Tag Archives: 1910s

Dipping into the finger bowl

Once upon a time finger bowls were routinely presented with the check in expensive restaurants. To the average American, who probably never went to this type of restaurant, they were a great source of humor. Jokes typically involved an unsophisticated restaurant patron drinking water from the bowl or eating the lemon slices floating in it. The funny stories demonstrated the joy Americans take in spearing pretentiousness, a quality which finger bowls epitomized to many.

Like salad forks and menus in French, using finger bowls was an esoteric social custom that was certain to befuddle the average person. How many fingers do you put into the bowl at once? What do you do after you get your fingers wet? Must you use it at all?*

These questions would soon fade from American culture because the finger bowl was about to run afoul of history in the World War I era.

Yet in the decade before finger bowls met their downfall, the number of restaurants providing them actually increased. Live music and finger bowls were two amenities put forward as competitive attractions over places that didn’t have them. Some observers believed that because so many restaurants adopted finger bowls, it deprived them of the eliteness they once enjoyed and that this was a factor in their downfall.

Further warning signs of the finger bowl’s decline in status surfaced as early as 1908 when a veteran waiter confessed to a reporter that wise patrons should demand to witness their waiter filling the bowl. Otherwise, he warned, it was likely they’d get one with wastewater from a previous user fermenting in it.

For reasons that are still mysterious to me, 1913 was a turning point in the fortunes of the finger bowl. The Buffalo NY health department launched an attack on brass bowls, which they claimed were in use in over half of the city’s restaurants. Glass bowls could be sanitized with boiling water but brass, said the health commissioner, could not. Omaha hotelier Rome Miller declared that modern guests were more germ conscious than ever before and wanted everything – tea, coffee cream, breakfast cereal – individually packaged. For guests desiring to wash their fingertips after dining, he recommended silver holders with disposable paper inserts.

Whether due to the influence of Rome Miller or not, the city of Omaha totally outlawed reusable finger bowls in 1915. The ordinance did make one exception – for finger bowls “made from paper or other substance which shall be delivered after being once used and not used or offered for use a second time.” The crusading Mr. Miller was further vindicated a couple of years later when he learned that a New Jersey paper company was supplying 263 leading hotels with sanitary paper finger bowls. “And so the finger bowl marches on,” he wrote, revealing a surprising dedication to its future.

But, for the most part, it was not to be. Glass, brass, or paper, all would be swept aside. World War I delivered the coup de grace when the Food Administration implored restaurants to do away with excess china, silver, and glassware, whether service plates, side dishes, salad forks, or finger bowls. The few straggler bowls that survived that era were wiped out by another such war order in 1943. Since then, high-end restaurants that serve food requiring a clean-up afterwards provide scented towels while lower-price establishments go with packaged towelettes.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

*Dip one hand at a time and then dry your fingers on the napkin in your lap. Ignoring a finger bowl is a safe course.

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The Craftsman, a model restaurant

The restaurant operated by Gustav Stickley on the 12th floor of his retail house furnishings store on 39th street in NYC was a brave but brief experiment in pure food, sanitation, and “progressive living.” It opened in May of 1913 and was out of business a few months short of three years later when the entire retail business failed.

The restaurant’s ability to attract patronage was undoubtedly limited since it was intended to appeal to the same people who admired Arts & Crafts furniture and house fixtures. This did not include most Americans, particularly new immigrants who populated big cities such as New York. Additionally, restaurants located in stores, even big department stores which can attract hordes of shoppers each day, typically lose money.

The restaurant followed the same aesthetic, both in its decor and its approach to food preparation, that defined the Craftsman Workshop’s project generally. The Workshop’s ambitions were captured in the motto which appeared on furniture labels and the restaurant’s china: “Als ik kan.” In its quaint Dutch formulation, it was a pledge to do one’s very best work.

When applied to food this meant pure and fresh ingredients straight from the source, simply prepared by cooks using modern appliances in a pleasant work environment, and consumed slowly in a restful setting. “Style,”whether in house furnishings or a meal, was supposed to emerge organically from an honest approach to materials and workmanship. A 1910 article in the influential Stickley publication The Craftsman identified a type of ideal restaurant, the down-to-earth “marketman’s” café (such as New York’s Smith & McNell or Boston’s Durgin-Park) which used fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, and fowl that had never seen the inside of a factory or cold-storage warehouse.

Provisions such as eggs, dairy products, vegetables, and spring water served for lunch[eon], teatime, and dinner at the Craftsman Restaurant were trucked in daily from Stickley’s 600-acre Craftsman Farms in Morris Plains NJ. As food reformer and “real food” proponent Alfred W. McCann argued, the restaurant was a model for the entire industry. “The legalized chemical preservatives, chemical bleachers, chemical glazes, chemical flavors, inert fillers and extenders, coal tar dyes and grossly impoverished foods, however popular, can find no place on the Craftsman bill-of-fare,” he wrote in 1915.

The Craftsman Restaurant was a haven for people of “good taste” wishing to avoid the show-off culture of champagne and loud music exemplified by lobster palaces and cabarets. It was the polar opposite of the garish Café de l’Opera, though ironically each in its own way was a spectacular failure. The Craftsman appealed to patrons such as well-to-do club women and college alumni groups. Shortly before it closed, the restaurant hosted Columbia University’s class of 1902. They enjoyed their dinner but were sorely disappointed to find out that the restaurant served no alcoholic beverages.

The dining room was decorated in earth tones: browns, deep reds, oatmeals, and creams. Plates, bowls, and cups were rimmed with a pinecone design. Bread was served in handmade willow baskets. The wood floor was mostly left bare while the tables were covered with criss-crossing Irish linen runners. A focal point of the room was a Germanic-looking hearth covered in Grueby tiles, with a hammered copper hood.

In keeping with the subdued decor, quiet and low-key service was accomplished by what one visitor described as “soft-treading little men of Nippon,” while stringed instruments softly played “something familiar from Grieg or [Edward] MacDowell.” This was most definitely not a restaurant for rowdies.

The store and restaurant closed early in 1916. In August the entire stock of the Craftsman Workshops store was sold at Gimbels Department Store at reductions of 35% to 50%.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Chin Foin

In the early 20th century Chin Foin was considered Chicago’s foremost Chinese restaurateur, being affiliated with four of the city’s leading Chinese restaurants: the King Yen [above] and King Joy restaurants and the Mandarin Inn and New Mandarin Inn. His exact degree of ownership and management of the four over time is difficult to determine but it’s clear that his participation was significant. He also ran an import business in Chicago called Wing Chong Hai & Co.

His first restaurant King Yen Lo began inauspiciously in 1902 upstairs from a saloon, the notorious establishment of alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna on the corner of Clark and Van Buren. Operating above or behind a saloon was not uncommon for Chinese restaurants and may reflect difficulties the Chinese encountered in renting property. Additionally, having a restaurant nearby or physically connected may have served the interests of saloon keepers who wanted to evade early closing laws by funneling drinks through an eating place.

Whatever the case, the King Yen restaurant was better than it had to be. Like the other restaurants Chin Foin would run, it appealed to the non-Chinese after-theater crowd and featured orchestral music and steaks and chops alongside chop suey and “Mandarin” dishes. The kitchen was open for inspection and a special section was reserved for women unaccompanied by men, important since women shoppers were known to be fond of Chinese food. It’s not clear how long he was actively involved with King Yen but he was still an owner in 1907 when a Chinese envoy attended a formal dinner held there for the christening of Chin Foin’s infant son Theodore.

The King Joy restaurant on W. Randolph [pictured, ca. 1910] was a much bigger venture. It was a component of an international Chinese organization meant to raise funds for political and economic modernization in China. Investors included Chinese living in China and America as well as non-Chinese Chicagoans who supplied $125,000 [more than $3M today] to build the thoroughly modern restaurant. It opened in December of 1906 with Chin Foin as manager.

The investors in China must have heard that running restaurants in America was very profitable because little more than a year after the restaurant’s opening they began to complain about not receiving any dividends. I don’t know how all that was sorted out but clearly Chin Foin’s personal wealth was growing, enabling his family to move to a posh neighborhood in 1912. The newspaper reported he was a wealthy Yale graduate, which brought a grudging acceptance from a non-Chinese woman who said she could hardly object to a Chinese neighbor since, she observed, “We have Negroes out here now, and a few Goths and Visigoths.”

The very Americanized Chin Foin had ambitions of running a type of restaurant that was scarcely Chinese at all. After opening the Mandarin Inn in 1911 and the New Mandarin Inn in 1919 [pictured], both on South Wabash, he announced he had taken a 25-year lease on a Wilson Avenue property formerly occupied by a car dealer. To be called the Mandarin Gardens, the restaurant was supposed to open in 1921 but never did as far as I can tell. Reflecting on the upward arc of his restaurant career, he said in 1920, “Now we’ve cut out the far east features and operate a strictly American restaurant, and that’s what the Mandarin Gardens will be.”

The New Mandarin Inn had also shed some of its Chinese-ness. Since its opening in 1911 it had broken with Chinese restaurant tradition by using linens on the tables and serving European wines. Although it served Chinese dishes, it also offered Sunday chicken dinners and, in 1921, served a high-priced Easter dinner with choices such as Blue Points on the Half Shell, New Orleans Gumbo, Lamb with Mint Jelly, Whipped Potatoes, and Strawberry Shortcake.

Sadly, Chin Foin’s plans were abruptly terminated in 1924 when he stepped into an empty elevator shaft at the New Mandarin Inn. The subsequent owner of that restaurant, Don Joy, added “Chinese” features such as dragons on the front and a simulated temple roof. Don Joy’s Mandarin Inn closed in 1928, later to become a nightclub (Club Royale) and, eventually in 1959, Jimmy Wong’s Cantonese restaurant. The building occupied by King Yen was razed in the teens for a new location of the John R. Thompson’s lunchroom chain, while King Joy became the Rialto Gardens (Chinese), and then one of Dario Toffenetti’s cafeterias.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Early chains: John R. Thompson

Although it is largely forgotten today, the Chicago-based John R. Thompson company was one of the largest “one arm” lunchroom chains of the early 20th century. We so strongly associate fast food chains with hamburgers that it may be surprising to learn that Thompson’s popular sandwiches included Cervelat, smoked boiled tongue, cold boiled ham, hot frankfurter, cold corned beef, cold salmon, and Herkimer County cheese, served on “Milwaukee Rye Bread” baked by the chain’s bakery. Thompson was proud that his meals were suited for sedentary office workers of the 1900s and 1910s. A 1911 advertisement claimed that lunch at Thompson’s “won’t leave you logy and lazy and dull this afternoon.”

Thompson, an Illinois farm boy, ran a rural general store as his first business. He sold it in 1891, moved to Chicago, and opened a restaurant on State Street. He proved to be a modernizer in the restaurant business as well as in politics.

He operated his restaurants on a “scientific” basis, stressing cleanliness, nutrition, and quality while keeping prices low. In 1912 he moved the chain’s commissary into a premier new building on North Clark Street (pictured, today). Thompson’s, then with 68 self-service lunchrooms plus a chain of grocery stores, became a public corporation in 1914, after which it expanded outside Chicago and into Canada. By 1921 there were 109 restaurants, 49 of which were in Chicago and 11 in New York (with a commissary in NYC). By the mid-1920s Thompson’s, Childs, and Waldorf Lunch were the big three U.S. chains, small by comparison to McDonald’s but significant nevertheless.

In politics Thompson served as a Republican committeeman and managed the campaign of a “good government” gubernatorial candidate in 1904. A few years later he failed in his own bid to run for mayor, promising he would bring efficiency to government while improving schools and roads. In the 1920s he financed a personal crusade against handguns.

Despite John R. Thompson’s progressive politics, his business would go down in history as one that refused to serve Afro-Americans. Or, as civil rights leader Marvin Caplan put it in 1985, “If the chain is remembered today, it is not for its food, but for its refusal to serve it.” J. R. died in 1927. Where he stood on the question of public accommodations is unclear but the chain faced numerous lawsuits by blacks in the 1930s. However the best known case occurred in 1950 when a group of integrationists led by Mary Church Terrell was refused service in a Washington D.C. Thompson’s. The group was looking for a case that would test the validity of the district’s 19th-century public accommodations laws. After three years in the courts the Thompson case (for which the Washington Restaurant Association raised defense funds) made its way to the Supreme Court which affirmed the so-called “lost” anti-discrimination laws of 1872 and 1873 as valid.

Over the years the Thompson chain absorbed others, including Henrici’s and Raklios. At some point, possibly in the 1950s, the original Thompson’s concept was dropped. By 1956 Thompson’s operated Holloway House and Ontra cafeterias. In 1971, as Green Giant prepared to buy Thompson’s, it had about 100 restaurants, including Red Balloon family restaurants, Henrici’s restaurants, and Little Red Hen Chicken outlets.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Mary Alletta Crump

Because she ran a tea room, Mary Alletta “Crumpey” Crump (pictured, age 31) actually would not have called herself a restaurateur. She made a distinction between a tea room and a restaurant: the former served light food, mainly lunch and afternoon tea, while a restaurant served heavy food and was open for dinner. Not so The Crumperie. It served sandwiches, salads, soup, and desserts only. At 6 P.M. she and her partner, her mother “Bee,” shut down for the day. (M. Alletta, as she signed herself, advised prospective tea room operators in 1922 that “a mother or older person is a great asset to a young girl who is contemplating the opening of a tea room.”)

The two opened their first Greenwich Village Crumperie in 1917 (pictured), taking over the spot formerly occupied by photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals’ tea room and art gallery. Sharing the other half of the building at 6½ Sheridan Square with The Crumperie was a gift shop known as The Treasure Chest. By the time Crumpey’s mother passed away in 1926, The Crumperie had occupied five locations in the Village, first moving to Sheridan & Grove, then to the basement of 55 Christopher Street, then to 229 West 4th Street, and finally to 104 Washington Street. She would make one more — unsuccessful — attempt at running a Crumperie after her mother’s death, teaming up with Marie Saint Gaudens (niece of sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens), at 13 West 51st Street in 1927. After this she abandoned the tea room business.

She and her mother opened the first Crumperie on a shoe string, spending only $100 for the first month’s rent plus all the furnishings and equipment. Start simple, that was their motto. Crumpey decorated with odds and ends: tables and chairs she painted herself, illustrations from magazines, a discarded old settle, family quilts, and table runners made from dime store toweling. Her mother did the cooking, specializing in crumpets of course, but also offering pea soup, “crumpled” eggs, and peanut butter sandwiches. Beverages included tea, coffee, and chocolate — nothing alcoholic!

The various Greenwich Village Crumperies were gathering places for New York City artists, musicians, literary figures, and actors with the Providence Players. The tea rooms were frequented by singer Enrico Caruso, artist Tony Sarg, and writers Theodore Dreiser, Eugene O’Neill, Sinclair Lewis, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Writer and editor Christopher Morley steered his “Three Hours for Lunch” club to the Crumperie, though how they could have stretched out a meal there for that long I don’t know.

During and after her years in the food business, M. Alletta volunteered for war work, entertaining the troops in England with her ukulele playing during WWI (she also sang spirituals and folk songs in the tea room). After 1927 she apparently had a variety of jobs. She had studied at Smith College and trained to become a nurse before opening The Crumperie and may have returned to teaching or nursing. She taught a tea room management class in Brooklyn and worked for a time at the Grenfell Mission in Labrador. In 1958 she made five appearances on the TV quiz show “The $64,000 Question,” winning $16,000 which she used to fund a European trip.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Joel’s bohemian refreshery

Joel Rinaldo’s was one of the all-night eating and drinking places that thrived around Times Square in New York before the First World War. “Refreshery” was an unusual term that probably related more to drinking than to eating since saloon owners often referred to their offerings as “refreshments.”

Exactly when Joel’s opened is unclear but chances are it was in the late 1890s. The real estate parcel at 206 West 41st Street that became Joel’s was part of his father’s estate when he died in 1895.

Looking at these 1910-ish postcards of Joel’s you might be misled into thinking it was an elegant after-theatre spot. It attracted all kinds of late-night visitors but was mainly famous as a hangout for musicians, artists, writers, heavy drinkers, “hop-heads,” and Mexican revolutionaries. In 1910 the restaurant was the headquarters of the Mexican Liberal Party opposed to the presidency of General Porfirio Diaz. The short story writer O. Henry was a regular also, though he may have spent more time drinking in the first-floor bar than eating in the café on the second floor. It is likely that El Refugio, a café described in O. Henry’s short story “The Gold That Glittered,” was based on Joel’s.

One of the most popular dishes at Joel’s was chili con carne, a dish not easily found in New York in the early 20th century. He also served tamales and “frijoles colorado.” In addition to Mexican dishes, Joel concocted a drink that became famous – or, more likely, notorious — called a Blue Moon. Only one to a customer but that was enough reportedly to “keep the patron pleasantly mellow the rest of the evening.”

Joel’s walls were filled with drawings, which can be seen on in the image above. Some were by caricaturist Carlo de Fornaro who spent time in jail after being successfully sued by a Mexican official in NY courts for libelous statements Fornaro made in his book, Diaz, Czar of Mexico. Joel, born in NYC around 1870, also had intellectual ambitions, was attracted to psychology and philosophy, and wrote an obscure treatise against Darwin’s account of evolution called Rinaldo’s Polygeneric Theory.

Joel took a paternalistic role toward many of his patrons, keeping prices low and announcing on a gilt sign that touring actors and musicians (he was near the Metropolitan Opera House) could send him their money and he would keep it safe for them. It is said that many took him up on the offer. Perhaps his motive for keeping a bank was to insure that eventually he would get paid, to offset all the bad checks he took from his erratic patrons.

The interesting thing about bohemian places like Joel’s was how they loosened up a middle class still under the spell of Victorian correctness. After a few hours in a heady atmosphere like this and they’d be talking to strangers (without even being introduced!), singing out loud, and ordering drinks all around.

Joel’s closed in 1925, a casualty of Prohibition.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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