In 1919 two women opened a small tea room in Boston with just four tables. It was something of a lark. They had virtually no money to outfit it so they bought used furnishings. The location was a candlelit basement on Oxford Terrace in Boston, a romantic name for what would generally be known as an alley.
Anyone reading about their opening might have predicted they would fail spectacularly – especially after noting their rather boastful claims: “Such a place as we are about to open to the public is rare in New England. We are just trying out an idea and are seeking an answer to it by actual experiment rather than to obtain profits. If this is a success we will open others in large cities of the country.”
Despite being in an unpretentious building in a lowly area it turned out to be a very favorable location, in walking distance of the central Boston Public Library and Copley Square with all its hotels and nearby shops.
They named it Nan’s Kitchen after Nan Gurney, one of the founders. The two had met while in the Navy during World War I. Before that Nan had been married, but left her husband behind to join the service. Claiming desertion, he divorced her. Nan’s partner Thellma McClellan had worked as an astrologer before joining the Navy. Both enjoyed performing and were involved with vaudeville and amateur theatrics.
Nan’s Kitchen was an instant success, popular with members of the Professional Women’s Club to which they belonged. It also attracted fellow vaudeville performers. Publicity helped, particularly newspaper stories that made the tea room sound like a haven for romantic trysts at lunch and afternoon tea. They added more tables, but continued to specialize in one dish, chicken and waffles.
They must not have made much in the way of profits initially because they continued their side jobs as freelance teachers of music and elocution for several years. They were generous with the servers (who wore smocks, Oriental pantaloons, and artists’ caps), giving them a share of profits and paying them over the summer when the tea room closed.
In 1925 the pair seemed to become more serious about the restaurant business, opening a second tea room called Nan’s Kitchen Too at 3 Boylston Place. The next year the original Nan’s remained open all summer for the first time. The following year it was remodeled to resemble an outdoor garden containing a small cabin where a Black woman prepared the waffles, an arrangement also in use at the Boylston Place Nan’s. (Shades of Georgia’s Aunt Fanny’s Cabin? I would hope that Nan’s Black cooks were not costumed as Mammys!)
Although Nan and Thellma lived together in the 1920s, in 1930 they no longer did. In 1931 Nan went to New York where she worked as steward in an “exclusive Manhattan club,” according to an advertisement for Birds-Eye frozen foods. From 1934 to 1936 she ran Nan Gurney’s Inn, in her home town of Patchogue, Long Island, where she had grown up as Lettie L. Smith. After that, in 1937, she opened Nan Gurney’s Restaurant on Northern Blvd. in Flushing NY, specializing in “Long Island food.” [Flushing restaurant shown below later when it was Villa Bianca]
In 1932 Thellma, who had managed Nan’s Kitchen Too, was living in Connecticut. A version of Nan’s moved to the Motor Mart Building on Park Square and remained in business until 1935, but whether Thellma or Nan had any connection with it then is unknown.
(This post is a footnote to Robin Caldwell’s fine essay on Black grocers in the Greenwood community – my attempt to give some sense of the community by sketching a little about the area’s many restaurants.)
Before the Greenwood district’s destruction in 1921 – evaluated at $536M in property damage in today’s dollars — the area had become home to a prosperous Black business district filled with brick buildings, many of them housing eating places. Its leading citizens had done very well and a Black newspaper, the Tulsa Star, had begun publishing in 1913, with its office located near the heart of the business district at N. Greenwood and E. Archer avenues.
Nonetheless, like all of Tulsa, the area had its share of problems, no doubt due in large part to its rapid growth and the city’s attractiveness to transients and people on the make in both a good and a bad sense. Though generally striking a positive note, The Star complained of inadequate city services reflected in a failure of police to shut down gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging, and the lack of sewers in some parts of the community. Shortly before the massacre area residents petitioned the city, urging annexation of that part of the Black community outside the city limits and lacking modern improvements such as water, street lights, railroad crossings, fire stations, sidewalks, and paved streets. [Shown above: ca. 1915 photo of flooding in the 300 block of N. Frankfort street; Russell & Co. was a black-owned business.]
One of the most successful Black restaurant proprietors was Texas-born Joe Lockard who moved to Tulsa from his farm in Muskogee Indian Territory (Oklahoma). In 1914 he opened The People’s Café near Tulsa’s Frisco train depot. In 1920 he became president of the board of directors of a newly created investment company. That same year a white customer got into an argument with Lockard’s cook, shooting and killing the cook in the cafe’s dining room. Lockard’s café was destroyed by white rioters in 1921, but he continued in the café business into the 1930s, possibly later.
In contrast to Lockard, another Texan, Al Floyd, operator of the Cosy Corner [shown at top, 1915 advertisement from The Tulsa Star], was in business for at most a few years before relocating to Oklahoma City where he managed a railroad café.
The Busy Bee Café was run by Texas-born Savannah Elliott, also known as ‘Mother Elliott” despite only being in her 30s. In 1918 the newspaper mentioned that she entertained groups, such as teachers, and birthday dinners with as many as 17 guests. She sold the 112 N. Greenwood location at the end of that year, and moved to a new place that she operated briefly before again moving to Kansas City MO. In KC she and her husband ran a café called the Blue Goose. [1917 advertisement]
L. W. Wells ran a café in Okmulgee OK in 1914. The following year he moved to Tulsa, working in a white-owned restaurant called the Ever Eat Café. By 1918 he was running two quick-lunch cafes of his own in the Greenwood area where he provided “classy lunches” according to advertisements. It was wartime and business was booming, possibly because soldiers were passing through on the railroad. As the above advertisement indicates he was unable to keep his second location open because of the business crunch which probably meant increased patronage and a simultaneous shortage of help. In 1918 he had a dangerous brush with a drunken customer, engaging in a fist fight with him and pulling a gun. Like Lockard, he owned a farm in Oklahoma and was considered well off. The Star paper noted that for Christmas 1918 he presented his wife and daughter with a piano costing $475. His restaurant on Greenwood Avenue was destroyed in the 1921 attacks. [1918 advertisement]
Most of the cafes in the Greenwood district were basic, pricing meals reasonably, often charging 25 cents for a plated hot dinner. Many were open day and night. Their advertising stressed cleanliness. Most went by their owners’ names but there were also plenty of colorful names such as Busy Bee, Cosy Corner, Crystal, Ideal, Liberty, Little Pullman, Lone Star, Minute, Olympia, Palace, People’s, Red Rose, Square Deal, Star, and Sunny Side. (Because Tulsa was a Jim Crow city, it’s easy to identify which were Black restaurants – they were marked (c) in the city’s business directories.)
The greatest number of restaurants over the years 1913 through 1920 were on North Greenwood avenue. It intersected with East Archer to form the heart of the area’s business district, as well as bearing the brunt of destruction in 1921. East Archer had the second largest number of restaurants. I counted about 30 on North Greenwood during the 8-year period and 15 on East Archer, with another couple dozen on other streets.
Overall, the cafes went through a great deal of turnover and geographical churn – as was common throughout the US. They changed hands or moved to new addresses with some frequency. For example, Susie Bell’s cafe suffered fire damage when the Waffle House next door caught on fire in 1920. Although she had already moved several times, she was not defeated. She went out scouting for a new location early the next morning, confident she would be back in business by evening. In all likelihood she had “regulars” who counted on her to provide their daily meals. Her cafe was destroyed in the massacre. [1913 advertisement]
I had hoped to get an idea of what foods restaurants served, but that turned out to be difficult. Many advertised “home cooking” but almost never mentioned specific dishes. Usually when applied to basic cafes, home cooking referred to plain meat-and-potatoes dinners of the sort preferred by people who relied on restaurants for most of their meals. It’s likely that a fair number of residents of the Greenwood area lived in rooming houses and residential hotels with no cooking facilities. According to the 1920 federal census, about a tenth of Tulsa’s Black population were lodgers.
Though advertising did not offer much idea of what was served in the cafés, two foods were mentioned fairly frequently: Barbecue and Chili. Aside from the Black population born in Oklahoma, the next largest percentage were transplants from Texas, so it isn’t at all surprising that these two foods would be staples. There was also frequent mention of confectionery, pies, and cakes.
The one and only menu I discovered was for a 1918 Christmas dinner, billed as home cooking, at the Sunny Side Café. An advertisement also referred to it as a “Conservation” dinner, reflecting wartime rationing. In addition to a “Christmas Oyster Loaf,” the dinner included: Baked Turkey with Roquefort Dressing; Baked Chicken with Corn Dressing; Roast Goose with Sage Dressing; Smothered Duck with Brown Gravy; Cream Potatoes; Cream Peas; Griddle Corn; Macaroni; Stuffed Tomatoes; Stewed Prunes; String Beans; Cream Cabbage; Cranberry Sauce; Cherry Cobbler and Whip Cream; and the following pies: Pumpkin, Potato Custard, Mince Meat, Lemon Custard, Apple, and Cocoanut Custard.
Despite the enormity of the disaster in which possibly more than 300 Black lives were lost and there was extensive property destruction, survivors went to work almost immediately. Cafes that had been turned into rubble were rebuilt and reopened, and new locations were found. The area rebounded.
In the late 20th century women began to make serious inroads into restaurant kitchens, sometimes taking the top spot as chef. An account of women’s progress is given in Ann Cooper’s “A Woman’s Place Is in the Kitchen: The Evolution of Women Chefs” published in 1998.
But not a lot is known about women’s status in professional kitchens in earlier eras. In an appendix, Cooper lists a “sampling” of women chefs from the past. Though it is not intended to be complete, it includes only 11 women before the 1970s, beginning with Julie Freyes at Antoine’s in New Orleans in the 1840s. Four of the women worked with their husbands or took over after his or another family member’s death, a not-unusual route for many women in the past.
I wanted to see if I could find out more about women chefs in this country before the changes since the 1970s. Were there many women chefs in the past, I wondered, and what kinds of hotel or restaurant kitchens did they work in?
One problem crops up right away: what exactly is the meaning of chef, particularly in the U.S.? Does it refer to a formally trained person who handles procurement, hires staff and supervises them, and can take over any position in the kitchen in a pinch? Or does it simply mean head cook, with someone else with more executive power handling everything else?
What I have learned is that in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries women were actively involved with food production outside the domestic sphere. They were caterers, they taught cooking, and they worked in restaurant and hotel kitchens. Quite a few were not native born and had acquired their skills abroad.
A few notable women of the 19th century are profiled as chefs in The Culinarians (David S. Shields, 2017). Sarah Windust, a trained cook from England, worked with her husband in 1820s New York, running the kitchen of a coffee house that catered to actors and writers. Eliza Seymour Lee was trained by her mother, a freed slave who had been taught by Charleston’s top pastry chef of the 1790s. Eliza and her husband ran a dining room for boarders. When he died she continued in business as a restaurateur and caterer until the Civil War, specializing in pastries. Lucretia Bourquin also catered, supplying the Whig Party’s 4th of July dinner held in the woods outside Philadelphia in 1838. For those with “fastidious taste” her Philadelphia Eating House offered up such favorites as French soups, Beef a la Mode, Canvas Back Ducks, Terrapins, Snipe, and Partridges.
The confusion over who and what was a chef is illustrated in the career of Nellie Murray, a Black cook and caterer in New Orleans in the 19th century. At times she evidently worked as a cook in white households, but she also became known as the caterer to New Orleans society. She catered all sorts of events, parties, and fundraising dinners, providing dishes preferred by the upper class such as trout with oyster sauce. Almost certainly she supervised helpers for some of her clients’ events. This was certainly the case when she was invited to run a Creole kitchen at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. She did not have a restaurant nor work in one but she would seem to otherwise have exhibited the characteristics of a chef.
Despite the handful of women named above who are known to have had notable careers, the U.S. Censuses of the 19th century failed to record women in the role of chef. Often leaving out women’s occupations and uncertain of the meaning of occupational titles, the census does not present a reliable source on this subject. But it’s worth noticing that from 1900 through the 1940 the census shows a steady increase of women chefs from approximately 85 to nearly 2,400.
What accounted for the increase of women chefs in the first half of the 20th century? The short answer is war and decreased immigration. American-born men were not terribly interested in working in restaurant kitchens, but there were numbers of women available who had studied home economics, including dietetics. Many of them went into institutional kitchens, but from there some took jobs in restaurants. [Advertisement, Reno NV, 1905]
Two news items of the early century undoubtedly inspired American women to aim for chef positions. One was the widespread story of Rosa Lewis, “chief culinary artist” of London’s Cavendish Hotel, paid the then-enormous annual salary of $15,000. And, in 1907 the newly opened elite woman’s club in New York, The Colony, hired Sophia Nailer as chef. Like so many women cooks she had previously worked for wealthy families.
But despite the few women at the top, it seems that most women who held chef positions in hotels were hired mainly because they added homely dishes to the menu for guests, particularly residential guests, who were tired of typically routinized hotel menus. This seemed to account for the hiring of Anna Tackmeyer [pictured, 1919] as chef at New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania in 1919 to run the “home cooking department,” which operated separately from the main kitchen. In the 1920s some restaurants, cafeterias especially, proudly advertised they featured home cooking with only women in the kitchen. White men often refused to take orders from women, so it was common that restaurant kitchens with women chefs would be entirely staffed with women.
More typically, though, women chefs in the early century would work in the kitchens of small hotels in remote locations, such as in Baxter Springs KS with a population under 2,000. Others worked in urban tea rooms which were often women-owned and where the majority of patrons were women. [Advertisement, 1924, Springfield IL]
It was an established belief that women could not handle meat. Yet, a want ad in the trade journal Hotel World in 1921 defied this conviction. A woman chef sought “full charge” in a high-class place, claiming she could handle it all: “Meat, pastry, carving.”
The shortage of men in WWII opened up possibilities for women chefs. The American Hotel Association reported in 1943 that 330 hotels nationwide had women chefs. Working in Miami, one woman hired to replace a male military recruit retained his title as “second chef and broiler man.” She reflected the heady feeling this could give a woman, boasting in a letter to the editor that lifting heavy pots and crates was something she didn’t give a second thought to. [cartoon illustration, 1946]
Sociologist William Foote Whyte observed in 1948 that the French chef had lost control of kitchens and that “many of our modern American kitchens with women cooks and food production managers have completely lost the old distinctions of rank.” Of course this could be seen as the classic situation of women not getting into what had been male-dominated ranks until the positions had lost status. According to a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association in 1952, the traditional “hat wearing, and artistic male chef” was being replaced by trained women dietitians who had a more modern outlook on how to run a kitchen.
Despite these advances, though, men still controlled most commercial kitchens through the 1960s and beyond, even into the 1970s when the Culinary Institute of America, which had admitted very few women since its creation in 1946 to train returning GIs, began to welcome women students. It would be slow going for women chefs for many years thereafter, but progress would continue.
After the pandemic, who knows what situation women chefs – or restaurants in general — will face?
Neither cocktail lounges nor cocktails were new in the 1930s when both became quite popular. Far back into the 19th century, men enjoyed lounging at bars and tables in hotels and other places while they imbibed cocktails, along with cobblers, fixes, fizzes, flips, juleps, punches, slings, smashes, sours, and toddies. Cocktails became popular after the Civil War and a regular pre-dinner habit in the 1890s.
In those times drinking in public was a male enterprise. Later, during Prohibition in the 1920s when it became illegal to sell alcoholic beverages, drinking in the home, formerly rare, became common. Women who had generally shunned drinking in public began to indulge. Since bootleggers made more money from concentrated alcohol than wine or beer, cocktails rose in favor with both sexes.
Upon repeal of Prohibition in the early 1930s, hotels and restaurants made plans to capitalize on cocktail drinking, ushering in the era of luxurious cocktail lounges that could attract women as well as men. According to one report in 1934 the new spaces attained a level of respectability by avoiding the old term “bar room,” preferring instead to be called cocktail bars, cocktail lounges, Persian rooms, palm rooms, and tap rooms. Cocktail “hours,” often accompanied by a tinkling piano, were instituted to encourage patronage.
In some senses, though, Prohibition hung around for years, even decades. Some states and towns did not permit cocktail lounges, while others only allowed men to be served at bars. The latter rules favored having a lounge with tables.
Hotels were prominent among the places where cocktail lounges were installed, and they still remain in many today, providing meeting places for socializing with friends or doing business with associates. Some, such as the new lounge at the Hotel Jermyn in Scranton PA in 1935, were quite glamorous with their bright colors, shiny surfaces, and over-the-top interpretations of art deco motifs.
It isn’t too far fetched to say that in the 1930s New York cocktail lounges were swankier than the restaurants they accompanied. Creative uses of materials such as metals, glass and leather, modern furniture, murals, and clever lighting set a tone quite unlike earlier decades. Color choices were striking, especially on surfaces not usually painted brightly such as tabletops and ceilings.
But women didn’t really love the hard, smooth yet cold, ultra-modern look. According to a 1934 article in Restaurant Management titled “The Ladies Must Be Pleased,” they actually preferred Colonial themes, something that designers would have realized if they had paid attention to the tea rooms of the 1920s.
The bold styling of the Jermyn was passé by the 1940s, when the oh-so-glamorous and romantic cocktail lounge at the Town and Country Restaurant in NYC opened on Park Avenue. It seemed to epitomize the very concept of lounging with its high-back tufted banquettes.
The Keys restaurant, in Indianapolis, had the informal look of a living room in the 1950s.
The advantages of setting off a space for a cocktail lounge made good sense for restaurants because it drew people in. And there was always a good chance that some who came in for a drink would decide to stay for dinner. Plus the lounge served as a waiting place for diners. Liquor offered higher profits than food, and having an attractive lounge extended the flow of traffic both before and after the dinner hours. Of course space was at a premium, with high rents in some cities, New York in particular. Anyone attending Goldie’s supper club in New York in 1955 [shown at top] was going to be crammed into a tight space with the club’s owner, pianist Goldie Hawkins. How servers maneuvered around his piano without spilling drinks on the well-dressed patrons is a mystery.
Cocktail lounges were rarely found in small cafes, and pretty much never in commonplace lunch rooms. But they were found in a number of Chinese restaurants that adopted a nightclub style, as well as some California drive-ins, a restaurant type quite different than the standard drive-in, and often referred to as the California coffee shop. The Tiny’s drive-in chain in the San Francisco area had it all: carhops, a dining room, and a cocktail lounge.
Yet, clearly, America was never totally comfortable with cocktail lounges, or bars, and regulated their numbers. Even as the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn eased its liquor law, allowing restaurants to serve mixed drinks, it capped cocktail lounge seating to 25% of seating in a restaurant’s dining areas. The 1980s saw the cocktail lounge recede somewhat as a restaurant feature when movements to reduce drunk driving took hold and the cost of liability insurance rose. Consumption of cocktails and hard liquor generally shrank as wine grew in popularity. These trends continued into the 1990s as cities restricted the number of liquor licenses granted.
In recent years cocktails have become popular once again. Many restaurants have bars, but I really haven’t noticed that cocktail lounges have reappeared.
In roughly the ten years preceding passage of the 19th amendment giving women the vote in 1920, suffragists ran tea rooms and lunch rooms to raise funds for the cause and to publicize their arguments for why women should have the right to vote.
Most major cities – New York, Boston, Baltimore, Hartford, Charleston, Atlanta, D.C. [see above illustration], etc. – had a suffrage tea or lunch room, many located in the local suffrage headquarters. In smaller towns they might be temporary, running only for a week or so in order to get money for something such as sending a delegate to a meeting out of town. There were other related ways to make money: in San Francisco suffragists sold a specially packaged Equality Tea, with a booth in the Emporium department store.
Some groups served only tea but in larger cities tea and lunch rooms also provided food. When a suffrage tea room opened in Chicago in 1914, it offered a variety of salads and sandwiches with a beverage for 35 cents. Desserts could be added for another 15 cents, but evidently pie a la mode was reserved for male guests. Men were warmly invited to patronize suffrage tea and lunch rooms, and treated very well, since they would be the ones deciding whether women would get the vote. Lifelong peace activist Mildred Scott Olmsted [shown here at age 29], interviewed at age 97, said she had been a volunteer waitress at Philadelphia’s suffrage tea room, where they “lured men in for a good cheap business lunch.” “Then,” she said, “you could hand them literature and talk.” No doubt she did a lot of talking. Over and over she heard the argument that women should rely on husbands, fathers, and brothers to vote for them.
At Boston’s suffrage lunch room on Tremont Street [shown below] substantial meals were available, such as corned beef hash with beets and a muffin or boiled salmon with egg sauce and potatoes, both for about 30 cents. The back of the menu was used to inform diners that if the lunch room succeeded in adding another 40 daily patrons to its usual 160, it would make enough profit to cover its office rent. Yellow was the color most often associated with the suffrage cause, explaining the Sunflower name adopted by the Boston suffragists.
Undoubtedly, the most eye-catching of the pro-suffrage tea and food dispensaries was the yellow and black lunch wagon that showed up in the Bronx near Fordham College in the summer of 1911. Suffrage volunteers worked in it, selling lemonade and sandwiches. The plan was to have one wagon in each of the five boroughs; one showed up in Brooklyn in 1915, though I couldn’t determine if there were others.
The lunch wagon was only one of New York’s suffrage eating places. At 70 Wall Street was the Votes for Women lunch room run by the Empire State Suffrage Campaign Committee, in a space donated by the husband of one of the suffragists. When a promise of homemade food was made on September 16, 1915, the place was mobbed, with men crowding the tables and “against the walls.” A menu published later promised “Real Home Cooking,” featuring Chicken Salad, Corn Bread, Waffles with Real Maple Syrup, and Home-made Ice Cream.
The offer of “homemade” food was politically strategic in that it reinforced the idea that suffragists were feminine women, not pseudo men as argued by the anti-suffragists. Using the same logic a suffrage group in Washington state put out a cookbook with 700 recipes. [1917 ad for Philadelphia’s lunch room show here]
Multi-millionaire Alva Belmont financed another New York City suffrage lunch room on East 41st street, at the headquarters of her Political Equality League. There middle-class women who could afford to spend 50 cents for lunch ate in one room, while working-class women ate inexpensive sandwiches in a second room.
Along with suffrage groups, probably every city also had an organization of women opposed to equal suffrage. They also tried to gain support through teas and lunches, though these tended to be occasional events held at the antis’ headquarters or in someone’s home. In February 1917, the District of Columbia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, for instance, created a pink tea room – pink being the antis’ color — at their Pennsylvania Avenue offices for visitors attending the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. In Des Moines IA, the local anti-suffrage association held a tea reception at Younker’s Department Store to host a prominent anti-suffragist from Pennsylvania.
Just how helpful suffrage eating places were in boosting the cause is impossible to assess, but they surely must have helped build bonds among feminist activists such as Mildred Olmsted.
A while back I reviewed several years of a diary kept by New York City resident Josephine Sherwood Hull. Over a five-year period, 1920 until 1925, she recorded about 320 restaurant meals. This works out to a little more than one a week, which was considerable at that time. [publicity photo, ca. 1950, from movie Harvey]
I suspect her attraction to restaurants was largely explained by the fact that she was in the theater. After years of research into the history of restaurants, I’ve noticed that opera singers and theater people lived more of their lives in public than did the average American, and that included eating in restaurants frequently. Also, the 1920s was the decade that saw the number of women eating outside the home increase dramatically.
Then unmarried, Josephine Sherwood began her theater career not long after her 1899 graduation from Radcliffe College, where she had participated in amateur theatrics. In 1909 she married actor Shelley Hull and retired from legitimate theater. But after he died in 1919 – a sudden victim of the “Spanish” flu raging through the U.S. – she resumed her theater career as an actor and a director.
In 1922, 1923, and 1924 alone she directed four or more plays, and appeared in at least two others. Later she would appear in movies, often playing an older woman, frequently an aunt. She appeared in Arsenic and Old Lace, and in Harvey for which she won an Oscar in 1951 for a supporting role.
In the years of her diary that I looked at, Prohibition was in effect, and that along with greater employment of urban women during and after the war led to the flourishing of tea rooms, a type of restaurant that she favored. She went to the White Swan for dinner 24 times over the five-year period, the English Tea Room 20 times, mainly for lunch, and the Yellow Aster near her apartment on West 57th Street 12 times, again mainly for lunch. Other tea rooms she liked included the Virginia, the Thistle, the Hawaiian, and the Mirror. But despite her liking for tea rooms she rarely had afternoon tea, and when she did it was usually at hotels rather than independent tea rooms.
By far her most frequent meal out was dinner. She recorded eating it in restaurants 219 times. Her favorite dinner spot was a popular restaurant on 6th Avenue established in 1907 called The Alps. She also enjoyed The Hotel McAlpin, visiting their rooftop restaurant six times in warm weather. Henri’s was another favorite, as was The Tavern.
She had “supper” in restaurants 13 times, mostly in hotels. As a late night meal, supper was a favorite of theater people and others in the entertainment world. She visited a number of clubs, some of them related to theater, others emphasizing civic volunteerism.
Judging from the restaurants she patronized, except for tea rooms, she preferred places that might be described as continental, either Italian or French. For whatever reasons – perhaps reflecting her rather conservative middle-class background — there were some popular restaurants and areas of the city that she did not patronize in these years. The Automat was one. Nor did she record a single visit to a Chinese restaurant. She apparently was not attracted to Greenwich Village, a part of the city filled with tea rooms.
Bertha Stevenson was born at a time when a woman’s interest in chemistry, or any scientific field, could only be channeled into the limited confines of women’s realm. That was the same era in which Ellen Richards, the first woman admitted to MIT, became “the mother of home economics.”
Even though Stevenson was younger than Richards, she ended up directing her postgraduate study of chemistry to bread making. On the bright side, she was quite successful, not only at marketing bread but also in creating a string of high-quality lunch rooms with prices low enough that young working women could afford them.
She began making bread in Cambridge MA around 1902. Her shop was quite fashionable in a refined way. According to one description, “The furniture is of the hand made order, simple in line, artistic in design. A few big copper vessels, gleaming red, a few palms, a rug or two, good, but not extravagant, a Ruskin portrait in a black oak frame, one or two Millet pictures, numerous quotations from Ruskin, Tolstoy, Morris.” About a year later, stories appeared in newspapers around the country describing her Samore Bread Laboratory, and congratulating her and her female associates for finally showing the world that college-educated women were good for something after all.
The following year they moved the bakery to Boston. A lunch room was opened with it, sponsored by the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union (WEIU), a non-profit organization in Boston founded in 1877 to advance the well-being of women.
The lunch room, known as the Laboratory Kitchen, was on Temple Place in Boston’s shopping district where it could serve women workers and shoppers. It carried over the Arts & Crafts style of the former Cambridge bakery, with muted greens and browns and touches of copper and brass. Servers dressed in Puritan costumes with white caps and kerchiefs. In addition to producing bread and inexpensive lunches, the plan was to set up a hot dinner delivery service that would free homemakers from kitchen drudgery.
Problems cropped up almost immediately. The Laboratory Kitchen was located on the 2nd and 3rd floors of an elevator building. Unfortunately the elevator often was out of service. Next, another restaurant physically resembling the Laboratory Kitchen opened on the ground floor, causing many lunchers to patronize it thinking they were in the Laboratory Kitchen. Meal delivery turned out to be much more difficult than expected and the delivery zone had to be cut back. As far as I could determine the delivery project was abandoned after the three-year WEIU contract expired.
But the lunchrooms proved to be successful. When Temple Place started up, a second Laboratory Kitchen, not under WEIU sponsorship, was opened on Bedford St. It was operated as a cafeteria, a type of eating place popular in Chicago but then unknown to Bostonians. Ellen Richards and a group of Boston’s progressive women pioneers attended an opening luncheon there where they learned how to handle a cafeteria tray.
Subsequent lunchrooms of the chain – of which there were eventually five or six — were all based on self service or counter service and were less expensive than the full-service Temple Place location. Stevenson used technological advances to cut costs and speed service. At one address outfitted with a lunch counter [location shown above on Bedford St., viewed from Kingston St.], guests ordered by number. Waitresses then relayed the number to kitchen workers on the floor below by punching the number in a machine and the order was sent up via a dumbwaiter under the counter. At another of the lunch rooms, she employed a simplified “Automat”-style set of heated or cooled boxes that she patented. Workers filled them from the back while patrons lifted a glass window in front and removed what they wanted. [see patent illustration]
I stumbled across a story of someone who was a regular at one of the Laboratory Kitchens in the early days. She began working at the Filene’s department store at age 15, getting $4 a week, which barely allowed her to pay for a ride on the “T” and a 15-cent lunch at the Laboratory Kitchen. Eventually she became a department store buyer and a women’s rights activist.
As popular as the lunch rooms were with women, they also attracted men, particularly after one opened in 1919 on Washington Street in the stretch then known as Newspaper Row.
The dishes served at Laboratory Kitchens, such as vegetable plates, chowders, and beefsteak pies, were not fancy. Bertha Stevenson was dedicated to providing lunches that were hot, healthful, and hygienically prepared. In one of the articles she wrote for Good Housekeeping magazine she chided young office workers who ate sweets for lunch, asking, “How can a girl who feeds herself on cream puffs be anything but mercurial?”
She retired in the 1940s but the last Laboratory Kitchen, on Lincoln St., survived until the late 1960s, still advertising its “real lunch without frills.”
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the sight of women drinking in public brought up the same kind of issues about women’s status in society as did the struggle to get the vote. According to deep-seated beliefs about gender roles that had been forged in the 19th century, the proper realms for women were church and home.
Engaging in politics and drinking alcohol were definitely not approved of for women, particularly women of the middle and upper classes.
But in the late 19th century the prevailing gender rules seemed to be threatened, especially in New York City where “fashionable” women were drinking in public view in first-class restaurants such as Delmonico’s and the Brunswick Hotel. “No Longer a Sly Nip,” reported the New York Herald in 1894, stating that women who used to conceal their drinking with “cocktail opera glasses” and “creme de menthe fans” now were brazenly drinking openly, even at daytime shopping lunches. “Is this an evidence of the so-called ‘emancipation of women?’” the writer asked.
The supposed wickedness of wealthy New York women would become a popular topic in succeeding decades. Stories indulged an interest in the doings of privileged women of fashion and at the same time allowed readers to feel morally superior.
Opposition to women drinking grew stronger. In 1901 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) declared a crusade against women drinking in restaurants. New York president Ella Boole made an in-person survey of New York restaurants with a reporter from the Sunday World, who concluded that women’s “range of tipples is identical with that of men, and include the cocktails, the ‘Scotch highball,’ the sherry cobbler, absinthe and liqueurs. They drink at luncheon, at dinner, at supper, and frequently in between times.” According to the story, drinking went on in public restaurants and cafes, hotel table d’hotes, and just about anywhere.
Taking an inventory of women drinking in public spread. The pastor of a Congregational church in Chicago led a tour where his group tallied 269 “boozing women” out of a total of 463 women encountered in restaurants.
But even more alarming to the anti-drinking forces than the fact that “women of high grade and their imitators” drank liquor was the fact that they did it in public restaurants – and no one seemed to care! Where was the outrage, the shame? The head of the Daughter of Temperance thought women who drank “without shame in public places” should be ostracized. Otherwise, she feared, Womanhood, The Home, and The Race were in peril.
There was a lot of sermonizing. Actress Lillian Russell advised women that they would ruin their looks if they drank. But the most interesting observations on the subject came from an experienced New York hotel proprietor (alas, unnamed). Yes, women were drinking in public, he said, but they were freeing themselves from their old bad habits. He named fainting, hysteria, and using opiates like morphine. He found that women rarely got drunk in public, and saw their drinking as a sign that they were becoming more engaged in public life. Over the years, he said, he had witnessed women taking better care of themselves, becoming “healthier and happier,” and growing more companionable with their husbands.
Not even Prohibition could put an end to women’s drinking. True, it was not observable in public restaurants, but women continued to drink in speakeasies and private homes. By the early 1930s when alcohol again became legal, at least in most cities, it had become perfectly respectable for women to drink in public. Although women were still not welcome to stand at the bar in taverns, it was just fine if they ordered a before-dinner cocktail in a restaurant. What was once a privilege found only among women of the leisure class had become a commonplace custom.
Until the later 20th century when women began to break the stronghold of the male chef, it was said women simply could not handle the job of running a restaurant kitchen. What follows are the reasons given by people associated with restaurants of the 20th century.
Most of the opinions recorded here were expressed by men, but a few were by women (sigh).
1906 – Women lack accuracy using flavorings and condiments – Women do not have the right temperament, they lose their heads. – Women could not stand the strain of hard work. – They are not managers. – They do not practice economy. – They lack patience and delicacy. – They are not as orderly as men in the kitchen. – They cannot rise to the occasion in a crisis. – They cannot organize the work of a kitchen.
1908 – The work of a chef is unsuited to her physique.
1912 – Women are not particular enough to make a perfect dish.
1913 – They would become rattled and go to pieces if they had to handle the responsibilities of chef. – They go off on a tangent when things are not as they should be.
1931 – The duties are too strenuous for them. – They could not handle an elaborate menu. – They cut meat the wrong way. – They don’t make gravies and sauces properly.
1932 – Their taste is inferior to men’s.
1942 – The great chefs have always been men . . . [so there must be a good reason why] – There are scarcely any women gourmets.
1952 – Women can only do about 15% or 20% of the jobs in a restaurant kitchen as well as men.
1957 – Women can’t handle work in a restaurant kitchen either physically or mentally. – They lack discipline. – They make changes based on their own likes and dislikes.
1965 – Men have more of an inner potential for good cooking then women. – If cooking for a very large number of people a woman would probably break down crying and run away.
1968 – Heat in restaurant kitchens makes women nervous.
1975 – Women lack the instinct for great cooking.
1981 – Men seem to have more derring-do in the kitchen.
Long before the internet, color photography became a factor that restaurants had to take into account. In the 1974 book Focus on . . . adding eye appeal to foods, author Bruce H. Axler noted, “The dramatic four-color, full-spread photos of food appearing in magazines have set visual standards for the restaurateur.” Perhaps he was thinking of Gourmet magazine in particular.
Color photography began to be used for advertisements in magazines in the 1930s, and consequently became identified with commerce rather than art. It was used mostly in women’s magazines, frequently to advertise food products at a time when major brands and ad agencies were hiring home economists to oversee product promotion and photography.
After decades of viewing photos of brightly colored food arranged artistically in attractive settings, the American public, possibly women in particular, expected food to look as good as it tasted. With the increase in restaurant patronage in the 1960s and 1970s, restaurants began to realize they needed to focus more on the appearance of what they served.
Bruce Axler, building on considerable experience in the hospitality industry, set out to assist restaurateurs in dealing with vexing problems such as too much whiteness or brownness, shapeless blobs and piles, flat sandwiches, and the empty-plate look. Perhaps most important, he addressed the issue of commonplace food that didn’t look worth its high price considering how much cheaper it was at the place down the street.
Given patrons’ high expectations regarding visuals, Axler set out a depressingly cynical scenario on page 1: “If it [restaurant food] is any less luscious looking, it suffers by comparison to such photos; especially when the guest has had three ice-cold martinis and cannot really taste the difference between a prickly pear and a mashed rutabaga.” He seemed to suggest that restaurateurs couldn’t even count on taste and texture working for them anymore.
He also observed that some of the old-time fixes could no longer be relied upon. Broken potato chips couldn’t fill a void, he noted. Nor could food displays be enlivened by the old standbys parsley and paprika. “Buffets are loaded with mystery meats and salads similarly garnished with parsley and rouged with paprika like so many ancient chorines.”
He should have counseled against overuse of lettuce garnishes and potato borders too.
Axler’s suggestions included ladling soup from a tureen and serving sandwiches opened up, both to fill the plate and to display their innards. He advised that “Mounds are better than blobs, rolls better than slices, shingled layers better than piles,” and that vegetables should be portioned in odd numbers. To give the impression of increased worth, he recommended anchovy or grated cheese toppings.
At times his suggestions bordered on the desperate, such as “planting sparklers in food items” and floating small lit candles on soup croutons. I, for one, am not among the many customers he believed “would enjoy the visual appeal of a bright red tulip stuffed with chicken salad.”
Nonetheless, there is no doubt that restaurants were eager to adopt ideas such as his. Many have become standard practice, yet by now it has become clear that chefs have many more tricks up their sleeves, especially when it comes to making a dish look deserving of a high price. Some seem to go against the wisdom of the past. Who in the 1970s could have foreseen how powerfully miniature food artfully arranged on a king-size plate could signify a $$$$ restaurant?
I'm not Siri! I love to hear from readers and I take time to answer queries. But about 50% of you don't say thank you. It's depressing. So, if you are someone who doesn't bother to say thanks, please ask Siri instead.
Otherwise, e-mail me!