Tag Archives: 1840s

Taste of a decade: 1840s restaurants

1849Marden'sEating places began to show a French influence as places called “restaurants” and “cafes” replaced “eating houses.” Many hotels adopted the European plan which allowed guests to choose where they would eat instead of including meals in the hotel in the room charge, a change that encouraged the growth of independent eating places. A “restaurant culture” had begun to develop, yet with stiff resistance from many who associated restaurants with vice and immorality.

Menus, particularly those of cheaper eating places, contained mostly meat, pastry, and ever-popular oysters. Meat production was still local; NYC had 200 slaughterhouses in operation. Out-of-season fresh produce was beginning to come North by steamboat from the South, but still not in large quantities. Harvey Parker’s well-known eating house in Boston was celebrated for acquiring peas from Virginia in 1841, but strawberries remained a seasonal delicacy in the Northeast later in the decade.

U.S. territory grew substantially when Texas became a state. Oregon territory was acquired, along with a big chunk of what had been Mexico (New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California). Gold was discovered in California and almost overnight San Francisco became a city of 25,000. San Francisco’s Tadich Grill, still around today, was one of the many restaurants that opened to serve the newcomers. The restaurant business was also doing well in New Orleans, home of generous “free lunch” buffets.

Among the middle classes in the Northeast the movement to discourage heavy drinking – or any at all — resulted in the establishment of “temperance restaurants” that served no alcoholic beverages.

1848Milliken'sBostonEating away from home remained a male activity mostly, as was true at The Alhambra in Richmond VA and Taft’s near Boston, but women sometimes made an appearance. Although an advertisement for the popular and inexpensive Milliken’s in Boston pictured men, it also advised it had  “apartments [dining rooms] for ladies exclusively.” (As the illustration shows, a stout figure was admired then.)


1840 If a diner wants to leave his waiter a tip in a cheap eating house, the standard amount is 1 cent, which usually amounts to about 5%.

1841 The Colored American, a weekly newspaper dedicated to elevating the moral and social stature of free Blacks, declares it will accept no advertising for restaurants because they mostly dispense not “wholesome food for the body” but “liquid death, both for body and mind.”

1842 The Franklin Café and Restaurant, located in Philadelphia’s elegant Franklin House (hotel) announces it is serving Ice Cream, Sherbets, and Roman Punch made by a graduate of the world-famous Café Tortoni in Paris.

1843 When a group of temperance advocates visits the Eagle Coffee House in Concord NH to convince the proprietor to give up the sale of intoxicating drinks, he tells them that he would feel “very mean” if he had to refuse a visitor from Boston a drink.

1844 P. B. Brigham announces he has hired the best French and Italian “Artistes” for his Restaurant, Ice Cream, and Oyster Saloon in Boston and has a Ladies’ Saloon newly “fitted up in the Parisian style.”


1845 Harvard forbids its students, all male then, from going to Cambridge eating and drinking places without a guardian.

1846 In an era when Black men occupy an important role in the catering business, NYC society caterer George T. Downing opens a summer branch of his business in Newport RI.

1846 A journalist travels somewhere “way out west” and eats at a small town tavern where the fare consists of ham and eggs fried in lard, hog jowl and greens (called corndoggers), and brains with greens, washed down with corn liquor or sassafras tea.


1847 Luxury comes to Baltimore with the opening of the Parisian Restaurant with a “French Cook.” As in Europe, Ladies (accompanied by Gentlemen) are to be honored in a private parlor “where it is hoped that they will be able to enjoy the luxuries of Oysters, Game, etc., from which they have been heretofore excluded.”

1848 In his vivid newspaper series New York in Slices, George G. Foster writes that about 30,000 persons who work in mercantile and financial occupations eat daily in the restaurants of lower Manhattan, and most of them “gorge . . . disgusting masses of stringy meat and tepid vegetables.”

1849 The Home Journal is convinced that the presence of restaurants, cafes, refectories, and oyster saloons, “on almost every corner of the streets” in cities is certain to lead young men to lives of “sensual excesses.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under miscellaneous

“Every luxury the markets afford”

alhambra1847In the 1840s and 1850s, when Russell W. Allen ran restaurants in Richmond VA, newspaper advertising for eating places employed pat phrases such as the one that serves as this post’s title. Allen advertised frequently in the papers and, judging from descriptive blurbs, he attracted affluent men looking for fine liquors and cigars, as well as top quality duck, seafood, oysters, and game.

In 1843 he opened The Alhambra which, like most eating places then also served as a hotel. His aim was to have the foremost eating place in Richmond.

The son of a Providence RI cabinet maker, Russell was 24 years old in 1835 when he married. He and Agatha moved to Richmond a few years later. In 1840 he was employed as a decorative painter whose business included hand painting custom window shades. Agatha ran a boarding house for Virginia legislators.


Although it was open to the public, it would seem as though Russell’s eating saloon developed as an extension of the boarding house. His first advertisements make a direct appeal to legislators whom he offered three meals a day, promising to have on hand fine oysters from nearby rivers and bays “fresh three times a week.” He also imported live lobsters from the North, a practice which he said was highly unusual since most lobsters in Richmond were brought there pre-cooked. [bill of fare, 1844]

The Alhambra was located on the main thoroughfare, 14th street, near the bridge that crossed the James River. Outside was a sign of a deer visible in the day but eclipsed after dark by the standard candlelit red balloon that identified oyster houses. In 1846 the establishment moved two doors closer to the bridge and installed private dining rooms. A new and sensational feature was a fountain with a statue of a Greek goddess bearing a flowing cup, surrounded by swans. The spouting water held aloft a golden ball.

AlhambraCardtoLadies1846After a Richmond newspaper advised that “those who wish to see a pretty fountain should pay one visit at least,” the normally all-male sanctum was besieged by women wanting a peek inside. The result was a ladies’ night advertised in May of 1846 with Agatha Allen on hand to reassure visitors that the goings on would remain cake & lemonade respectable.


Perhaps due to the death of his father in 1848, Russell sold his business in 1849 and the family moved to New York City, where he also ran an eating place. In 1852 he returned to Richmond, bought out the Rough and Ready on the corner of 12th and Main, renamed it The Arbour, and kept it going until 1858. He tried to equal The Alhambra’s reputation as an epicurean eating place, though I can’t tell how well he succeeded. In 1852 he ran an advertisement for quick eats at reduced prices as shown above. It contains something I’ve never seen before, “domestic pie,” which I’m guessing is another way of saying homemade. Also, sora, a marsh bird.

After he gave up the restaurant and hotel business, Russell Allen returned to his earlier career as a painter and earned the rank of Captain in the Civil War.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under proprietors & careers

That glass of water

I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to a restaurant with someone who answers “Just water” when the server asks what they would like to drink. For some inexplicable reason I am always strangely disappointed when I hear this reply. Is it my Irish-German ancestry haunted by ghosts of the temperance movement? I honestly don’t know but I am fascinated with the question of why that glass of water is plunked down first thing in American restaurants.

Why are Americans so crazy for water when diners in other parts of the world are not? European visitors from the 1860s to yesterday never failed to notice the American habit. In 1883, a Londoner reported that in hotel dining rooms, “Immediately the guest is seated, the attendant at the table brings a napkin, a bill of fare, and a glass of iced water.” Another crossly noted, “You cannot escape from this glass of water from the day you set foot on American soil to the day you leave it…”

Carbonated soda water and mineral water were available in early 19th century American cafes, as was ice for beverages. But the first mention I’ve found of water served free with a meal occurs in the 1840s, which happens to be the decade that NYC’s and Boston’s public water supplies began. In the late 1840s a newspaper reporter reflected on cheap restaurants where patrons could enjoy “pumpkin pie at four cents the quarter-section, with a cup of Croton, fresh from the hydrant, gratis,” referring to the Croton Reservoir from which water flowed into NYC beginning in 1842.

It is also a decade when the temperance movement geared up, praising cold water as the most moral beverage and the only one drunk in Heaven. The teetotaling followers of food reformer Sylvester Graham found cold water the sole drink consistent with “nature’s bill of fare.” The mission of temperance advocates was to make pure water widely available in hopes they could lure drinkers away from the hard stuff. The battle continued at the Centennial Exposition of 1876. After failing to prevent the sale of beer and wine at the fair’s European-style restaurants, temperance groups installed a free ice-water fountain.

Restaurants run by new Americans did not immediately fall into line. Italians, for instance, preferred wine as their basic beverage. A Boston diner in 1906 was impressed with how totally different it was to eat in an Italian restaurant as compared to a typical wineless Yankee lunch room where the staples were baked beans, pie, doughnuts, cookies, cake, gingerbread, toast, and boiled dinners — all washed down with ice water.

Although the custom of providing water was likely firmly established during Prohibition, even before that water service gradually lost its temperance overtones and became standard operating procedure in restaurants. A waitress in 1907 learned the first day of work that as soon as she took an order she was to give the patron water as a signal to the head waitress that the order had been taken. A 1908 manual instructed waiters to “serve water first” and the bread and butter set-up later.

Americans don’t always drink the water provided in restaurants, but they expect it to be there. In 1930 patrons of luncheonettes coast to coast were dismayed by burnt toast, dirty menus, and failure to serve water unless requested. A National Restaurant Association survey in 1978 found that customers did not like to ask for water and almost 75% of them were annoyed if there was no water on their table.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010


Filed under restaurant customs

Between courses: only one?

The gruff waiters and rowdy patrons found in cheap restaurants of the 19th century provided rich inspiration to story tellers. No story was more popular than the “Lone Fish Ball” which was published in newspapers before being turned into a favorite college song around 1854 (attributed to a Harvard professor of Latin), translated into Italian, and even performed in Tableaux Vivants.

The latter form of entertainment, where actors silently act out scenes, was a singularly odd one since the story is all about words uttered by a waiter and their mortifying effect upon a hapless patron.

In the 1840s, the decade in which the event allegedly took place, it was the custom of waiters in cheap eating houses to shout orders to cooks while standing at the tables. New patrons unfamiliar with this practice were invariably embarrassed when their orders were revealed to a roomful of none-too-polite patrons.

According to the tale, a young man who is short of money enters a cheap restaurant (sometimes identified as Daniel Sweeny’s Old Established Eating House in New York City) and realizes he has only enough money (6 cents) for a half order of fish balls – i.e., one fish ball – and a cup of tea. He timidly whispers his order to the waiter, hoping his oafish neighbors won’t overhear it, whereupon the waiter bellows it forth, emphasizing the word ONE. The oafs snicker.

He receives his order and again whispers to the waiter, “A piece of bread, sir, if you please.” Then, as the song goes:

The waiter roars it through the hall,
We don’t give bread with one fish-ball.

Now the entire house breaks out in laughter and the humiliated patron slips out.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010


Filed under miscellaneous