Tag Archives: Black waiters

Black waiters in white restaurants

In the 19th century Black waiters staffed most Northern restaurants and hotel dining rooms, particularly as hotels grew larger and better appointed beginning in the 1840s. Earlier, Black waiters in the North were mostly employed in private residences or for catered events.

Before the Civil War, the hotels were run on the American plan where meals were included with lodging and served family style. Mealtime was often a mad scramble, putting waiters under great pressure to bring out the dishes. They were often ridiculed, or seen as having no other virtue than being imposing-looking in uniforms.

After the Civil War, when the tipping custom spread, they were suspected of being interested solely in tips. Nevertheless, jobs as waiters were sought after and those who held them were highly respected in Black communities. Headwaiters, occupying a role similar to that of maitre d’, enjoyed the highest status.

A number of Black waiters rose in their profession and took the role of advisor and trainer of their fellow servers. An early example was Tunis Campbell who published The Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters, and Housekeepers’ Guide in 1848. He presented the headwaiter’s role as similar to an officer whose troops need a lot of drilling lest they became undisciplined and boisterous when facing a mob of impatient guests. His advice was put into practice, judging from an English traveler’s description of a remarkably choreographed scene in the 1850s. He reported that, “At a given signal, each [waiter] reaches over his arm and takes hold of a dish . . . at another signal, they all at the same moment lift the cover, all as if flying off at one whoop, and with as great exactness as soldiers expected to ‘shoulder arms.’”

Some patrons preferred Black servers to white ones, and it was said that the better restaurants and dining rooms of the post Civil War period preferred them to whites, particularly the Irish. But praise was often blended with condescension. A prominent Chicago hotelier noted that Black waiters were the “best.” But he added, “They are waiters by nature, and are peculiarly adapted to servitude.” Another admirer of Black waiters commented in a similar way: “White waiters always have an idea that they are doing a man a great favor if they serve him promptly and are polite and respectful. Colored waiters know their place and keep it, give themselves no airs, and take no liberties.”

Never did it seem to occur to white commenters that the best Black waiters had actually chosen to dedicate themselves to their profession and constantly improve their skills. Nor that they were performing a role rather than conforming to their nature.

Unsurprisingly, given the lack of a wide range of job opportunities, many Black men were known for their long tenure as waiters. Still, it is interesting that a Chicago restaurateur noted with surprise in 1899 how many Black waiters “find their way to the variety stage.” Perhaps they had been drilled in the Campbell method. [Blaney Quartette poster, 1898]

The position of headwaiter was especially coveted, particularly if a Black man was tall and impressive looking in a uniform, often a tuxedo in the 20th century. However, although some remained, by then the position of Black headwaiter was being replaced by restaurant owners and hostesses taking over the job of greeting and seating guests.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a white backlash against Black Americans generally reduced work opportunities even further, threatening Black predominance as waiters. Immigrant men arriving in this country proved willing to accept jobs as waiters. However, there was a notable reason to favor Black men, one that hindered them at the same time. As a Black waiter explained in 1903, for Black men being a waiter was “usually the zenith of his industrial possibilities” and because of this there was strong competition among them for these positions. This allowed hotels and restaurants to pay them less than white waiters.

By the 20th century, white women also took jobs serving in restaurants, often replacing Black men. Actually, though, the Fred Harvey organization may have pioneered the shift from Black men to white women. In 1883 the men – considered troublesome – were replaced at one of the eating houses on the Santa Fe Railroad line, launching the phenomenon of the “Harvey girls.” Unlike white women, Black women were not often found waiting in white restaurants, but were more likely to be working in the kitchens. When they did occupy waitress roles, white patrons seemed to enjoy seeing them dressed in mammy costumes.

Black waiters organized mutual aid societies and employment bureaus as early as the 1820s, but many were skeptical of labor unions. When strikes failed, their distrust was intensified and they felt they had been betrayed by the white unions, particularly after losing their jobs and being replaced by white men and women. A failed strike at a lunchroom chain in Chicago in 1903 was long remembered with bitterness. Leading Black waiters supported advancement for Black waiters, but not of joining unions. John B. Goins wrote in his book (The American Waiter, 1908) that “unions will never be of any benefit to a colored waiter.” In an even stronger vein, he advised, “Keep out of strikes. If you are asked to join in a strike for better wages refuse point blank. And I would advise you to offer to quit; but first explain why you do so, stating your reason for quitting is to keep out of strikes.” His ally, Forrest Cozart (author of The Waiters’ Manual), was another strong proponent of improvement, urging Black waiters in American plan hotels to learn to read and write because such hotels were disappearing. [Forrest Cozart shown below]

Though there were still an appreciable number of Black waiters through the 1920s, competition with whites increased during the Depression of the 1930s. Then, even native-born whites who had long objected to taking service jobs began to compete successfully, significantly reducing the number of Black waiters.

After World War II, when the economy had improved, dining out for pleasure increased substantially in this country. Black waiters discovered that they were often shut out of waiting jobs in fine restaurants where there was a chance to make good tips. Possibly, though, Black waiters were favored in Southern restaurants such as the elegant Justine’s in Memphis, which hired a strictly Black waitstaff from its beginnings in 1948 until closing in 1995. The restaurant made much of the fact that many of its waiters stayed on the job for many years, yet there were signs of dissatisfaction on their part such as walkouts and complaints about low wages. Many had full-time day jobs.

A 1985 case study found that, unlike immigrants, Black men were not eager to be waiters in low-priced restaurants and that they were not often hired in the better eating places. How much this was due to racist attitudes on the part of managers and/or patrons was not clear. But the study noted that even “when the supply of European waiters fell during the sixties, New York City’s full-service sector did not hire blacks into these relatively high paying jobs, but used artists and actors instead.”

By 1970 Black servers, either male or female, made up only 16% of all waitstaff according to research by Dorothy Sue Cobble (Dishing It Out, 1991).

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under racism, restaurant customs, waiters/waitresses/servers

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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Filed under popular restaurants, proprietors & careers