Category Archives: women

Tea-less tea rooms

Tearooms thrived during national Prohibition when they didn’t have to compete with eating places serving more spirited beverages. With their delicate china, tiny portions, female clientele – and tea — they had a reputation for being too genteel, too precious, and too proper.

Since the Victorian era, it had been well established that respectable women didn’t drink alcohol, except maybe a little wine at dinner parties in the home. Never in public.

As with anything that is ever so proper, of course, skeptical watchdogs took their posts to keep a close eye on tea rooms from the beginning, not entirely trusting women out on their own. In 1912 the New York Times ran a story in which it was alleged that society women could and did enjoy whiskey, gin, and vodka in six out of eighteen Manhattan tea rooms visited. Though liquor selling was not illegal at this time, the tea rooms were not licensed to sell it. [Pergola Tea Room shown above]

I wonder: Could it be possible that places such as Vanity Fair and Mary Elizabeth’s, both in business in 1912, slipped forbidden drinks to their elite patrons? Perhaps “The Scotch Tea Room” implied a different meaning than I thought.

Some years later, with liquor now illegal, New York City’s law-breaking tea rooms spread across town. To all appearances, though, police were harder on avant-garde “bohemian” tea rooms than they had been on bourgeois society’s unlicensed haunts. In the 1920s, Greenwich Village places such as the Black Parrot, the Blue Bird, and the Witch Cat were easy targets.

New York City was scarcely the only city with liquored-up tea rooms. The Moulin Rouge in Baltimore, the Welcome Tea Room in Long Branch NJ, even the Lady Ann Cavendish Tea Room in the upscale Wilshire District of Los Angeles where society women sipped, were all found serving cocktails.

In 1923 the trade magazine Tea Room and Gift Shop felt compelled to state that although a New Jersey tea room proprietor had recently been fined $1,000 for selling liquor, “the percentage [of tea rooms] doing this is very small – in fact we feel certain that none of the better class are violating the law.” Mostly, but not entirely, true.

Pictured here is former star of the musical theater, May Yohe, in 1926, two years after liquor was found in her Marlow NH tea room, The Blue Diamond. How her fortunes had declined. The tea room was named after the Hope diamond, which she had once possessed (by virtue of marriage).

As the 1920s wore on, many of the tea rooms that were found violating the law seemed to be tea rooms in name only. It certainly sounds suspicious that The Chimney Corner, in Scotch Plains NJ, was destroyed by fire only a few days after its two proprietors – both men – were arrested in a raid. Based on an advertisement in 1921, it may have originally been a legitimate tea room.

Other places, often run and patronized by men, that offered drugs and prostitutes in addition to liquor, were not tea rooms, no matter what they pretended. When the Raritan Township NJ police chief raided the Triangle Tea Room in unincorporated Potters NJ, he found seven male patrons, none drinking tea. When he happened to touch what he thought was a light switch a wall swung open revealing two nude young women who rather unconvincingly claimed to be the proprietors.

At the same time the police chief of Raritan Township was raiding criminally inclined tea rooms, his counterpart in Union Township NJ was investing in one. He was arrested in 1929 and charged with being a partner with two other men in a disorderly house. Called The Blue Lantern (a name which, coincidentally, is in the title of my book), it also provided patrons with liquor and a slot machine.

All in all, it’s not clear that running a tea room actually provided that much cover for illicit activity. Nor did the illegal booze and the raids do much to dent the reputation of tea rooms as feminine spaces where women gathered, played bridge, and ate fancy desserts. Once Prohibition ended in the early 1930s, a tamer form of tea room entertainment, fortune-telling, soared in popularity.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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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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Finds of the day: two taverns

Steuben Taverns

Two small finds on a cold, rainy day at the Brimfield flea market. Both are from the 1930s, both are taverns, and both conjure up bygone days. But beyond that, the two – one representing a chain of German-themed restaurants and the other a small-town tea room – have little in common.

Steuben Taverns was a chain of pseudo-Bavarian restaurants located in big cities. The first, on 47th Street, was opened in New York City in 1930 and was the longest survivor of the moderate-priced chain, staying in business until 1971 [the postcard of the interior below is probably of the 47th Street place]. At its peak the chain had about a dozen restaurants, mainly in NYC but also in Newark, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

The business encountered a few bumps along the road. Opening a huge, block-long unit in Times Square in 1934 proved difficult, dragging out to 14 months, because the restaurant was located over the Times Square subway station, which had to be redesigned. Despite selling a lot of beer (Prohibition had just ended) and seating 800 customers, the Times Square Steuben Tavern failed just five years later.

Meanwhile the chain suffered more grief in 1936 during a mobster shakedown that affected a number of high-profile NYC restaurants. As a chain the Taverns allegedly paid a particularly high sum – $17,000 – to ensure that the racket leaders did not carry out their threats to send “union” picketers or set off stench bombs.

Strangely, given its German theme, the Steuben Tavern in Newark evidently entertained many Jewish patrons in the 1930s. On September 14, 1934, with the Nazis in power in Germany, the restaurant took out an advertisement in Newark’s Jewish Chronicle wishing its patrons the best for the Jewish holidays.

White Gate Tavern

It was almost as though the White Gate Tavern was in another country altogether, one without beer, racketeers, or subway stations. It began in business in August of 1932 in the town of Ashburnham, Massachusetts, in a 100-year-old house formerly occupied by a Latin teacher at the town’s private school, Cushing Academy.

Its proprietors were two unmarried middle-aged women, both of whom had worked for the Y.W.C.A. at one point. Ida J. Lyon was from Connecticut and, as a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a bona-fide Yankee. Her partner, Helen G. Cowell, was the daughter of the late but long-time principal of Cushing Academy.

The two women set about having the house remodeled for use as a guest house and tea room. They installed a modern kitchen with electric refrigeration, a convenience undoubtedly not enjoyed by many of the townspeople at that time. They emphasized the house’s old-fashioned Colonial features as they were considered “homey” by their prospective patrons. The dining rooms were decorated in a green and yellow color scheme that was carried over to the dishes and glassware. In 1932 – in the depths of the Depression – they offered special Sunday dinners for $1.00 and $1.50. (By comparison the Steuben Taverns advertised their “famous” 55-cent dinners on the business card from about the same time.)

In the next few years, further improvements were made to the White Gate Tavern. A yarn shop where knitting lessons were given was opened in a finished room in a barn adjoining the house. In 1935 the interior of the house was renovated and the kitchen was enlarged. A so-called Peasant Tea Room was opened in the barn, along with a “Sunbeam Shop,” a gift shop with crafts made by villagers.

The White Gate Tavern probably closed in the late 1930s. I could find no trace of it after 1937 — the local newspaper carried no further notices of its annual opening for the season or the usual lists of guests who stayed there.

The house is still standing and from the outside likely looks much like it did in the 1930s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Find of the day, almost

Over the weekend I went to Brimfield to see what the postcard dealers had to offer. As usual I was determined to come home with a “find.” But, no. The card that I thought might qualify turns out to be that of a tourist café in Montmartre that is enmeshed in dubious lore and still in business today just down the street from a Starbucks.

The Mère Catherine [Mother Catherine] looks so unpretentious on the ca. 1950s postcard that I wanted to believe it was a relatively unknown little café. I doubted I could learn much about it through research. However, instead I found many stories, most of them glorified puff pieces starting in the late 1920s.

The stories I rounded up are full of contradictions. Mère Catherine was established either in 1793 or in the 1830s. Mère Catherine herself was either the restaurant’s founder in 1793 and died in 1844 or she was the owner in 1939.

As I continued to search for Mère Catherine’s history the more confused I became. It appears that for much of its history Mère Catherine was more of a drinking place than the eating place it became in the 20th century. One article said it hosted impoverished singers who were allowed to bring food there to eat.

An image of the restaurant from 1897 shows the name then as Maison Catherine Lamothe. Might its founder have been the same Catherine La Mothe who was born in 1766 in Bourges, France? Or was there ever an actual Catherine Lamothe at all? An 1897 publication about Montmartre’s history suggested that Catherine and Lamothe were two different women, both wine merchants on Rue du Tertre once upon a time. After I read that I started to think I could make out a nearly invisible hyphen between the two names on the sign shown on the ca. 1897 photograph above. But maybe I was seeing things.

A brief mention of the restaurant at the end of the 19th century described it as an “ancient”, low-ceilinged cabaret that was popular with artists. The same paragraph reported that Mère Catherine left the business to her son who then sold it to someone else. At one point it was owned by a man nicknamed “Gros Guillaume.” In the late 1920s, when it was first publicized by newspaper columnists in the U.S., it was known as Chez Lemoine, and was popular for its billiards tables. [image] During the German occupation of World War II and into the 1960s it was owned by people named Meriguet.

The restaurant appeared in a 1928 Swedish film by the name of “Sin” (Synd), directed by Gustaf Molander who also directed Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo. The two movies have remarkably similar plots. In Sin, Mère Catherine is living in the 1920s and running a Montmartre restaurant with the same checkered tablecloths as are visible in my newly acquired postcard. She tries to prevent a young playwright with a wife and daughter from falling for a femme fatale who seduces him while she is starring in his play. [see above]

In the end, I am skeptical of the legend of Mère Catherine, but don’t know what the real story is either.

At least I have one small consolation. The postcard I bought at Brimfield for $2 is being offered on e-Bay for 79 Euros ($86.80). But I’ll be surprised if it gets a bid at that price.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Diet plates

Dieting for weight loss began to attract attention in the 1920s, reversing the preference for somewhat chubby bodies that preceded it. Before World War I, the word “diet” could equally well refer to a plan of eating designed for gaining weight. Then — and now — the notion of dieting contained contradictions.

A 1905 newspaper story described the phenomenon of the “jiu jitsu girl,” a modern being who took a rational attitude toward her food, either for the purpose of adding or losing pounds. If she wanted to lose weight she drank a lot of water, did gymnastics, and ate only fish, poultry, fresh vegetables, and fruit.

But the weight-losing version of the jiu jitsu girl must have been a rarity in 1905 because restaurant menus took no notice of her. Most of their offerings were more likely to add pounds. Which must be why, when she went into a restaurant, JJ girl tossed aside the menu as she gave her order.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when the so-called Hollywood Diet became the rage, restaurants made a few concessions to dieters by providing the regimen’s staple food, grapefruit. But few if any provided diet menus or special low-calorie dishes.

Whether restaurant patrons tried to cut calories with grapefruit, salads, or zwieback in the 1920s and 1930s, European chefs deplored the trend. Critics said dieting was one of the causes of the downfall of restaurant cuisine in those Prohibition years. Alas, they sighed, art had gone out of restaurant cooking and weight-conscious women were largely to blame.

However, those who took a more businesslike attitude toward restaurants, such as industry publisher J. O. Dahl, recommended that restaurants get with the times. Look through popular magazines, he counseled, and see how very often dieting is discussed. He urged progressive restaurateurs to develop diet menus for their women guests – whose numbers were drastically increasing.

Yet, it wasn’t until the 1950s that dieters received widespread recognition with the arrival of the restaurant diet plate. Shown in all its glory at the top of this page, it was stereotypically a hamburger patty – sometimes referred to as chopped steak – accompanied by cottage cheese topped with canned peach and a limp lettuce leaf on which reposed a wan slice of tomato.

Slight variations happened. Gelatin might accompany or replace canned fruit. Steak houses such as Bonanza and Golden Corral added toast to the plate. Woolworth tucked in saltines (see 1971 Woolworth advertisement below).

To be absolutely fair, some restaurants were a bit more creative in designing diet plates. The National Restaurant Association, recognizing that about 10% of customers were on diets at any given moment in the 1950s, helped develop menus. Perhaps a menu of consommé, celery hearts, 4 oz. minute steak, green beans, and unsugared fruit was one of their suggestions. In 1962 the Town Room in the Sheraton-Dallas relieved diet boredom with “hefty” slimming lunches of Goulash and Shrimp Hawaii.

Putting everything into perspective, even the dispiriting classic diet plate was superior to the liquid diet products that some restaurants put on menus in the early 1960s. For 50 to 75 cents a glass dieters could sip Metrecal (a product of the same company that made Drano and Windex). “Some drugstores find it is giving the hamburger competition,” reported a 1960 story.

By some bizarre logic, places that seemed as though they were havens for non-dieters also offered diet plates. Such as pancake houses and sweets shops. The DoNut Shop in Edwardsville IL had a Weight Watchers Diet Plate and Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour in Seattle advertised a Low Calorie Diet Plate. Were these nothing but conscience-soothers for customers prepping for ice cream and doughnut binges?

Although I have no doubt you can still find the occasional classic diet plate on a menu today, the hamburger-cottage cheese-peach lunch fell into deep disfavor in the 1980s. Long regarded as boring, by the mid-1980s they were commonly referred to as “old style,” “so-called,” or “1950s diet plates.” Critics argued that in most cases they were not only insipid, but also contained more calories than other menu items.

But it was not the critics who sunk them as much as it was changes in restaurant culture of the late 20th century. Many restaurants upgraded their menus with fresher and lighter food that (usually) had the virtue of being lower in calories. Restaurants specializing in salads became popular.

A sign of changing times was the Chapman Sisters Calorie Counter on Chicago’s Miracle Mile. With a decor that signified “natural,” the casual restaurant had a brick floor, hanging plants, butcher block tables, and walls painted with large apples. Calories were given for each dish on the menu. Even the highest-calorie item, a Spinach and Mushroom Quiche, topped out at about 200 fewer calories than the classic diet plate, and a Tostada Salad came in at 395.

Another example was the 1980s “Light Balance” menu at Tumbledown Dick’s in Cos Cob CT  where no dish had more than 380 calories, whether it was a Vegetable-Stuffed Pita, Chicken Florentine, or Pasta Primavera. The Light Balance menu gave not only calories but also fat, sugar, and sodium content.

In retrospect, as unappetizing, calorie-rich, and unbalanced as the 1950s diet plate was, the irony is that the average American was slimmer during its time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Taste of a decade: 1980s restaurants

1980srestaurantsfourseasonshotellosangelesDespite an off-and-on economy, the 1980s was a decade in which Americans ate out more often than ever before. Gone were the days when people indulged in a nice restaurant dinner only when traveling or celebrating a birthday or anniversary. Now no reason was needed at all. Restaurants were for convenience, but also for entertainment, pleasure, new experiences, and sometimes only incidentally for nourishment.

A food elite emerged, composed of frequent restaurant-goers with insatiable hunger for new cuisines and unfamiliar foods. Paralleling the growth of the food elite were chefs who became famous as they gave interviews, dashed off cookbooks, and demonstrated cooking techniques on the dais and the small screen. “Food is now the stuff of status,” said wine and restaurant critic Robert Finigan in 1983, comparing the public’s adoration of chefs to their awe of fine artists.

1980srestaurantfoodA growing interest in healthier diets influenced restaurant menus, which began to feature less red meat and more pasta, fish, and chicken dishes. Concern with smoking and drunk driving brought changes too, as restaurants set aside non-smoking sections and saw their liability insurance premiums rise even as drink orders declined.

The food fashion cycle quickened as diners discovered a taste for arugula, radicchio, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, sushi, crab cakes, Pad Thai, mesquite grilling, and fresh ingredients. Meanwhile old favorites such as steak and baked potato, tossed salad, and cheesecake seemed dull.

1980svictoriastn1981morechoiceterryakichickensalmonstuffedchickThough shunned by the food elite, corporate chain restaurants continued to grow and thrive. By the middle of the decade 540 chains managed 60,000 fast-food restaurants, employing over half of the nation’s restaurant workforce. Restaurant groups proliferated, ranging from those that owned a dozen or fewer restaurants in one city to groups controlling hundreds of franchises throughout a region. Independent restaurateurs, too, found it increasingly attractive to operate more than one restaurant.

Traditional eating places, from the humblest to the grandest, suffered from intense competition. Losers included coffee shops, Cantonese Chinese and red-checkered Italian restaurants, and even sanctums of haute French cuisine.

Black men, who formed the basic waiter corps of the 19th century, largely disappeared from restaurant dining rooms and kitchens, replaced by immigrants, white college students, and white women. A 1981 study conducted in NYC found that Black workers rejected the low pay and poor conditions typically found in restaurant kitchens, preferring to take better jobs in industry if they could. Racial discrimination also kept them from waiting jobs in some instances and the limited number of Black-owned restaurants prevented widespread training in kitchen skills and entrepreneurship.

Though conditions were improving, women also faced continuing discrimination in restaurant work. Many luxury restaurants rejected them as waitstaff in the belief that patrons attributed higher status to male servers. Other objections were their alleged “boyfriend problems” and lack of “tableside” skills such as meat carving and salad making. An article in the trade journal Restaurant Hospitality noted that while more women had become bartenders, chefs, and managers by end of the decade, “For women, the American foodservice industry is still rife with barriers.” In the kitchen, women tended to be confined to pastry and pantry. Some women chefs said the solution was to open their own restaurants even though they might have to take on a male partner to get financing.

Highlights

1981 Social indicators – small families, working women, projected long-term increases in real income and leisure, and more single-person households — promise growth in restaurant going according to a Bank of America Small Business report.

1980srestaurantsspagomenu19811982 Having introduced nouvelle cuisine at Ma Maison in Los Angeles, Chef Wolfgang Puck presents “California cuisine” to patrons of his new chic-casual Sunset Strip restaurant, Spago. Pizza with Duck Sausage wins quick stardom.

1983 The Food Marketing Institute reports that 2/3 of all fish consumed in the U.S. is eaten in restaurants. In Seattle, Colonial-themed 1980srestaurantsmadanthonysMad Anthony’s executes a style and cuisine turnabout, replacing a beefy Steak & Kidney Pye-style menu with seafood. Onto the auction block go pewter plates, crocks, jugs, and replica muskets, along with a Nacho Cheese Dispenser.

1984 With the opening of Spiaggia in Chicago, Chicagoans learn that Italian doesn’t inevitably mean spaghetti and candles in Chianti bottles, as they sample pumpkin-stuffed pasta and goose carpaccio with shaved white truffles. With dinner for two easily totaling $100 [about $228 now], they learn it often means higher prices too.

1985 Even as restaurant patrons in much of the country search out new restaurants and cuisines, Southerners remain loyal to cafeterias, with five major chains operating from 84 to 149 units each. In Milwaukee, taverns continue to do brisk business serving deep fried fish on Friday nights.

1980srestaurantsmariani1986 Most restaurant reviewers contributing to John Mariani’s Coast-to-Coast Dining Guide report that their towns have better restaurants and a wider selection of ethnic cuisines than ten years earlier. A number of cities lag behind, though, including Minneapolis and Chicago where many cling to meat and potatoes, and Columbus OH which has the dubious distinction of serving as a test market for fast food chains.

1987 With new laws holding restaurants responsible for customers who cause drunk driving injuries, rising numbers of liability lawsuits against restaurants, and ballooning insurance premiums, American Express promises protection to restaurants that accept its charge card.

1980sshoneysmenucover1989 The “largest ever” bias lawsuit involving a restaurant chain is filed against the 1,500-unit Shoney’s and its head Ray Danner. The suit by the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund charges that Shoney’s sets limits on how many Black workers can be hired in each outlet, keeps them in jobs out of public view, and punishes white supervisors who refuse to go along with the program.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Higbee’s Silver Grille

higbeessilvergrillemyphoto

Friday the 13th of September, 1935, seemed like an ordinary day at the Higbee department store in Cleveland’s Public Square. Marzipan bon bons were on sale at the store’s first floor candy counter. On the fifth floor women modeled hand-knitted costumes while the ninth-floor employment office interviewed men for part-time furniture and rug sales.

higbeessilvergrillemenufridaysept131935In the Silver Grille on the tenth floor, diners sat down to lunch. Yet, the specials on the 60c luncheon menu that day were a bit dull. The featured dishes didn’t sound especially delicious, but even stranger, there was no listing of the kind of things the Silver Grille usually spotlighted, namely desserts.

Perhaps the unexciting menu had nothing to do with it but it was not, in fact, an ordinary day.

The store’s future hung in the balance. It had just been announced around the country that on September 30 J. P. Morgan would put the Higbee Company on the auction block along with the rest of the railroad and real estate empire of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen brothers. In addition to over 28,000 miles of railroad, the properties to be auctioned were the 52-story Terminal Tower and its associated buildings which included the store as well as the Medical Arts Building, the Midland Bank Building, and the Cleveland Hotel.

higbeediamondjubileadvjan11935Ironically 1935 was Higbee’s 75th anniversary, its diamond jubilee. In retrospect, the drawing that announced the jubilee year in the Plain Dealer on January 1, 1935, looks ominous in the way it yokes the store, one side blacked out, to the Terminal Tower.

Higbee’s was an old Cleveland business that was bought out by the “Vans” in 1930 after they failed to attract other stores to move into their “city within a city” complex then under construction. Exactly who they asked is unknown, except for one outstanding store that turned them down, Marshall Field in Chicago. The new Higbee store opened in September of 1931. Its crown jewel on the top floor was the art deco Silver Grille, designed by local architect Philip L. Small and a prominent Cleveland decorating and interior design firm, the Rorimer-Brooks Studios.

A 1931 Higbee advertisement described the Silver Grille as “modern” and “gracious.” In the center of the room was a rather austere fountain of red Rojo alicante marble, the same red reflected in the room’s columns and carpeting. Grillwork punctuated the walls which were shades of green with silver leaves. From the ceiling hung specially designed light fixtures of bronze. Designers with Louis Rorimer’s studio created the aluminum tables and chairs shown in the photograph at the top of the page taken a few weeks after the store opened.

The tea room’s early, possibly first, manager was Mrs. Kenneth McKay (whose unusual first name was often erroneously taken to be her husband’s). In the 1920s she had been a supervisor for Schrafft’s restaurants in New York and had taught restaurant management at Columbia University. She retired in the 1950s, having established the Silver Grille tradition of serving homey food with occasional exotic touches such as a curried dish or a salad of Puerto Rican mangoes, avocados, and dates.

Miraculously, Higbee’s survived the Depression in fairly good shape. In 1937 the store was rescued by two executives affiliated with the Van Sweringen empire who bought it from a holding company created by the then-deceased brothers. The new owners announced they would keep the store local and under the direction of Asa Shiverick, Higbee’s president since 1913. In another stroke of bad luck Shiverick died three days after the announcement, leaving the new owners to take over.

higbeessilvergrillestove1980sThings settled down then and the Silver Grille grew in popularity, boosted by added attractions such as frequent fashion shows to the music of a resident orchestra. One of its most popular customs was delivering children’s meals in little tin stoves, later replaced with cardboard stoves, as well as cardboard trucks, teepees, and space capsules.

higbeesmenu1938fashionshowOn May 12, 1938, the store presented a summer fashion show and luncheon on a newly constructed runway in the Silver Grille, with a short but sweet menu costing 5 cents more than usual.

Although patrons enjoyed the Silver Grille’s food – and still seek its recipes — it was equally known for its art deco design, which also underwent ups and downs over the decades. Once the Depression ended, the decor fell out of favor. Higbee’s tried to soften the original look by adding banquettes, painting over German silver grilles along the ceiling and floor, and placing a decorative gazebo over the fountain. A 1962 makeover adopted a hideous-sounding color scheme of pink, green, and red.

In 1982 some of the room’s original art deco elements were restored. The grilles were polished and the fountain was repaired and restocked with goldfish. However the gazebo remained and the dining chairs were reupholstered with multi-colored patterned fabric, either an Ikat design or stripes. Gone were the original black marble tabletops, re-topped with what looks in photographs like a white laminate. (Possibly the tables were not original at all or had been altered, as the diagonal struts underneath are also different.) Recessed lighting had replaced the hanging fixtures, either at this time or earlier.

higbeessilvergrilleteepeeA change of a different sort, one that I think took place in the 1970s, was the addition of wine and cocktails to the menu. Traditionally, alcoholic drinks did not appear on the menus of department store “tea rooms” for women, but Higbee’s was not the only store to adapt to modern conditions around this time.

Despite declining business at Higbee’s, the Silver Grille stayed afloat until after Christmas in 1989 when the store was downsized and the upper floors closed off.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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