.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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