Tag Archives: beer

Sawdust on the floor

Reformers of the 1910s would not have believed anyone who predicted that sawdust floors would make a comeback later in the century. But come back they did.

In the early 20th century, sawdust floors were seen as a vestige of disappearing filthy low-class eating places. Earlier they had been found in a great variety of places – English chop houses, French bistros, German, Italian, and Chinese restaurants, and saloons of every kind. In New York sawdust dealers of the 1880s made daily rounds selling 25-cent barrels to restaurants, saloons, and butcher shops (where sawdust collected blood).

But things were starting to change in the early 1900s as chains of sanitary lunch rooms with scrubbed white tile floors and walls became popular. In 1911, the Edison Monthly – a magazine devoted to promoting the use of bright lighting – confidently declared, “The old hole-in-the-wall lunch room, with its flickering lights, its smoky atmosphere, its greasy walls and sawdust carpeted floor, is a thing of the past.”

City health departments warned that cheap lunch rooms of the old sort rarely replaced sawdust, often covering one dirty layer with another and rarely cleaning the wood flooring below.

Concern with sanitation caused many municipalities to adopt ordinances forbidding the use of sawdust on floors anyplace food was produced or sold. San Antonio’s 1914 ordinance was typical, stating, “No person owning or managing any such business shall permit the use of sawdust, shavings, or other dust-creating or filth-collecting covering on the floor of any such room.”

Nonetheless sawdust had a strange appeal at the same time it was denounced as brimming with bacteria and vermin. Visitors to San Francisco were drawn to places such as Sanguinetti’s where they could earn cultural credits back home for inhaling its wild and crazy bohemian atmosphere. As a 1906 article put it, “No tourist could feel that he had really taken in all the sights of the city until he had sat at one of its tables and eaten of the very indifferent fare served there, and dropped his cigar ashes on the sawdust covered floor.”

And that was another thing about sawdust floors – they tended to catch on fire when cigar and cigarette butts were dropped on them.

Through the decades sawdust floors acquired strong associations with beef and beer – and male patrons. These associations formed a reservoir of meaning that theme restaurants of the future were destined to draw upon.

Steak houses were especially attracted to the winning beef-beer-men combination. The first inklings of sawdust’s return came with the legalization of beer in 1933. The Palm steak house in Manhattan, a man’s restaurant frequented by newspapermen, was one to use it. Steak houses were so strongly associated with men that it was newsworthy in 1947 when a woman restaurateur departed from their standard rough-edged ambiance which she characterized as “A smoke-filled room, too-bright lights and sawdust on the floor.” In order to please women customers, she instead chose oak paneling, sound-proofed ceilings, soft lighting, and window boxes with green plants.

Unsurprisingly, she did not start a trend. By the 1960s, if not earlier, the bad old days had been transformed into cheery “bygone days” when life was truer and simpler. Americans of the era hungered for amusement with their meat. “Historic decor, the chef who cooks his steaks on a bed spring or an anvil, and the place where ‘famous people dine there’ . . . all offer that ‘something extra’ a man needs to draw him out,” observed industry consultant George Wenzel, who also recommended sawdust floors.

Restaurants with sawdust floors proliferated, many adopting other nostalgic (might we say hackneyed?) decor features such as red-checkered tablecloths, gas lights, pseudo-Tiffany lamps, pot-bellied stoves, and elaborate dark wood bars. O’Henry’s in NYC used a “fun” butcher shop theme, with real carcass hooks hanging from the ceiling and butcher blocks for tables. In Phoenix AZ the notion of a “hole in the wall” was redeemed from the ash pit of history by a 1970s resort where everything in sight was designed to appeal to men. At the resort’s café named The Hole in the Wall there was sawdust on the floor, tintypes on the wall, fires in the fireplaces, mugs of beer, and a manly menu of beef and buffalo steaks, rattlesnake meat, “cowboy beans,” and corn on the cob.

Along with steak houses, versatile sawdust floors turned up at Gay Nineties restaurants, English pubs, Wild West eateries, barbecue joints, even Mexican restaurants.

It’s hard to figure just how many states and municipalities issued ordinances prohibiting sawdust floors. In 1976 the federal Food and Drug Administration banned sawdust in restaurants, yet the ban was not universally followed. Sawdust floors were permitted in San Francisco, but not in Washington, D.C., for instance. Some restaurant owners strenuously resisted health departments that advocated for a ban. In Arizona, the battle over sawdust became intense when state and county health departments cracked down on several dozen restaurants in Phoenix. The restaurants countered that they replaced sawdust daily and had never experienced problems with patrons becoming ill.

Today? I believe that restaurants are not allowed to use sawdust on the floors in the U.S. today – but I am not 100% sure about this. It seems that patrons who still long for that kind of atmosphere must content themselves with throwing peanut shells on the floor.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Find of the day: Iffland’s Hofbrau-Haus

Iffland'sPC

Summer is the season for flea markets. A day at Brimfield this week yielded few thrills, unfortunately, yet I did find this interesting postcard of a Newark NJ restaurant.

iffland'sjohnIffland1893Iffland’s was established on Market street in Newark in 1867, just one year after John Iffland immigrated from Germany at the age of 25. [He is pictured here at about 51.] A few years later he moved to 187 Market, the location shown on the postcard.

Many of his patrons were businessmen, possibly of German heritage. Newark had a large German population. It also had many breweries, most of them run by German-Americans. Undoubtedly he served local beer, but he also imported beer from Germany. In the 1880s, when his business seemed to be more saloon than restaurant, Iffland ran advertisements in the German-language newspaper New Jersey Deutsche Zeitung announcing that he was serving beer imported from Munich. He also imported Salvator, a strong beer created to fortify those fasting during Lent.

It’s quite likely that by the time the postcard was produced, probably ca. 1910, John Iffland had retired and turned the business over to his two sons, Henry and John Jr. Perhaps it was they who installed the restaurant’s “beef-steak garret,” taking advantage of the popular fad for groups of men to hold dinners where they bonded while drinking beer and eating steaks with their bare hands. Possibly the restaurant’s kitchen was located in the basement, explaining why Iffland’s had a beefsteak garret rather than the typical “beefsteak dungeon” or “den” in an ominous looking cellar.

John Iffland died in 1917 and the business closed about that same time, allegedly because anti-German sentiment occasioned by the country’s entry into World War I on the side of the Allies against Germany, along with the impossibility of importing beer from Germany, had made it unprofitable.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Lunch and a beer

It won’t come as a surprise to learn that the free lunch wasn’t really free. As everyone knows the patron of a saloon had to buy a beer or some other sort of drink in order to partake of whatever edibles the proprietor had to offer. What might be news, though, is that it wasn’t exactly what we would call lunch nowadays. It was more of a snack eaten between meals, sometimes around noontime, sometimes not.

Although the standard free-lunch time began at 11:00 a.m. through much of the 19th century, some saloon keepers put out a spread as early as 9:00 in the morning, hours after most working people had their breakfasts. Or it might be at night – a kind of happy hour. At some saloons lunch on the house was provided every day, but at others it was more of a special occasion celebrating a grand opening, holiday, or proprietor’s birthday.

The dishes did not conform to our modern idea of a snack. In early June of 1872 the owner of a Sioux City IA saloon promised a Saturday morning spread where patrons could accompany their juleps and Roman punches with oyster soup, fish with egg sauce, deviled ham, lobster salad, pickled oysters, salmon, tongue, pickles, lettuce, and radishes – a very different kind of morning break than today’s coffee and doughnuts. Which proves that our snacks have become lighter, while lunch has gained the stature of a regular meal. It also shows that profit on the sale of whiskey and beer could be more than enough to underwrite a veritable feast.

It’s likely that the free lunch is a very old custom. Certainly there were plenty of free lunches to be had in New York City in the 1840s and 1850s. But in their advertisements saloons rarely described a spread equal to what the drinking man (respectable women did not enter saloons) could find in New Orleans, considered the country’s finest free lunch locale. In Northeastern cities often only plates of crackers and cheese made it onto the counter, possibly accompanied by a crock of soup. The New Orleans free lunch was more elaborate, with beef, mock turtle soup, “delicate slices of highly flavored buffalo tongue,” and “well dressed salads.”

The rule of thumb was that where there was intense competition, there would be high-quality saloon fare. San Francisco qualified, as did St. Louis and Chicago. Chicago’s spreads were rarely elegant, but they were hearty. Beer drinkers there favored sandwiches of dark rye bread piled with liver sausage or herrings, strong mustard, and sauerkraut.

In the 1860s, upscale saloons patronized by better-off customers started calling themselves buffets or cafés. Later some would charge a small charge for a “merchant’s lunch.” Business men liked these lunches because they were quick. The food was ready, no tipping was necessary, and little ceremony was involved. You could eat standing if it suited you, in fact there were few tables and chairs.

Feeling the loss of customers, restaurateurs repeatedly tried to abolish the free lunch habit, as did temperance advocates who wished there could be cheap but respectable restaurants that competed successfully with saloons for the workingman’s business. The average saloon normally charged only 5c for food and drink, an amount for which most restaurants could not furnish a decent meal.

The anti-saloon movement grew stronger with the approach of World War I. Alcohol-free quick lunch chains such as Thompson’s and Child’s — the McDonald’s of their day — learned that by doing a high-volume business they could serve lunches almost as cheaply as saloons. With national prohibition in 1920 the restaurant industry, freed from saloon competition, blossomed and took its modern shape.

Reformers from the 19th century would be thrilled to learn that cheap lunches today are no longer normally washed down with a beer.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Taste of a decade: 1850s restaurants

The population was moving west, with about a third living beyond the Appalachians. California had just been admitted as a state. Cities were growing. NYC was the largest, at over half a million, yet it was the only one of the nation’s eight biggest cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants. Slavery continued in the South and threatened to move West.

The smallest of the “big” cities, San Francisco, with a metropolitan area of about 35,000 in 1850, was the decade’s headline grabber. With so many living in tents and hovels, nearly everyone there ate in restaurants most of the time. Cooks came from every part of the world, as did the cuisine.

Boston, third largest with fewer than 137,000 residents, reported that among properties supplied with water there were 65 hotels, 57 saloons, 56 restaurants, 13 oyster shops, and 12 eating houses, along with 9 distilleries and 8 breweries. Beer was, in fact, beginning to supplant hard liquor as the national alcoholic beverage. Some parts of the country were overtaken by temperance sentiment and a few temperance restaurants were initiated.

The old Yankee/English term “eating house” was giving way to the more elegant French term “restaurant.” Because of so many single males in cities, many restaurants were run in conjunction with barber shops, pool halls, and bowling lanes. Those places that accommodated women usually set apart a separate room for them.

American restaurant cuisine was becoming more diverse, yet oysters reigned supreme as everybody’s favorite appetizer, late night snack, and fast food. They were ordered by simply saying, “Give me six.”

Highlights

1850 Residents of San Francisco are delighted when the refined Excelsior opens. Its white tablecloths, someone writes, give the new restaurant “quite a human appearance.” It is outfitted with gold spoons and some of its vegetables come all the way from the Sandwich Islands. – The city also has the first three Chinese restaurants in the U.S., serving “chow-chow and curry dishes” along with more conventional “English” choices.

1851 In Louisville KY, Walker’s City Exchange celebrates the opening of its new five-story restaurant building, fitted out with marble drinking saloon, dining rooms, an oyster stand, and private dining apartments. On the upper floors are tenpins alleys, billiards rooms, and staff dormitories.

1852 Newly arrived in Boston for his U.S. tour, English novelist William Thackeray is treated to a plate of gigantic oysters at Ferdinando Gori’s restaurant in the Tremont House. After downing one, he cast a “comic look of despair” at the other five, admitting he felt as if he had “swallowed a little baby.”

1852 Broadway, the grand avenue of NYC, is home to elaborate Paris-style cafés, including the popular gilt and mirrored ladies’ resort called Taylor’s and several others with names borrowed directly from France such as Tortoni and Rocher de Cancale.

1853 In Philadelphia someone has fitted up a handsome row house with a café and restaurant called Parkinson’s. It has a ladies’ saloon “sumptuously furnished in velvets and frescoes,” a garden, and a confectionery shop. – In San Francisco, M. L. Winn operates a fashionable alcohol-free ladies’ Refreshment Saloon at the corner of Washington & Montgomery (pictured) designed to “sail through the Gulf of Dissipation, Misery and Death.”

1854 Six years after the Declaration of the Rights of Woman at Seneca Falls NY, women’s rights supporter Stephen Pearl Andrews argues for abolishing home kitchens, writing “the large and elegant eating saloon, with cleanliness, order, artistic skill, and abundance, in the preparation of food, is a cheaper arrangement than the meager and ill-conditioned private table.”

1855 George T. Downing, a black caterer from New York, opens the Sea Girt House in Newport RI where he presents an ice cream saloon, private dining rooms, and, behind a lace curtain, a ladies’ café. Specialties prepared by his French and English assistants include New York oysters, confectionery, and cakes.

1856 Baltimore issues 177 licenses to eating places. Since the number of eating places not serving liquor would be minuscule, this is undoubtedly close to the total number of restaurants.

1858 At the Empire State Dining Saloon in San Francisco, a wide choice of baked goods, regionally and nationally, is available with the diner’s California Bacon and Eggs such as Mississippi Hot Corn Bread, Hot English Muffins, Hot American Waffles, Hot Hungarian Rolls, Boston Cream Toast, German Bread, and New York Batter Cakes.

1859 Only a few years old, a café owned by Charles Pfaff is discovered by a loose band of artists and writers which includes Walt Whitman who make it their club. They eat German pancakes and drink Pfaff’s beer from the barrels which line the walls. The word Bohemian has not made it into the dictionaries yet but when it does it will be applied to them.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1870 to 1880; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

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