Tag Archives: 19th century

Catering

The catering business is closely related to restaurants, though many caterers work from a rented or home-based kitchen. Frequently caterers have been – and are — cooks or waiters; many later enter the restaurant business as proprietors. Then as now catering provides an important financial supplement to restaurants.

In the 18th and 19th centuries many coffee houses, taverns, eating houses, refectories, etc., not only catered to groups in their own banquet rooms or off-site, but also delivered food to homes and workplaces. Monsieur Lenzi, recently arrived in New York from London advertised in 1773 that he could provide jams, preserved fruits, pâtés, and “sugar plumbs” and could handle balls and masquerades as he had done in “most of the principal cities of Europe.” The early Delmonico café of the 1830s supplied meals to residents of a small hotel located next door on Broad street in New York.

Confectioners, who often ran eating places too, were especially likely to be in the catering business because, unlike many restaurant proprietors, they were skilled in turning out elegant cakes and ice cream. For most of the 19th century ice cream could only be obtained from a confectioner.

African-Americans were quite prominent in the catering business until the latter part of the 19th century. They could be found in Boston, Salem, New York, Washington, Baltimore, Charleston, and other cities along the East Coast, but especially in Philadelphia. Quite a few earned prestige catering to elite white patrons, often being referred to as “princes.” They were often rumored to have become quite wealthy.

According to W. E. B. DuBois in The Philadephia Negro (1899), “the triumvirate [Henry] Jones, [Thomas] Dorsey and [Henry] Minton ruled the fashionable world from 1845-1875.” Dorsey had been a slave, as had the celebrated caterer Joshua B. Smith, who was Boston’s top man in the field. At the opening of Smith’s new restaurant in 1867, the entire city government was present and former mayor Josiah Quincy gave a speech.

But despite the prominence and success of Black caterers, the fact that they served clients in high society, and the praise heaped upon them for their astute management and taste, they were still regarded as second-class citizens banned from public transportation in Philadelphia as well as theaters and cemeteries there and elsewhere.

According to the 1870 U.S. federal census, there were then about 154 caterers (undoubtedly an undercount), 129 of whom were born in the U.S. The majority of those born in this country whose race was identified were Black (56) or Mulatto (29). But by the end of the 19th century, Black caterers had become less numerous, with much catering having been taken over by the big hotels that by then were dominant in the field, particularly for large banquets.

Only two caterers identified in the 1870 census were women, both white. I feel certain, however, that many more women were caterers in the 19th century. Catering was common among women tea room proprietors of the early 20th century whose clients included civic organizations, women’s clubs, and wedding parties. Harriet Moody was a very successful caterer in Chicago of the 1890s, with a remarkable career that included opening a notable restaurant, Le Petit Gourmet, decades later when she was at an advanced age.

In addition to food, caterers usually supplied linens, china, and silver, as well as decorations, even when the dinner was held in a client’s home. In his book Catering for Private Parties, Jessup Whitehead explained that caterers obtained most of their linens and table ware at auctions, being careful not to acquire monogrammed pieces. A prized item was a large epergne which made a grand appearance on a table. Trenton NJ caterer Edmund Hill spent a good deal of time traveling to other cities to keep up with the latest trends in his field. He recorded in his diary on September 26, 1883: “Went to Wilmington, Del. to see about a Vienna Bread baker. Did not get him. Stopped in Phila on way home. Bought a silver epergne $20.00.”

Hotel catering, with its backstage mishaps, staffs of curious characters, and endless haggling over costs and contracts was described with humor by Ludwig Bemelmans who worked as a busboy at the fictitiously named New York “Hotel Splendide” before World War I. In the book Life Class (1938) he described how a group of well-bred but penniless blue bloods bargained for reduced rates based on their status and decrepitude, while accepting a simple supper menu of nothing but consommé and scrambled eggs.

After World War II catering continued on as before, distributed among hotels, restaurants, and independent caterers, the main change being the incorporation of frozen convenience canapes and better equipped kitchens to simplify and speed up the work. Some restaurants, and especially deli restaurants, such as Wolfie’s in St. Pete FL, offered party platters. By then large hotel banquets tended to lose their appeal for many people who had experienced too much Chicken a la King. Thanks to glittering parties thrown by Hollywood stars, it become clear that status accrued to the host or hostess who hired a famed restaurant’s celebrity chef to present novelties that piqued guests’ interest.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Dining in a garden

Pleasure gardens of the 18th and early 19th centuries, sometimes called tea or mead gardens, typically opened on May 1 and offered relief from summer heat. Garden dining could be as simple as a tent in the back yard of an eating place or as elaborate as a larger garden with walkways, fruit trees, and arbors. A Philadelphia tea garden of 1798 furnished “tables, benches, boxes, bowers, etc.” The “etc.” might have included colored lights, or even small rustic cabins.

Garden guests ranged from families and young couples to “gentlemen farming parties.” In many of the gardens, menus were limited to delicacies such as ice cream, confectionery, lemonade, iced drinks, teas and coffees, and of course wines and liquors.

But others served more substantial food that fell under the heading “relishes.” Today relishes are condiments but then the word referred to a wide range of hot or cold edibles, including steaks and chops, oysters, rarebits, poached eggs, omelets, kidneys, sardines, anchovies, sandwiches, savory patties, tripe, pigs’ feet, and soup. Relishes tended to be salty, no doubt to encourage drinking, and were usually “available any time.”

The early 19th-century gardens were meant to attract genteel folks, though I’ve run across a couple of advertisements suggesting it wasn’t so easy to discourage problem guests. The owner of a garden in Wilmington DE advertised in 1803 that he was opening his “elegant Mead and Flower Garden” for those who would “observe the strictest order and decorum” and not “injure his garden or molest his flowers.” Nicholas Pierson, in 1827, was evidently concerned that unaccompanied women (understood to be prostitutes) would want to enter his mead garden.

Unlike other drinking places, gardens were acceptable for women (if escorted). According to one report, mead — a sweet concoction of fermented honey and spices — was one of their favorite drinks. Mead gardens were more popular before the temperance movement took hold in the 1830s.

Tea and mead gardens were fading when German beer gardens appeared on the scene in the 1850s and 1860s, usually consisting of rows of tables in an open air setting amidst groves of trees, but not really a garden — and not usually providing food.

Dining in a garden once again became popular in the early 1900s, only now, in addition to outdoor gardens such as New York’s Terrace Garden and others on the roofs of tall buildings, there were many indoors, making them available year round. Natural touches included pendulous boughs draped from ceiling lattices, burbling fountains, potted palm fronds that threatened to tickle guests’ necks, and sometimes blue-painted ceilings twinkling with tiny stars.

Department stores adopted garden motifs as did tea rooms where one could dine in an actual garden or, in rural New England, on the front lawn of the proprietor’s home. Tea rooms that chose a garden theme for indoors leaned heavily toward a Japanese style invoked rather simply with flower-strewn trellises and a bit of wicker or paper lanterns, as did Schrafft’s in Syracuse NY and the tea room at the Vantine store in NYC [above photo, 1906]. Actual Asian restaurants, on the other hand, were likely to include the word garden in their name, but that did not necessarily imply they had an actual garden.

Undoubtedly, one of the most flamboyant indoor garden restaurants was Clifton’s “Pacific Seas” Cafeteria in Los Angeles [pictured]. Indoor palm trees are always impressive, as are neon flowers, multiple waterfalls (12), and volcanic rock. Clifton’s was but one of the many restaurants with indoor gardens that proved eye-catching yet less than totally convincing in terms of their relation to nature. [below, Stouffer’s Top of the Mart, Atlanta]

Today a restaurant garden, while in many cases still a popular place to eat in nice weather, is as likely to be a place where vegetables or herbs are grown and harvested.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Cooking with gas

stoveposterstampsAs part of my research into how restaurants worked in past times, I’ve looked into their cooking methods, in particular the kind of fuel they used. Like all nuts and bolts questions, it has been difficult to nail down.

stove1879NewHavenI wondered when public eating places began to switch from wood and coal to a more modern fuel such as gas. In the 19th century and well into the 20th, “artificial” gas was manufactured by heating coal. Gaslights were available as early as the mid-1810s in some places, and the first patent for a gas stove was given in the 1820s, but cooking with gas was rare, and didn’t occur in any public eating places that I could find.

At least 50 urban areas had gas works making gas by 1850. In that decade a number of patents were granted for gas cooking stoves. Stoves were marketed for domestic use, but there is evidence that some commercial users were interested in them too. In 1853 the Astor House in New York City experimented with gas cooking by roasting a turkey. In 1855 a manager of the National Hotel in Washington, D.C., applied for a patent for a gas stove. By the late 1850s Shaw’s Gaslight Cook Stove was available. It could be attached to a gas line with a hard rubber tube and was described as useful in restaurants, especially in the summer because “the heat arising from it is scarcely perceptible.”

But coal remained the fuel most often used in restaurant and hotel kitchens for most of the 19th century and even into the 20th – despite its drawbacks. Roger Horowitz described in his book Putting Meat on the American Table how difficult cooking with coal could be, particularly for baking and roasting. Not only was the cook unable to see what was happening but also, he wrote: “The fire had to be monitored carefully, as opening the ‘drafts’ to admit oxygen could lead coals to burn too fast, but limiting the drafts too much made it hard to reach good cooking temperatures. As coal was slow and difficult to light, enough had to be introduced to supply sufficient temperatures and cooking duration; on the other hand, putting in too much coal could burn the meat or even damage the stove by overheating the fire box.”

stovekitchenDaly'sRestCoalRange1916MCNYA vivid picture of how coal stoves operated was painted by a NYT story in 1903. The reporter visited a large hotel with a battery of over 20 stoves lined up in a row. The heat was overpowering and it took four or five “firemen” to stoke the stoves so that the heat never flagged. The fires needed to be rebuilt about three times a day and two of the stoves were kept going at all times in case the kitchen received an order. Of course kitchens became dirty [see photo from 1916] and quantities of ashes had to be hauled out.

StoveADV1910TheChef

Whatever the shortcomings of coal, it would appear that most chefs preferred it, especially when grilling meat. Although a New Haven CT stove company advertised gas as “the fuel of the future” in 1879 [see above], it would remain merely a concept in professional kitchens for some time. Far more kitchens used French-inspired coal stoves such as those sold by the Duparquet company [pictured, 1910] or  manufactured in San Francisco by the John S. Ils company. Delmonico’s adopted gas ranges but Chef Charles Ranhöfer announced in 1894 that he was going to have gas removed from the restaurant’s kitchen. He much preferred to cook with house-made charcoal. The Waldorf tried electric ranges but rejected them after a few weeks. Only a few chefs interviewed in a NYT story spoke up for gas, though the Hoffman House’s chef G. N. Nouvel overcame his reluctance and adopted gas in 1895, doing away with the problem of “having fires ready and just right.” He predicted its use would become universal in hotels and restaurants “sooner or later.”

stoveschrafft'skitchen1938The use of professional gas stoves advanced somewhat during World War I when coal prices went up. In New York City, the Consolidated Gas Company reported that it had replaced coal stoves in a large number of professional kitchens within a two-week period in 1917. The Hotel Knickerbocker’s three kitchens took out all coal-burning appliances, replacing them with 84 feet of gas ranges, nine salamanders, three broilers, and a number of smaller gas appliances. Healy’s, Browne’s, and Pabst’s were a few of the restaurants that got rid of coal and installed five or more sections of gas ranges. Similar events were taking place in Boston’s large kitchens. [see Schrafft’s modern gas kitchen, 1938, when NYC still depended on manufactured gas]

Though it was available in certain areas sooner (Pittsburgh was the center of the industry in the 1880s), natural gas made its debut through much of the United States in the 1920s, encouraging its  use in restaurants. It arrived in San Francisco in 1929, at a price lower than manufactured gas; in 1930 a survey revealed that gas was the main fuel for restaurant cooking in San Francisco, with coal a distant second. Electricity was commonly used for smaller appliances such as coffee urns, toasters, and waffle irons.

stoveAncestrySantaCruz1937In the 1930s, two periodicals came out dedicated to the use of gas and electricity in restaurant and institutional kitchens. Cooking for Profit was launched in1932 by Gas Magazines, Inc., and Food Service, published by Electrical Information Publications, began in 1938. Both were filled with stories and advertisements for their respective energy sources and appliances, including Vulcan, Garland, and Hotpoint ranges. Stories in Food Service hailed restaurants and chains with all-electric kitchens such as the B&W Cafeteria in Nashville, while Cooking for Profit championed gas users such as the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia and the Nation of Islam’s Salaam restaurant in Chicago.

Natural gas was slow to arrive everywhere, including some large cities. New York City, Philadelphia, Boston and the rest of New England, Portland OR, Spokane and Seattle WA, Wisconsin, and Florida were not served with natural gas until after World War II, no doubt delaying the broad adoption of gas appliances in those places.

stovekitchencharcoalbroil41sfToday, most restaurants have both gas ranges and a variety of electric cooking devices, and perhaps a charcoal broiler too [pictured]. Might there even be a few chefs who swear by coal?

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Famous in its day: Partridge’s

partridgesTradeCardI began this post intending to present some of the history of Partridge’s restaurant that is advertised on many Victorian trade cards of the 1870s and 1880s, such as the one shown above. Despite their age, many of the cards still exist; those in this post are only a few of over a dozen different designs I’ve seen.

As is often the case, sorting out the story of that restaurant became harder the more I learned. In fact, the two restaurants on 8th street, operated by Edward Partridge and his son E. Frank Partridge, turned out to be only part of the story.

partridge'sdoubleIn the Philadelphia city directory of 1858 there are five different Partridges operating restaurants, Edward not included. At that time Edward apparently was a seller of cheeses in the city’s food market on the corner of Fourth and Market. He also sold “Cakes, Pies, and Beverages, such as will suit the most delicate and fastidious taste.” I suspect that most of the Partridges were related and had come from Medway in Massachusetts, but haven’t been able to substantiate this.

In 1862 or 1863 Edward moved to North Eighth street near Filbert and opened a restaurant in the heart of the shopping district. It occupied several stories, with a ladies’ dining parlor seating 100 on the second floor. In the early 1880s it acquired a fancy ceiling of Lincrusta wallpaper that mimicked molded decorations of game and fruit. It became one of the city’s best known first-class restaurants, serving three meals a day as well as catering weddings, receptions, and large parties on and off the premises. It also specialized in fancy cakes, ice-creams, and ices. Edward was a generous benefactor to his Presbyterian church, so I seriously doubt that alcoholic drinks were served at his restaurant.

partridges947Partridge’s was not a luxury restaurant but a respectable full-service restaurant with moderate prices and no French on the menu. In the second half of the 19th century American cities large and small had at least one such restaurant and Philadelphia undoubtedly had quite a few. In almost all respects it was nearly identical to Thomas Hill’s in Trenton NJ and Barr’s in Springfield MA.

partridges948As the back of this trade card states, Partridge’s was proud of its drinkable water, at a time when public water could not be trusted. A story in the Public Ledger said that the restaurant displayed two bottles of water in its windows, “one as clear as crystal, the other the color of weak coffee, due to the mud held in suspension in it.” The crystal-clear bottle, of course, held filtered water that Partridge’s served, the other water came directly out of the tap.

In 1893, the restaurant established by Charles D. Partridge, which had long operated in the old Eastern and Farmers’ Markets, opened as the Reading Terminal Restaurant, in a space attached to the new Reading Terminal Market. Charles, who may have been Edward’s brother, had died in 1877 and his restaurant was taken over by a longtime employee yet it retained the company name of C. D. Partridge & Co. (In much the same way, Frank Partridge retained the name Partridge & Son after his father’s death in 1896.)

When Edward died in 1896, no one knew that disaster was about to strike his landmark restaurant on North Eighth. On the day before Thanksgiving in 1899, a fire started in the neighboring Bee Hive dry goods store, aka Partridge & Richardson (co-owned by yet another Partridge). The massive fire swept through the block, destroying Partridge & Richardson, Strawbridge & Clothier, the J. B. Lippincott publishing offices, Partridge’s restaurant, and numerous other businesses.

partridgesJuly1900ADVPartridge’s restaurant was rebuilt on Market Street in “elaborate Renaissance style,” opening in July of 1900. But less than a year later Frank Partridge died, and his widow closed the restaurant a short time later. The like-new fixtures and furnishings, including electric chandeliers, Wilton carpets, and French mirrors, were sold at auction in 1902.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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High-volume restaurants: Crook & Duff (etc.)

crook&nashADV1875Luxury restaurants are more likely to become memorialized by time, but often ordinary restaurants have a history that is equally rich and played a more significant role in the everyday functioning of society.

That was certainly true of a restaurant that opened in New York City’s “Newspaper Row” in 1858 under the name of its two proprietors, Crook & Duff. The popular restaurant persisted until at least 1906 under nine different names and with four different addresses. It was considered not only a fine place to eat — “a marvel of gastronomic entertainment” – but also a depot where ideas were exchanged.

crookNYT1874Proprietor John Crook was already an old hand in the restaurant business by 1858, having learned the business from his uncle who ran an eating stand in Fulton Market. Crook then went into business with a brother, and next ran several places on his own before he and theatrical manager John Duff opened a restaurant in the newly constructed New York Times building on Park Row. [Unfortunately no signs for the restaurant are visible in the 1874 photograph shown above.] It was an excellent location since City Hall, the main Post Office, a new court building, and many newspaper and periodical offices were located close by. Journalists and printers especially, with their odd hours and relative freedom to roam the city, were frequent patrons of eating and drinking places such as Crook & Duff, aka Crook, Fox & Duff; Crook, Fox & Nash; Nash & Fuller; Nash & Crook; Nash & Brush; George S. Brush; Brush & Foy; and Foy & Crook.

The people of prominence who ate at Crook & Duff and its successors were numerous, many of them lawyers, journalists, business men, and political figures. Feminist publishers of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, were frequent patrons in the 1870s – probably eating in a room reserved for ladies (assuming they found  that acceptable). The restaurant was popular with women clerical workers in the 1880s when their numbers were on the increase.

The restaurant remained in the Times building, occupying the basement and much of the first floor for thirty years, while doing business under five different names, the best known and longest lasting being Nash & Crook. In 1888 it moved a short distance to 16 Park Place.

Nash & Crook (etc.) was known for good food, reasonable prices, and fast, expert service. Broiled oysters and corned beef hash were specialties. Fruits and vegetables came from the Oneida Community, a religious commune in upstate New York. The bar did a brisk business in gin slings and brandy smashes, especially during election season.

crook&NashSept51870Serving food from early morning until late at night, the restaurant was a high-volume business, dishing out up to 2,000 mid-day meals daily. In 1870 it claimed to have the largest dining room in the U.S. The lunch counter was 60 feet long. Even so, from noon to 3 p.m. it would often become so crowded that customers would stand and eat from plates in their hands. Many customers were regulars, including men who took all their meals there – and only there – for decades.

Reputedly it was the second restaurant in New York City to hire African-American waiters. During the Civil War draft riots of July 1863 when white mobs attacked Black men, the restaurant sheltered its staff in the basement. Many of the staff from both races were long-term employees. A Black waiter, John Thomas Cooper, worked at the restaurant from 1859 until his death in 1893, becoming a favorite for his sense of humor.

As late as 1927 a letter to the editor of the New York Times mourned the loss of Nash & Crook’s corned-beef hash.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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At the sign of the . . .

TavernsignsWalker'sTavernEarleTaverns and inns of the Colonial and Early American eras were ancestors to hotels, providing the all-important trio of beds, food, and alcoholic drinks. But they also supplied inspiration to eating places in later centuries, particularly tea rooms and, to a lesser extent, steak houses.

One of the most prominent features of taverns were their signboards. Borrowed from England and Europe, they depicted images of military heroes, courtly symbols, and local landmarks, with names to match. Animals of various colors were especially popular such as the White Swan, the Golden Horse, the Black Bear, or the Red Lion.

TavernsignsCTOldLion

Taverns actually had dual names, the proprietor’s and that of the image on the sign. Signs were linked to a place. Proprietors might move from tavern to tavern but signs stayed where they were. For example, a Boston tavern keeper of the 1760s named Francis Warden advertised that he kept a “public house of entertainment” at the sign of the Green Dragon. Earlier he had been at the Blue Anchor.

Tavern signs have often been admired for their originality, but even in the 18th century they were stereotyped. Artists who painted them often advertised that they had a stock of signs on hand and ready to go except for the lettering. This undoubtedly accounts for the many taverns called The White Horse, The Beehive [illustrated above], The Three Crowns, or The Bunch of Grapes.

tavernsigns1784NYCBy the start of the 19th century the reign of taverns was slowly coming to an end and being replaced by larger hotels. The decline of the tavern was hastened by the temperance movement in the 1830s and 1840s which saw them as dens of iniquity. A temperance advocate suggested tavern signs should bear truthful names such as “The Widow and Orphans Manufactory” or “The New England Rum Pit.” As towns outlawed the sale of liquor, many old tavern signs were pulled down and replaced with signs saying Temperance Hotel.

As taverns declined, nostalgia began to develop for their Days of Olde when jolly hosts greeted guests and ushered them inside to sip hot toddies at the fireplace. Books and newspaper stories appeared describing quaint tavern signs and names of yesteryear. Historical societies became interested in preserving the increasingly scarce old signs. A Boston lodge of the Masons fraternal organization which had been founded in The Bunch of Grapes acquired two of the four carved wooden bunches in 1883 and locked them away in a steel vault. A collector in Pennsylvania treasured a sign he discovered in the 1890s that had been painted in 1771 by famous English artist Benjamin West.

TavernSignsold100TeaRoomWomen, particularly those New Englanders who could trace their ancestry to Colonial times, became supporters of the preservation of American antiquities. Newly possible car travel encouraged them to explore former taverns in the countryside. Next they began to open tea rooms that celebrated Early America, many with names and signs from tavern days. It was as though taverns had returned, clean, ultra-respectable and without liquor and drunkenness. Tea, after all, was known as “the cup that cheers but does not inebriate.”

tavernsignstabbycatwenhamMAOne feature that did not survive was the political statement tavern signs had made back in the days when their keepers sided either with the British crown or the rebellious patriots. Another oddity was how many tea rooms adopted names that incorporated the words “At the Sign of” – preceding “the Green Kettle,” “the Golden Robin,” etc. Where a tavern of 1800 advertised it could be found “At the Sign of the Seven Stars,” a 20th-century tea room, had it used the same style of advertising, would have had to say it was “At the Sign of At the Sign of the Seven Stars.” The sign of At the sign of The Tea-Kettle and Tabby Cat adorned a tea room in Wenham MA.

tavernsignscornishNH858

The sign for the Tea Tray, a tea room in Cornish NH, was painted by Maxfield Parrish and shows much more detail than old tavern signs would have included.

In the 1960s and 1970s some steak houses also adopted a tavern theme, with names such as Steak & Ale, Bird & Bottle, or Cork & Cleaver, but only as a superficial concept that did not include revival of old-fashioned signboards.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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See it, want it: window food displays

windowDisplayofmeat

To the degree that restaurants are about theater, food is one of the starring players. Putting it on stage has long been considered a way to sell it.

There are many opportunities to display food, one of them being the simple delivery of an attractive plate to a neighboring table. But there are also buffets, cafeteria shelves, dessert carts, flaming swords, etc., all of which have been featured or will appear as posts on this blog.

There are also several ways to attract potential customers passing along the street. One of the oldest, popular in the 19th century, was to string up game near the front door. Today that would probably be guaranteed to drive people away, but men of the 19th century responded positively. The Shakspeare Saloon in 1847 New York lured judges, lawyers, merchants, and men about town by displaying “a splendid buck, a couple of bear hams, haunches of mutton, . . . fatted capons as large as turkeys, . . . glittering fish and sirloin steaks marbled with fat.”

windowdisplayThe Shakspeare was below street level as were many eateries of the early 19th century. But as more eating places moved above ground, fitted out with windows that grew ever larger as the century proceeded, new display possibilities arose. In 1868 French rotisserie restaurants in San Francisco decorated their windows with marbled beef, vegetables, and live frogs in glass globes, displays that might have resembled the one portrayed in the 1880s trade card shown here. In it a woman gazes at fruit, as was appropriate for her gender. An article advised that women’s restaurants tempted the fair sex by fruit and delicate pastries, while “Meats are never shown, and the suggestion of anything so gross is studiously avoided. This is left to the restaurants patronized by men, who are supposed to find a stronger appeal in more solid and healthier food.”

And so meat and fish were especially popular to put on display. Up until the mid-20th century they might still have been on ice but increasingly they were displayed in refrigerated cases. Ice and refrigeration showed respect for the food, balancing two of restaurants’ prime virtues: a sense of extravagant plenty, communicated by large amounts of fine food, and a sense of order, demonstrated by methods that insured freshness.

Some restaurants placed in their windows food that had been frozen inside a large block of ice. Imagine two shad, each with a lemon in its mouth, that appeared to be swimming toward the bottom of the block, forming a V, with a red lobster between them. Or the 20-pound pig encased in ice by “gourmet artist” and restaurateur George Pundt that made such a hit with people passing the Parlor Restaurant in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1897.

windowfoodfakeonionringsAlong with meat, anything that was overlarge or brightly colored might appear in a window. Big yellow squash, pumpkins, melons, decorated cakes. Chicago’s Toffenetti’s piled up its much ballyhooed Idaho potatoes in the 1940s.

Despite the spectacular effects that could be attained with displays, there were also risks involved. As early as 1886 an article noted that “really first-class restaurants” did not engage in window displays. The pots of baked beans found in New York’s Bowery restaurants were proof, as was the “tired display of sliced tomatoes” placed in the smeared window of an eatery whose location was home to one failed business after another. In the 1920s a Niagara Falls cafeteria owner observed that he avoided putting food in windows because picky patrons felt that “sooner or later, they, as patrons of the restaurant, will have to eat that ‘window’ food” and so they tended to shun restaurants with food displays.

windowfoodfakesoupIt’s hard to pinpoint when window food displays began to wane. A Seattle newspaper columnist declared in 1965 that the city’s old-time Olympia Café was the last to feature refrigerated steaks in its windows. I can’t recall seeing real food in restaurant windows for the past several decades. Today food shown in restaurant windows is likely to be artificial. Japan, perhaps the biggest user of window food displays, specializes in making the most realistic and highest quality items. They don’t make me hungry, yet the collector in me wants to acquire the fake food for my collection.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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