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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Taste of a decade: the 1830s

Although the U. S. population exceeded 12 million, only about 5% lived in the ten largest cities in 1830. Most Americans lived in sparsely populated areas where they rarely encountered restaurants — nor could they afford them.

Nonetheless, those who did patronize “restaurants” – then more likely to be called restorators, refectories, restaurats, eating houses, coffee houses, or victualing cellars – noticed a growing French influence grafted onto the predominant plain English style of cooking. The word “restaurant,” when used in this decade, usually had the modifier “French” preceding it.

To the relief of diners, it was becoming easier to find eating places that would serve dishes a la carte at the hour the diner wished to eat rather than having a pre-determined meal served only at set hours.

At most eating places the three F’s dominated menus: Fish, Flesh, and Fowl. And, of course, oysters were tremendously popular with all social classes. Occasionally, a restaurant offering a more varied bill of fare could be found, such as that at Robert G. Herring’s American Coffee House in Philadelphia that includes Green “Pease,” String Beans, Lobsters, Frogs, Sardines, Anchovy Toast, Omelet with Asparagus, and Strawberries and Cream.

Patrons of wealth and sophistication indulged in the finest foods that could be found in major cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. According to one observer, worldly young men were becoming knowledgeable about “culinary details” in the early 1830s. “It has become wonderfully fashionable lately in discoursing upon eatable matters,” wrote the author of A Short Chapter on Dining, “to parade the names of a dozen or two of French dishes.”

At the same time a spirit of abstemiousness was spreading as people rejected “ardent spirits” such as gin, rum, whiskey, and brandy. Temperance followers also condemned restaurants themselves, viewing most of them as “grog shops.” During the cholera pandemic of 1832, some temperance advocates went so far as to blame the high death rate among the poor not on urban filth and polluted drinking water, but on alcohol consumption, particularly by Irish immigrants.

In the larger cities, New York especially, many couples and families chose to live in hotels and boarding houses rather than run their own households, finding it both cheaper and easier. Others, who lived in their own residences, took their meals in nearby hotels or had them delivered by a restaurateur.

Two English women who visited this country wrote scathing accounts of life here, painting Americans as shallow, grasping, and dull. In Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans, she observed how American conversation frequently included the word “dollar,” and also noted, “They consume an extraordinary quantity of bacon.” The actress Fanny Kemble’s Journal (1835) included among its “vituperative remarks” criticism of New York hotels and their rigid meal schedules.

As railroads and waterways were extended, newly settled areas of the country gained access to more oysters, seafood, and exotic fruits. In 1832 a traveler recorded that he ate “fine sea fish and oysters one hundred and fifty miles inland – drank punch from fruit imported from the Indies, at Pittsburg, and sat down to a dessert in Cincinnati, the ingredients of which were the delicacies of every clime.”

Highlights

1831 After visiting the dining room of the recently opened Tremont House in Boston, a Baltimore man writes that he finds it an “essential improvement in tavern keeping” that everyone dining there receives a bill of fare listing all dishes to be served at that meal. Otherwise, he comments, a diner departing from the dining hall usually discovers favorite dishes placed on another part of the long shared table that never made it to him.

1832 In Domestic Manners of the Americans, Frances Trollope asks why Americans are so fond of boarding in residential hotels: “What can induce so many . . . citizens to prefer these long, silent tables, scantily covered with morsels of fried ham, salt fish and liver, to a comfortable loaf of bread with their wives and children at home?” she writes.

1833 Harvey D. Parker – who will establish the luxury Parker House and Restaurant in 1855 — takes over the Tremont Restorator in a cellar on Boston’s Court Street and publishes the protein-rich bill of fare shown here.

1833 The owner of a new refectory on Whale Street in Nantucket advertises that he will provide Pies, Tarts, Custards, Oysters, Fish Chowder, Hot Chocolate, Coffee, Mush & Milk, Beer, and Cider, but that he has promised his landlord he will “keep no ardent spirits of any description for sale” even though he knows it will mean lower profits.

1834 Francois Parrot, “French Cook, Restaurateur & Confectioner” in Philadelphia, announces “that after a long residence with the Count of Survilliers, he has, with recommendations from him for professional capacity and moral character (which he will be happy to shew any one), determined to set up a Cooking Establishment and Eating House in Philadelphia.”

1835 The popular Alexander “Sandy” Welsh, president of the Hoboken Turtle Club and famous for his green turtle soup, expands his Terrapin Lunch in New York City and is now able to accommodate 150 seated in small groups.

1836 After the opening of the Merchant’s Exchange Lunch on Broadway, a patron sends a glowing review to the editor of the New York Herald citing its fine cooking, clean tablecloths, damask napkins, excellent ventilation, and cheerful servers. “Only think,” he writes, “a plate of the best meat, including four kinds of vegetables, and the best butter also, in these dear times too, is only eighteen pence.”

1837 Following the destruction of their restaurant on William Street in the great fire of 1835, the Delmonico brothers open a new 4-story restaurant on the corner of Beaver and William Streets. [1880 photo shown at top, demolished 1890] Visitors are overwhelmed with its magnificence, particularly its wine vaults that extend 180 feet under the streets and hold 20,000 bottles of imported French and German wine. The restaurant’s resplendence is all the more striking as the city suffers bank failures, worthless currency, and economic depression.

1837 Outrage erupts when New Yorker Samuel E. Cornish, editor of The Colored American, discloses that he was refused service at a temperance eating house run by an abolitionist Scottish immigrant. Explaining that he has never before encountered discrimination of this sort, Cornish writes, “It remained for a foreigner, in a cellar cook-room, to insult a native citizen, of 17 years residence in this city; and to deny a minister of Christ, of gray hairs, and twenty-five years’ standing in the Presbyterian church, a cup of Tea.”

1837 As a result of economic collapse, businesses distrust paper money and refuse to give coins [aka “specie”] as change. When they do agree to accept bills they return change in the form of tickets good for future purchases. A patron of a NYC eating house becomes indignant when “a negro named Downing,” “a black villain,” refuses to accept his dollar bill. But the newspaper to which he has complained defends the proprietor, asking, “Why should any man be compelled to take worthless paper money for his goods and wares? When I visit Downing’s, I never give or take paper money. I pay in specie entirely.”

1839 At a “restaurat” in New Orleans, patrons attending summer balls are warned not to bring their guns.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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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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How Americans learned to tip

Tipping began in the U.S. in the 1840s, probably imported from Europe by Americans who began traveling abroad on the new trans-Atlantic steamships. By the end of the 19th century all the aspects of tipping we know today were widely practiced – and widely criticized..

Before that, people believed, Americans considered themselves social equals no matter what their economic circumstances and wouldn’t demean another person by treating them as an inferior (excepting, of course, slaves, Indians, and indentured servants), nor would any self-respecting person accept a gift of money for a helpful act.

Tipping wasn’t so much linked to restaurants as to hotels, applying to porters and doormen as much as to dining room waiters. There were few restaurants outside hotels then, especially when it came to places patronized by the rich.

Affluent Americans initiated tipping, beginning at summer resorts. The custom was to tip hotel staff upon arrival at a “crack watering hole” such as Saratoga or Newport, guaranteeing good treatment for the stay — and an expectation of more before the guest’s departure.

The word tip was British English and many critics blamed England for the custom, but it wasn’t purely English. It had many names, such as fee, gratuity, honorarium, and the French douceur and pourboire – plus the loaded terms bribe and baksheesh. But, overall, fee was used more often than tip in the 19th century, inspiring a popular quip in the 1870s, “When you have feed the waiter of the summer resort, then he will feed you.”

Tipping had many critics. But who to blame? At first public opinion singled out the rich for unfairly using their wealth to get special favors from waiters, leaving everyone else to suffer neglect – or even abuse. Failure to tip in the dining room could mean pointed rudeness, slow service, small portions, or even having food spilled on you.

Waiters came in for plenty of blame, with criticism often devolving into bigotry. According to an 1873 editorial, Black and Irish waiters comprised “two classes of imported persons in this country whose insolence and absolute indifference to the wants of those whom they are well paid to serve is sufficient to make this country stink in the nostrils of any tourist.” Another opinion piece stated that, if not tipped, insolent “ebony” waiters would “spill soup down the back of [a customer’s] neck, and ‘swipe’ his beefsteak over a dish which has recently held a broiled mackerel.”

Coney Island, where waiters were said to regard tips as “the sole absorbing object of existence,” was also singled out, particularly its fancier eating spots such as at The Oriental Hotel with its turrets and 480 rooms. In the 1880s as many as 3,000 waiters worked at Coney Island, some making as much as $25 a week in tips, about double the weekly wages of male office clerks at that time.

As waiters began to expect to be tipped – or else! – more customers began leaving tips. Some employers refused to permit tipping saying it eroded their control over the standard of service. But, according to critics, a more typical reaction was for restaurant owners to take advantage of the situation by reducing waiters’ pay. An 1883 reader’s letter to a Cleveland paper voiced a quite modern view of waiters’ pay: “Until the hotels pay living prices the waiters must look to well-disposed guests who have the means, to give them extra money, for which they will receive extra attention.”

It was also alleged that some restaurant owners stopped paying waiters any wages at all, sometimes even charging them a fee to work at places where tips were large. This is quite believable considering that some drive-ins of the mid-20th century did the same.

Tipping first became common in the Northeast, New York City especially. In 1883 Charles Delmonico, then head of NY’s Delmonico restaurants, told the NY Tribune that tipping had become so well established throughout the U.S. that it could not be stopped.

But that wasn’t quite true – yet. It was not often found across the country until the end of the century, particularly not in the West where the “spirit of independence” reportedly caused hotel, restaurant, and railroad employees to refuse tips. A Portland OR paper reported in 1886 that tipping had not “obtained any very strong foothold on this coast.”

How much to tip changed over the century. An early consideration was how big the dining group was. Since it was more trouble to serve a table of four than a table of two, the latter was supposed to leave proportionately more. By the end of the century it was based mainly on check size, 10% generally viewed as the right amount.

A writer in 1877 asked plaintively, “How many centuries do you suppose it will require to eradicate the custom of ‘tipping’ waiters?” By now we can answer “definitely more than one, going on two.” Attempts to eradicate tipping failed, including those by waiters’ unions in the 1890s. Instead, some clever individuals experimented with mechanical contraptions that eliminated the need for waiters.

Self-service restaurants offered another alternative. Near the end of the century many people cheered the emergence of waiterless eating places such as Chicago’s cafeteria-style lunch clubs and European automats. These and “quick lunch” eateries would become popular after the turn of the century – and still are.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Image gallery: eating in a hat

In an earlier post I wrote about buildings shaped like what they sell – known as “ducks.” Usually they sold simple foods rather than entire meals. They were often located on busy roads where it wasn’t easy to get cars to stop. But proprietors realized that even the most humble shed, if masquerading as a giant dog or coffee pot, just might get speeding motorists to stop for closer examination.

Ducks, which became popular in the 1930s, could be found all over the country but their birthplace is usually cited as Southern California, the land of fantasy and car culture.

The slogan “eat in the hat” was, in fact, created in Los Angeles for the Brown Derby restaurant that opened in 1926 on Wilshire Blvd, shown above a few years later after it enlarged and added a patio.

To be considered a genuine duck, the Brown Derby should have been selling hats, but it was a restaurant, and one with a standard menu rather than just grab-and-go food. Its fame derived from its successful courtship of gossip columnists and film stars.

Copying, I am convinced, is one of the most common business tactics. Eating places love to borrow a little bit of the glamour of far-off restaurants that have achieved fame. As Los Angeles’ Brown Derby became famous, taverns and eateries across the land adopted Brown Derby, Green Derby, and related names. As shown in the images that follow, some also created a variety of hat-shaped buildings, signs, and menus.

Brown Derby Drive-in, Southern CA – Something went terribly wrong with the shape of this derby.

Brown Derby, Tyler TX – Ditto.

Brown Derby, Evansville IN – The Hat had loomed impressively larger atop an earlier, one-story building. As humorist S. J. Perelman wrote in 1936, “. . . the flood waters of the Ohio River weren’t far away, but the Brown Derby went unscathed. Such is the irony of nature.”

Brown Derby, Olympia WA – Menu on which a waffle with “wild blackberry syrup” was 40 cents.

Miner’s Hat, Kellogg ID – Why stick to derbies? This Hat had odd hours, from 10:00 A.M. to 1:00 A.M., possibly to mesh with work shifts of area miners.

Hat-O-Mat, between Warren and Youngstown OH – Maybe it was too hard to build a derby shaped drive-in? A 1950 advertisement in the Cleveland Plain Dealer sought franchisees for the Hat-O-Mat’s unnamed “new idea in feeding the public.”

El Sombrero Drive-In, Albuquerque NM – A sombrero on top just in case people didn’t realize this was a restaurant serving Mexican food. A sombrero is without doubt one of the most hackneyed of restaurant symbols.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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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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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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