Category Archives: women

Tea rooms for students

College and high school students of the 20th century led many eating-out trends and customs. Not only did they help make certain foods popular, they also influenced meal habits and adopted frequent restaurant-going as part of their social lives.

Drive-ins, coffee houses, and vegetarian restaurants were some of the types of eating places heavily shaped by student patrons in the middle and later decades of the last century. But a bit earlier, in the early 20th century, the eating places of choice for many college students were tea rooms that attracted women students. Not than men students didn’t also like tea rooms. An example was The Cactus Tea Room, built in 1917 with weird carvings of university types adorning its eaves, and serving both male and female students at the University of Texas in Austin.

Although tea rooms were more likely to be found near residential colleges, high school students also enjoyed them for after-school stops. In the 1920s students at Decatur High School in Decatur GA hung out at the Elite Tea Room, while Haverling High School students in Bath NY gravitated to the Chat-A-Wile Tea Room.

Rather than being stuffy and proper, many tea rooms that catered to students were relaxed and informal. They carried on college traditions such as midnight “spreads,” at which foods pilfered from the school’s dining halls were remade into chafing dish repasts. The feasts were occasions for casual attire, sprawling on the floor, and high spirits at the thought of evading detection while breaking college rules. [shown here is an Oberlin College dorm room spread, 1905]

Tea rooms also carried on the tradition of college dining clubs, which involved groups of friends joining together to hire a local woman to prepare their meals. The clubs adopted humorous names such as Vassar College’s Nine Nimble Nibblers, Grubbers, and Gobbling Goops of the late 19th century.

For example, a popular spot for students from Smith College was the Copper Kettle, which played a role much like the coffee shops of today. Students hung out there, read, chatted, and snacked on popcorn, ice cream, and tea. Its decor was cosy, shabby-chic style with mismatched furniture, wicker lounge chairs, posters, and window seats. Smith students were also enamored of the Rose Tree Inn, where full meals were served in a Bohemian atmosphere created by the intriguing Madame Anna de Naucaze.

Some colleges were almost surrounded by tea rooms. That was true in Western Massachusetts where both Smith College and Mount Holyoke College are located. Northampton, home of Smith College, was described in 1922 as having “more tea-houses than churches.” Not so far away, Mount Holyoke College was also well supplied with tea rooms, among them The Croysdale Inn, The Mary-Elin Tea Shop, and The Art Nook. I find it interesting that the Mary-Elin advertised in 1921 that it would stay open until 10 p.m., which was quite late for a tea room.

Parents did not always approve of their free-wheeling daughters’ behavior. In 1912, a mother wrote a critical article titled “One Disintegrant of Our Home Life,” about the typical college girl who socialized constantly, ignored rules of proper dress, and loved going to “the Green Coffee Pot or the Carnation Tea Urn.” “I tell my husband that college doesn’t breed home-building girls,” she wrote.

Among the most notable changes that tea rooms brought was simply that of providing a welcoming and friendly place for unescorted women to gather. This, of course, encouraged women and girls to spend more time eating away from home.

As for food, apart from popularizing eating cake and ice cream at any time of day or night, tea room food was a departure from typical lunch rooms and restaurants of the early 20th century that served fairly heavy meals based around meat. Although meat was certainly served in tea rooms, patrons also had many other choices. A 1920s menu from The Quinby Inn (shown above) — popular with students at Goucher College near Baltimore — offers Tenderloin Steak and Roast Pork, but also many other choices, with quite a few of them revealing the popularity of sweet food. Among them are 12 desserts, 22 salads, many of which involved mixed fruits and whipped cream, and 22 sandwiches, including Olive & Egg and Sliced Pineapple (no, not together!).

The list of specials clipped onto a 1920s menu from The Mary-Elin Tea Shop near Mount Holyoke College also shows its patrons’ fondness for sweets [thanks to Donna Albino for scans of the menu from her Mount Holyoke College collection].

A number of college women opened tea rooms of their own either as a summer project or after graduation. But that will be another post.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under alternative restaurants, food, menus, patrons, restaurant customs, restaurant fads, tea shops, women

Christmas dinner in the desert

A red-and-white-striped restaurant named the Christmas Tree Inn located on a desolate stretch of road in the Arizona desert makes a little bit more sense when you learn that its creators were Los Angeles real estate developers.

The Christmas theme was, of course, a publicity gimmick, and one that worked rather well, at least at the beginning.

Ninon Rivé Talbott, a well known “subdivider” in L.A., opened the restaurant in 1939 with her husband Edward. It was intended to kick off an associated project, a housing development called Santa Claus Acres on the road leading to the newly completed Boulder Dam (renamed Hoover Dam in 1947).

The Talbotts had moved from Los Angeles to Kingman AZ in the early 1930s with an interest in developing tourist facilities. In 1929 they formed a corporation to build hotels along The Old Trails Highway (U.S. Highway 66), which went through Kingman. The road’s creation had been promoted by the Automobile Club of Southern California since the mid-teens, was officially designated in 1926, with paving beginning in 1931. The corporation’s first hotel was to be in Kingman, with others in Nevada, Utah, and California. (I could not determine whether any were built.)

The housing development scheme was undoubtedly spurred not only by the budding Route 66 but also the concurrent U.S. government plan to build Boulder Dam. After checking out a number of locations the government auctioned off some of the properties in the vicinity, including a 80-acre parcel acquired by the Talbotts.

However, although Santa Claus Acres building lots were sold, the housing development was foiled when it proved impossible to drill deep enough to access water.

Needless to say, the absence of water was quite a hindrance to the restaurant complex as well. Water had to be trucked in from Kingman, 14 miles away. However, the absence of water did not entirely defeat the Christmas Tree Inn, with its associated gas station and playhouses for children.

The Christmas Tree Inn complex, which comprised the entirety of “Santa Claus, Arizona,” was a classic do-it-yourself mid-century roadside attraction. Characteristically, it occupied an isolated spot in the wilderness, was garishly eye-catching, and somewhat makeshift. Still, the sight of it was so striking in the vast and empty desert that vacationing families with bored children were almost certain to stop there.

Despite the red and white stripes and the Christmas name, the complex had more of an overall story-book feel, with its Cinderella playhouse, Three Little Pigs hut, and indoor murals with goose girls and other characters. A second dining area, devoid of any theme decor, was inexplicably called the French Room.

Any early success was due primarily to Ninons’ initial efforts and those of the couple who acquired it next. Ninon dubbed herself “Mrs. Santa Claus,” claiming in 1939 that this was a character who seemed “to have been neglected up to this time.” Presumably it is a be-wigged Ninon depicted on the 1940 postcard above.

She was evidently quite a high-powered personality capable of motivating others and making deals. Married four times and mother of five children, she somehow managed to build a career as a realtor in the 1920s and 1930s. Additionally, she was said to be a fine cook who produced surprisingly delicious food for a small roadside eatery. A listing in Duncan Hines’ 1941 edition of Adventures in Good Eating recommended the Inn, saying “Perhaps the best rum pie you ever ate, chicken a la North Pole and lots of other unusual things.”

The war years had to be tough ones. Traffic must have been light due to gasoline rationing and elimination of public access to Boulder Dam from 1941 to September, 1945.

By 1946, the Inn seemed to be doing somewhat poorly judging from the listing in Hines’ guide, which tersely stated: “Serve cold sandwiches.” In 1947 and 1948 want ads appeared in Phoenix and Salt Lake City papers offering the restaurant complex for sale at $35,000, citing the seller’s ill health and that it had cost $60,000 to build. Ninon was 50 years old at that time. According to a 2008 article in The Journal of Arizona History by Douglas C. Towne, Ninon weighed 300 pounds and had a gambling addiction.

The second owners, Erma and “Doc” Bromaghim, carried on some of Ninon’s traditions such as answering children’s letters to Santa. The Bromaghins revealed in 1954 that December was a poor month for business, so they would close then, as well as January and February. Soon they gave up running the business completely, defeated in part by their renewed failure to find water.

Although the Christmas Tree Inn survived until about 1994, its later history was rocky, involving at least 10 owners and or lessees and managers. It was advertised for sale almost continuously.

Today, what is left of the complex is boarded up and covered with graffiti. As a quick internet search will demonstrate, it is an ever-popular subject for photographers fascinated by roadside ruins.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under alternative restaurants, family restaurants, odd buildings, Offbeat places, roadside restaurants, women

Learning to eat (in restaurants)

Eating in restaurants is so common today that it is hard to imagine that it in the past many people found it confusing and embarrassing, especially in more formal restaurants.

They had trouble figuring out menus, felt nervous and self-conscious, worried about their manners, and generally didn’t know how to act.

One solution was to avoid public eating places. That way no one would witness your poor manners, no haughty waiter would sneer at you, other patrons would not stare and examine your clothes as you walked in.

Restaurants were primarily men’s turf in the 19th century. Until the 1890s when affluent women began entertaining their friends at restaurant luncheons, restaurants were often seen as undesirable locations for women. High society was very private. Dinner parties were held in the home, outside public view. In a culture that was completely the opposite of today’s celebrity whirlpool, being seen in public was demeaning, especially for women. Additionally, many women of the 19th century disliked eating in a room with strangers.

Even men and women who enjoyed restaurants found ordering from a menu entirely in French difficult. When menus were in English, they were still daunting to unworldly Americans who had never experienced many of the dishes served. Books and articles offered advice but many diners gave up the struggle and instead let the waiter select their meal.

An observer commented in 1899 that “it is a severe trial for many women, and some men, to enter a hotel dining room and particularly hard if it must be done without a companion. Some that march in with boldest front and utmost nonchalance are but actors, trembling within while brave to outward seeming.” Actors aside, other people unfamiliar with restaurants could be identified by their behavior. Some rushed in, going straight to a table without being escorted there by the head waiter. Others might give themselves away by accidentally ordering a ridiculous set of dishes such as fruit and pickles or by being overly chummy with the waiter. According to an 1890 account, going to a high class New York restaurant solo led waiters to conclude that the patron “is a countryman or unused to restaurant life.”

For the poor or the newly arrived immigrant, a restaurant could be a terrifying challenge. Two period novels illustrate this beautifully. In A Daughter of the Tenements (1895), the son of a tenement janitor goes to a restaurant for the first time:

Tom had never, for an instance, had a table napkin in his hand; had never seen more than one knife and fork placed beside a plate; had actually never been served at table by any person other than one who was eating with him; had never seen wine drunk at meals.

In The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), the main character experiences his first visit to a “high-class restaurant”:

The immense restaurant, with its rows and rows of table-cloths, the crowd of well-dressed customers, the glint and rattle of knives and forks, the subdued tones of the orchestra, and the imposing black-and-white figures of the waiters struck terror into my . . . heart. The bill of fare was, of course, Chinese to me, though I made a pretense of reading it. The words swam before me. . . . The worst part of it all was that I had not the least idea what I was to say or do. The occasion seemed to call for a sort of table manners which were beyond the resources . . . of a poor novice like myself.

African-Americans rarely experienced embarrassment in restaurants for the simple reason that they were not welcome in most of them before the 1960s Civil Rights era. Even those who attained success in the restaurant business reported an unfamiliarity with restaurants in their early lives. Sylvia Woods, founder of Sylvia’s in New York City, disclosed that when she moved to New York from South Carolina at age 28 she had never been in a restaurant. Renowned chef and cookbook author Leah Chase, of Dooky Chase in New Orleans, said she had never set foot in a restaurant until she got a job waiting on tables. “Black people didn’t go to restaurants,” she said. “That’s the way it was.”

By the 1920s it was considered acceptable for young (white) women to go to a restaurant on a date. But this could be hazardous, as “C. S.” confessed to a Boston newspaper in 1927. “Having never eaten in a restaurant before,” she wrote, “imagine my surprise when I picked up the square of butter from the butter dish, thinking it was cheese! That was my first and last date with him.”

In 1970 an etiquette expert reported that she frequently encountered young middle-class women who had never eaten in a restaurant other than a hamburger stand and said they were unsure how to order or to use silverware.

Has discomfort with restaurants disappeared? While writing this post I’ve started to wonder if my opening sentence is wrong. Maybe achieving a feeling of assurance in restaurants is actually an ongoing project.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under elite restaurants, menus, patrons, racism, restaurant customs, restaurant etiquette, women

Children’s menus

Children have always been present to some extent as guests in public eating places, but not until the 20th century did they have special menus and dishes designed just for them.

Department stores and tea rooms, where unlike most restaurants the principal patrons were women, were the first to focus on children as guests. New York’s Mother Goose on 35th Street off Fifth Avenue was popular with children in 1911 because of its storybook theme and servers dressed in costumes. From these early days, tea rooms were also places available for children’s parties. The Brown Owl Tea Room in Marblehead MA made lunches for children whose mothers were away.

In 1918 the Rike-Kummler department store in Dayton OH advertised a “Special Lunch for Children” for 20 cents that demonstrated the belief of that time that children should be fed a bland diet. It consisted of Rice Baked in Cream, Peanut Butter Sandwich, Milk, and Ice Cream.

Printed children’s menus, based on the idea that children liked to choose their own meal, arrived in the 1920s, often at department stores and other restaurants patronized by women of comfortable means who were out shopping. In Boston, Filene’s and the Shepard Store offered children’s menus. In 1927 Shepard’s offered a children’s menu in its 6th floor Colonial Room with specials such as a 50-cent meal of Poached Egg with Creamed Spinach, Baked Potato, Bread & Butter, and Milk.

Vegetable plates were common on children’s menus from the 1920s through the 1940s, as shown on both a menu from St. Clairs’ in the 1920s and one from Macy’s [shown below] in 1936. Creamed chicken was also typical of children’s menus before the 1950s, as both the Macy’s and the 1947 Pig n’ Whistle [shown below Macy’s menu] menus illustrate. Hamburgers weren’t found much until after WWII.

Children’s menus went beyond food listings to include games, puzzles, and pictures to color. Some came in the form of masks or paper toys to be assembled. The Howard Johnson’s chain put its children’s menu in the centerfold of a comic book in which an adventure concluded with a hefty HoJo’s meal of fried clams and a “large charcoal-broiled steak.” Odd, since steak was not on the children’s menu.

The number of restaurants offering children’s menus continued to increase throughout the 20th century, intensifying in the 1970s and 80s. Reporting on a Gallup survey in 1975, Food Service Magazine observed that more working mothers, increased family income, and smaller families suggested “a more profitable family market than ever before.” And many more children’s menus.

The new era of child-centered restaurant patronage was kicked off by the 1977 opening in California of the first Chuck E. Cheese pizza and video game restaurant for children. It was chain restaurants in particular, both of the fast food and coffee shop types such as Sambo’s and Denny’s, that were perceived as the most family-friendly and also the ones that children preferred.

Blandness continued according to Consumer Reports, whose testers in 1984 attributed the lack of seasonings in fast food to child patrons, who are often the ones who choose where the family eats.

But it wasn’t just the increase in restaurants that catered to families with children that marked a change.

Unlike the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, it was no longer somewhat upscale restaurants that attracted families. This was not only because of prices too high for mass patronage but also because they did not engage in family-friendly practices. Usually they did not furnish high chairs, did not advertise widely or offer coupons or specials, and failed to celebrate birthdays and family holidays such as Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, and Thanksgiving. Nor did upscale restaurant menus feature dishes preferred by children. They typically lacked post-WWII children’s favorites such as hamburgers, french fries, and pizza. They had no children’s menus.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under chain restaurants, department stores, family restaurants, food, menus, patrons, restaurant customs, tea shops, women

Check your hat

The topic of hat checking in restaurants, nightclubs, and hotels, a popular subject in early 20th-century journalism, is so full of lore that it’s hard to know what to believe. Here’s what seems to be the story as best I can determine.

Hat checking in restaurants started as an independent money-making enterprise around 1900, beginning in New York City and gradually spreading westward. Before that, men took their hats into dining rooms, placing them under their chairs. (In cheap restaurants they kept them on while eating.)

It was considered perfectly fine for women to wear their hats at the table.

But hat checking for men wasn’t really new. It was common at fancy-dress balls in the 1800s. Many regarded it as a scam. An organization or group would throw a ball in a large venue such as Madison Square Garden. Tickets were advertised at the high price of $5. However, hardly anyone bought a ticket, getting them free instead from saloon keepers. When guests arrived at the ball they were required to check their hats, for which they were charged $2, the true price of admission. Those in the know referred to these balls as “hat check affairs.”

Around 1900 restaurants began granting concessions to entrepreneurs who offered to pay them substantial sums to run a hat checking service. At first many were staffed with immigrant boys who were rudely persistent in demanding that male guests surrender their hats before entering the dining area. Gradually, the boys were replaced with attractive young women who used honey rather than vinegar to induce men to give up their hats. Upon exiting the restaurant patrons were expected to leave a tip of at least 10 cents, up to 25 cents by the 1930s.

Concession owners paid thousands of dollars a year for the privilege of running a hat check service and, often, of supplying washroom attendants as well. In nightclubs they provided women to sell cigarettes and flowers. In the early years the amounts paid for these concessions allegedly figured as important contributors to nightclub profits.

All the tips collected by hat checkers went to concession owners, while the attendants received a low hourly wage. Newspaper stories revealing this set-up were perennials from 1910 into the 1950s, suggesting that there were always plenty of people for whom it was news that hat check “girls” didn’t keep the tips.

The menial job of hat checker was infused with glamour by gossip columnists and a number of Hollywood movies [top photo: Hat Check Girl, 1932]. This no doubt helped attract fresh recruits – including aspiring actresses who hoped to be “discovered” — in what was a high turnover, dead-end occupation. Want ads sought “attractive girls with pleasing personalities.” Meeting daily tip quotas through appearance and demeanor was a key to survival in what today is recognized as a “pink collar” job, i.e., one supposedly requiring no special abilities but demanding strenuous emotional labor. Acting talent came in handy. Occupants of the job became quite adept in shading the meaning of “Sir!” and “Thank you.”

Among the stresses of the job was the necessity to be gracious with patrons who flirted, pinched, left poor tips, and sometimes grew angry and slung insults. Hearing over and over how men had paid more in tips than their hats were worth became tiresome. So did laughing at jokes. Cartoonist W. E. Hill perfectly captured the facial expression of a woman preparing to respond hilariously to a bad joke.

Some hat checkers went to court to claim tips as theirs, but did they ever win? I doubt it. Many hotels and restaurants avoided the stigma associated with hat checking by running their own services while making it clear that tips were unnecessary. The Exchange Buffet chain advertised in 1914, “No hat-boy to hold you up.” Schraffts’ deposited tips in an employee sick benefit fund. Legislation was offered in some cities and states requiring that hat check stations either post a notice stating that tips went to a concession owner or turn them over to the attendants.

Overall, hat checking thrived best in big-city nightclubs visited mainly by tourists.

One of the rare hat checkers who beat the system was Renee Carroll, who ran her own concession at Sardi’s. The daughter of a New York City rabbi, she changed her name from Rebecca Shapiro and became part of the entertainment world, a Broadway personality known for witty quips. She appeared in movies, published a book about her experiences with celebrity customers, authored a gossip column, and backed theatrical productions.

By the mid-1920s, with many people going to restaurants and nightclubs by car, hat checking declined as hats were left in the car. By the mid-1930s fewer men wore hats, especially the young. Hat checking in restaurants can still be found but no one is forced to use it and the glamourous hat check girl is no longer a figure of popular culture.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under night clubs, patrons, restaurant controversies, restaurant customs, restaurant etiquette, women

The up-and-down life of a restaurant owner

The model tea room proprietor has generally been portrayed as a woman of taste and refinement who has a heightened aesthetic sense, is congenial, and knows good food. In short, she closely resembled the ideal of the early 20th-century wife. So it comes as something of a shock to discover a tea room proprietor whose life did not neatly conform to that ideal.

An interesting example of someone who only partially conformed to the ideal was Charleen Baker, proprietor of the Buttercup Hill Tea Room near Fitchburg MA from 1928 to 1943.

She had taste, she was a successful hostess, and she knew good food. Her menu, filled with dishes such as Duck a la King, Sauteed Sweetbreads, and Lobster Newberg, bears that out. Her tea room was recommended by Duncan Hines in the 1937 edition of Adventures in Good Eating.

But how successfully did she personify refinement?

On the one hand, she portrayed herself as a product of a patrician background. In her 1935 cookbook she subtly painted a picture of her life and world that began with childhood cooking lessons from her southern Mammy, Aunt Maria. She explained that her mother had taught her that thin biscuits revealed a family’s “fine lineage,” as was true in her family. Presenting herself as a dutiful young wife, she described how hard she had worked to please her husband, on one occasion baking three different “lemon sponge pies” before she produced one “good enough to set before the king.” And she included a chapter on “Sunday Night Suppers” which assumed that, even in the Depression, the lady of the house had a maid who cooked — and took Sundays off.

Yet – big surprise – I discovered that her “king” had tried to divorce her in 1923, resulting in a sensational headline in the Fitchburg Sentinel as well as the Boston Herald. Her husband also accused her of abandoning their hospitalized son while she vacationed in Florida.

She then filed a reply, producing another zinger headline, “District Attorney Charged With Unfaithfulness In Answer By Wife.” Each charged the other with having multiple partners.

Upon further research I learned that in 1900, far from enjoying a life of leisure and refinement in the South, the 13-year-old Charleen had lived in a miner’s boarding house in Tortilla Flat, Arizona Territory, with her mother and her stepfather (#2 of her mother’s four husbands) who ran the place. Upon her stepfather’s death in 1903, she and her mother moved to Fort Worth TX where they resided in a lodging house run by her mother.

How she made her way from a Texas boarding house to studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston I don’t know. While in Boston she met her future husband, Emerson, then a Harvard law student. They married in 1907 and settled in the Fitchburg area where Emerson joined his father’s law firm and later the district attorney’s office.

Remarkably, Charleen and Emerson reconciled later in 1923 and he assisted her in enlarging her tea room, which by 1931, when the Early American Room was added, seated nearly 160. The couple’s marriage continued until his premature death in 1934.

Two years before that Charleen had taken over the Green Parrot Tea Room in Winter Park, Florida, redecorating it in blue and orchid and calling it Charleen’s Tea House. Buttercup Hill stayed open from May through October, while Charleen’s in Florida was open the other months.

Due to wartime gasoline rationing that caused a fall off in customers, and to difficulties getting staff, Charleen closed the Buttercup in early 1943. She auctioned off furnishings that included old cradles, antique clocks, hooked rugs, and Currier & Ives prints.

From everything I’ve read about her, Charleen was successful in winning status as an admired figure in Fitchburg society.

After she sold the Buttercup several other owners operated the complex of buildings as a tea room while continuing the practice of serving cocktails that Charleen had begun in 1938. After the WWII the name was changed to Buttercup Hill Steakhouse and Club and it continued into the 1970s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under food, proprietors & careers, roadside restaurants, tea shops, women

Dressing the female server

Clearly restaurant uniforms and costumes serve a variety of practical purposes, especially if they are comfortable, easy to move in, and well supplied with pockets. They mark their wearers as restaurant staff rather than patrons. Some go a step further by carrying out a restaurant’s decor or theme. Still others promise to bring male customers in the door.

Even though they share common characteristics, three types can be distinguished as described above: the functional, the decorative, and the alluring. Each has its own separate history.

Surprisingly, the oldest are alluring costumes that bring customers in the door.

Most restaurant and hotel dining room servers in the 19th century were male. Female servers usually worked in the lower types of eating and drinking places. They were often viewed as women of loose morals if not downright criminals; enticing male patrons as well as taking abuse from them were part of the job.

As early as the 1860s, music halls, also known as concert saloons, began heavily advertising the presence of “pretty waiter girls” whose job was to deliver beer and cocktails to male patrons. Their outfits were referred to as “fantastic,” “with short petticoats,” “microscopic,” or resembling “extremely reduced ballet dress.”

Reformers eventually succeeded in eliminating pretty waiter girls by banning the sale of alcohol in music halls. But the realization that female servers dressed in scanty costumes could attract customers did not disappear. In the mid-1890s, some cafes introduced women dressed in knee-length bloomers that showed off their legs. Although bloomers also had some practical advantages, that was not what attracted crowds of gawking male customers.

Dressing servers as pretty waiter girls continued in the 20th century and right into the present. In the 1930s, drive-ins dressed carhops in drum majorette costumes with shorts and bare midriffs; Playboy bunnies came along in the 1960s, as did topless waitresses and bordello-themed restaurants with servers in red and black corsets; in the 1980s came “breastaurant” chains such as Hooters, with Twin Peaks and Tilted Kilts arriving in the 2000s, all with servers wearing regulation big smiles and low cut tops and short shorts or micro-kilts.

The ability to attract large tips clearly plays a significant role in women’s willingness to perform an almost vaudevillian sexy server role. It was said that the 1860s pretty waiter girls, who enticed patrons to drink heavily, received a portion of the check rather than regular wages. Some 1930s drive-ins paid no wages either, figuring the carhops received generous tips.

About the same time as pretty waiter girls arrived in music halls, “good girls” wearing modest decorative costumes took up their serving trays at fairs to raise money for civil war soldiers. At New York’s fair, for instance, they dressed as Normandy peasants with picturesque caps. It soon became fashionable to dress female servers in costumes such as Martha Washington at a “Boston tea party” or Swiss peasants at an 1876 Centennial Exhibition restaurant named The Dairy.

The popularity of decorative novelty costumes carried over to commercial restaurants such as the tea rooms of the early 20th century where Asian and Colonial motifs were popular. Next it spread to theme restaurants of all kinds and servers could be found wearing togas, grass skirts, kilts, Bavarian dirndls, sarongs, etc., some of these — such as steakhouse wench costumes — revealing as well as decorative.

As far as I can tell, Asian-American women were never hired as servers unless they agreed to work in their “native costumes.” Black women rarely worked as servers in white restaurants, but when they did they often wore Mammy costumes. I can’t decide if it was a step forward or backward when Alice Foote MacDougall hired light-skinned Black women to dress like Italian peasants at Firenze in NYC in the 1920s.

As is true of alluring waitress costumes, decorative costumes never fell completely out of favor and continue in use today.

Fred Harvey, who ran lunch rooms and restaurants for the Santa Fe railroad, introduced functional, standardized uniforms as early as 1883 and a Denver restaurant claimed in 1895 that its unionized “lady waiters” were “dressed in complete uniform, something never before introduced in this country.” But in most eating places women simply wore street clothes such as shirtwaists and long skirts, possibly with a long apron or pinafore, when they served meals. This began to change in the early 20th century, primarily in the better-capitalized, modern restaurant chains.

The spread of standardized uniforms in the teens and twenties represented a significant change. Although the status of waitresses did not rise dramatically, wearing a uniform did add a professional dimension to the job, putting wearers on a par approaching nurses, police, soldiers, and others with authority. A newspaper columnist in 1928 named Mary Marshall observed that wearing uniforms had recently become “a privilege rather than a disgrace” as they were adopted by dentists and doctors, telephone operators, bank tellers, hairdressers, department store saleswomen, and waitresses.

Part of the explanation for standardized waitress uniforms arose from concerns with restaurant cleanliness in the years before WWI. But their adoption was also a sign of a growing restaurant industry looking for legitimacy. The development of functional uniforms occurred as restaurants were run more systematically. Specialized manufacturers and suppliers emerged to furnish restaurants — separate from hotels — with kitchen equipment, furniture, china, linens, uniforms, and food products.

Another significant change in how female servers were dressed began to take place in the 1970s, influenced by the women’s movement. A growing number of Americans expressed dislike of revealing costumes. A restaurant critic focusing on Monterey Jack’s at Rancho Bernardo in California in 1978, for instance, cited the restaurant’s corny decor, “near total disregard for food,” and “exaggerated and tasteless attire” that debased the waitresses.

The tide was definitely turning in the 1980s. In a 1993 article in Gender and Society, author Elaine J. Hall’s research showed that the more “prestigious and trendy” a restaurant was, the more likely all its serving staff, both male and female, would be referred to as waiters and would wear “generic male uniforms.” A unisex uniform is usually composed of dark pants and shirt worn with a vest or a long bistro-type apron. Women servers in restaurants that have adopted unisex uniforms, she noted, see them as “an important aspect of gender equality.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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