Tag Archives: cheap restaurants

Dining on a dime

To celebrate my blog’s 10th anniversary, I’m looking at what a dime would buy in American restaurants of the 19th and 20th centuries.

It’s not too surprising that a meal could be bought for a dime through much of the 19th century. BUT, does that mean that a restaurant meal was much cheaper then than today?

Not necessarily. For example, compare the situation of unskilled laborers in 1869 and now.

In New York City in 1869, when the average hourly wage for an unskilled laborer was about 15 cents, a meal of meat or fish with two slices of bread and a potato could be had for 10 cents. Adding pie, the bill came to 15 cents. A laborer had to work one hour to pay for this meal. And, any restaurant with prices this low – most were more expensive – was almost certainly dirty and smelly.

Today, by contrast, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that $16.60 is the median hourly wage for an unskilled construction worker, meaning half of workers surveyed make less than that and half make more. Using this as a typical wage, we also have to consider that various taxes are taken out resulting in a smaller net amount, something that was not the case in1869. Subtracting $5.00 gives a net wage of $11.60. At McDonald’s a regular hamburger costs .95, but let’s make it a double for $1.89; small fries are $2.09, and an apple pie is $1.14. The total comes to $5.12. So a laborer has to work less than one-half hour to pay for what is probably a more substantial meal than in 1869. And – this is not intended as an advertisement for McDonald’s — the restaurant is undoubtedly cleaner.

Before Prohibition cheap restaurants had a hard time competing with saloons’ free lunches in many parts of the country. According to research on urban working-class saloons (Jon M. Kingsdale, American Quarterly, October 1973), along a 4-mile section of a major street in Chicago in the 1890s there were 115 saloons with free lunches, but only five 10-cent restaurants and twenty five charging 20 to 35 cents. Brewers bought food cheaply in large quantities and furnished it to saloons at cost.

Not surprisingly, it became harder to find 10-cent meals, or even single dishes, in 20th-century restaurants. And, of course, even in the Depression people who had jobs made more per hour than they did in the 19th century, making a 10-cent sandwich, for example, a better deal.

But in the 1970s it was basically impossible to find anything on a menu for ten cents. (But, keeping in mind the McDonald’s example above, it was possible to find something in a restaurant that cost no more than one hour’s wages.)

Here are some samples of what you could get for a dime in American eating places over the years:

1854 A New York City temperance restaurant tried to lure patrons away from strong drink with plates of meat for 10 cents, as well as tea, coffee, and cocoa for 3 cents a cup. Since a typical laborer’s wage was even lower then than in 1869, this was a bargain only in the sense that prices were higher in most other restaurants.

1869 In contrast to New York City, a workman could do pretty well in San Francisco, according to one newspaper account that asked, “Where else in the world can a man sit down to green-turtle steak, bread and butter, celery, sauces, etc., . . . with but ten cents in his pocket? A very popular cheap eatery was in the What Cheer House which served over 1,000 patrons a day in dining rooms crowded with people waiting to grab a vacated seat. On average, workers in California made 60% more than New Yorkers, about $2.00 a day.

1884 At the Novelty Lunch Room in Grand Rapids MI a hungry worker could get Hot Griddle Cakes and Maple Syrup or Pork and Beans for 10 cents. A nickel more bought pie or cake. Michigan’s median daily wage for a laborer was then $1.42.

1889 Boston was said to be the home of sandwiches of all kinds, with Wyman’s taking credit as originator of the Fried Egg Sandwich. As noted on this trade card from the 1880s, Wyman’s specialty was a ten-cent lunch. At this time Massachusetts’ median daily wage for a laborer was only $1.22, about 12 cents an hour.

1895 Eating places known as “Beefsteak Johns” in NY sold single dishes such as roast beef and potato for 10 cents, while a regular dinner costing 20 cents had meat and potato plus soup, tea or coffee, and pie or pudding. But a few years later a letter to the editor of the Daily People signed “Hamburger Steak” charged Beefsteak Johns with paying low wages and serving bad food. It ended with “Forward! To the days of the Socialist Republic when the food of the workers will not be adulterated by the little business man in the restaurant line.”

1904 Fairgoers generally expected high prices for food at world’s fairs, but at the St. Louis World’s Fair the Universal Lunch Co. ran barbecue stands selling hot beef sandwiches for ten cents.

1910 Prices were lower in self-service eating places such as the newly opened Servself Lunch in Detroit’s Majestic Building which billed itself as the finest quick lunch in America. Most items, including soup, corned beef hash, pork and beans, macaroni and cheese, chicken pie, boiled eggs, sandwiches, corn flakes, baked apples, griddle cakes, and pastry, cost a dime each.

1922 Cooper’s Cafeteria in the college town of Champaign IL offered weekend specials such as Veal Loaf with Tomato Sauce or Creamed Chicken on Toast for 10 cents, while most side dishes and desserts cost 5 cents.

1928 and 1929 At Macy’s Department Store in New York, where it was “Smart to Be Thrifty,” the store shaved a penny off items that would have been 10 cents in most restaurants, such as Vegetable Soup, almost all pies and cakes, and a variety of beverages including Coca-Cola and Orange or Raspberry Phosphate. Each cost 9 cents. But a 1929 menu from Schrafft’s at 181 Broadway in New York listed absolutely nothing for 10 cents. The average hourly wage for manufacturing workers before taxes was about 56 cents in both years.

1932 The White Castle chain adopted a promotion to attract women customers (who generally avoided the restaurants). They were mailed coupons by a hostess named “Julia Joyce” that offered five small hamburgers to carry out for only a dime. The economy was depressed and the average hourly pre-tax wage for factory workers had dropped to 47 cents.

1941 With the U.S. supplying food to Great Britain for the war effort, the cost of food went up. Restaurants responded by raising prices. In Springfield IL a Wimpy’s hamburger stand increased the price of its 10-cent burgers to 12 cents.

1950 In New York City the Automat raised the price of coffee from 5 to 10 cents. At the Children’s Milk Bar in the Lord & Taylor department store, children could snack on milk and crackers for 10 cents.

1951 In Beaumont TX the Pig Stand was selling hamburgers that cost 10 cents before WWII for 25 cents. The average hourly pre-tax wage for manufacturing workers was $1.59.

1962 Even at inexpensive restaurants and drive-ins, beverages such as coffee or a small soda were usually the only items priced at 10 cents.

1965 A Burger Chef in Baton Rouge LA celebrated its 6th anniversary with 10-cent hamburgers. Ordinarily they cost 15 cents.

1974 See cartoon.

8 Comments

Filed under cafeterias, chain restaurants, department stores, food, lunch rooms

Restaurant cups

PosterofTeaCups

While on a short visit to New York City, I stepped inside Fishs Eddy on Broadway at 19th Street to look at their vintage restaurantware. I was struck by this poster used for decoration in the store. It shows a variety of teacup models, probably from the 1920s.

Then thick, almost unbreakable, cups for coffee and tea were commonly used in popular restaurants that served masses of customers. What struck me about the poster was that some cups were named for actual restaurants. I’m guessing that these were restaurants that had requested a particular, possibly custom, design. I immediately noticed the names Child’s, the leading chain of that era; Lorber, an old Philadelphia restaurant that had been at the 1876 Centennial; and Marston, a sturdy Boston standby. On second glance I noticed Hollenden, a hotel in Cleveland.

logcabininnThe other thing that struck me was the number of designs that scarcely differ from each other. Evidently restaurants and hotel dining rooms had very precise ideas about what they wanted in a cup. The differences appear so slight, as with Sharon vs. Colonnade. I wondered, were customers who drank from the Duquesne equipped with especially big fingers?

EliteGrillcupI tried to match up the poster’s teacups with other restaurant cups – and failed. The Elite Grill and the Log Cabin Inn seem to have handles that are ever so slightly different from each other as well as the illustrated cups.

macdougallpotteryThe other bit of historical minutia that sprang to mind was how Alice Foote MacDougall, proprietor of a 1920s NYC chain of coffee/tea shops that emphasized “atmosphere,” hated the serviceable china found in everyday restaurants and soda fountains of her time. In 1928 she wrote it was “so thick that I felt I needed to build an extension on my lips to drink from it.” To protect her restaurant customers from such an unpleasant experience she imported china from Italy. She also sold it retail from showrooms at her places on West 46th and 47th streets, Firenze and The Piazzetta, respectively.

In fiction of the 1920s and 1930s writers employed thick cups as signifiers of cheap restaurants, usually encountered by a downtrodden hero or lady in distress who has fallen from a higher status. In a similar vein, thick cups took on an aura of humble, bedrock authenticity. The columnist O. O. McIntyre captured this attitude during the Depression when he wrote of midnight lunch wagons: “Here the real life versions of Wallace Beery and Jimmy Cagney eat in shirt sleeves with hats on. Coffee is – as it should be – in thick cups.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

2 Comments

Filed under miscellaneous

A famous fake

. . . but not quite famous enough because many people still mistake the image shown here, dubbed “America’s first restaurant,” as a reproduction of a genuine Delmonico’s menu from 1834.

It makes me realize how little sense of restaurant history most people have because this “menu” (probably not a menu at all but a newspaper advertisement or handbill) is definitely not from the genuine Delmonico’s, one of the country’s most elegant establishments. In 1831 Delmonico’s expanded from its original status as a confectioner’s shop into a Parisian-styled “Restaurant Francais.” In stark contrast, the “menu” shown above (this particular example was used to promote a modern-day restaurant) originates with one of the lowliest dives in New York City. Plus it’s nearly 50 years later than alleged.

The prices shown are a fraction of what a Delmonico’s meal would have cost. The dishes shown are scarcely French fare. “Hamburger steak” was unknown by that name in the 1830s, first appearing in the 1880s. Although, like all fine restaurants, Delmonico’s could provide a guest with just about anything on demand, items like Pie, Crullers, Mutton Stew, and Pork and Beans would most certainly not have appeared in print. But then restaurants did not used printed menus in 1834.

The true status of the advertisement above was unraveled by Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost in an article called “A Menu and a Mystery” appearing in the Spring 2008 issue of Gastronomica. Recently, after consulting a book in which the fictitiously identified facsimile is treated as a valid Delmonico’s menu, I was inspired to dig up a few additional details.

After exhaustive research, Steinberg and Prost discovered that the likely origin of this advertisement was an establishment at 494 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan run by “R. Barnabo.” His was a place where the poor and down-and-out found cheap offerings, possibly acquired by the proprietor as leftovers from other restaurants and hotels.

The duo also discovered that the typeface on this document was not in use until the 1880s. They determined that this image made its modern debut as a facsimile of a genuine Delmonico’s menu in the 1930s, and was used in advertising campaigns for restaurants in the 1940s. Distributed by wire services, stories about the “legendary” low prices found on “America’s first menu” have cropped up as filler items in countless newspapers from the 1930s until the present. Syndicated columnist Hal Boyle made use of it repeatedly.

And yet nobody, nobody!, ever asked, “Can it be true that America’s finest restaurant served cheap doughnuts and whopping great halves of pies?” And hamburger, a despised food for the poor until mid-20th century? Pigs’ heads?

Here is what I can add to the story of R. Barnabo’s eating place known, perhaps humorously, as “Small Delmonico’s”: First, his name was actually Francisco Bernabo, born in Italy and naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1882. He operated an eating place at 46 Franklin until 1879 when the property was sold and the restaurant was taken over by William S. Pontin. He then moved to 494 Pearl Street where he stayed until 1887 at which time he took a three-year lease at 6 Chatham-Square. He is listed at that address in 1888 but after that I cannot find a trace of him.

Strangely enough, the prices shown on this 1880s “menu” are actually lower than would have been found in a cheap restaurant of the 1830s. They are typical of the “5-cent restaurants” of New York City in the 1880s which were located in Chatham Square where Bernabo moved in 1887. He may have bought food secondhand, but it’s also noteworthy that in the 1880s the bottom ranks of butchers were selling the cheapest cuts of Chicago beef to lowly restaurants for 1 and 2 cents per pound. According to MeasuringWorth.com a 10-cent hamburger steak in 1884 would be about the equivalent of one costing $2.29 today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

9 Comments

Filed under menus

Taste of a decade: 1870s restaurants

Marked by a deep Depression with high rates of unemployment and business failure, the destruction of Chicago by fire, and the world’s most popular international fair to date, the 1870s are a tumultuous time for the burgeoning restaurant trade. On the one hand many restaurants fail, yet the field widens as new types and markets emerge. Despite a 14% unemployment rate, the appeal of dining out grows as many of the nearly 10 million visitors to Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition experience restaurants for the first time. Some of the fair’s restaurants set up permanent businesses when it ends.

The temperance movement introduces innovation with cheap coffee houses that demonstrate how to serve the masses on a strict budget without profits from alcoholic drinks. Under financial pressure American-plan hotels, which formerly provided limitless amounts of food with the price of a room, shut down their dining rooms, expanding the number of customers for outside restaurants. Better restaurants open special rooms and sections for unescorted women in response to growing demand. A Civil Rights Act is passed in 1875 that outlaws discrimination in public accommodations but it is disregarded and has little impact.

Experiencing reduced incomes, middle-class people wish for inexpensive eating places that are clean and have decent food. The NY Times comments, “Gentlemen who a few months ago would spend a dollar or so for a lunch and bottle of ale, now would be satisfied with a piece of roast beef and a glass of lager or cup of coffee…”

The country is primarily rural. As the decade begins only two cities have more than 500,000 population. The big wave of immigration has not yet begun, and many restaurants are run by Irish, English, and German immigrants from earlier decades. Refrigerated railway cars make it easier than ever before to ship dressed meat, oysters, seafood, fruits, and vegetables to all parts of the country, bringing luxuries to the tables of restaurants in out of the way spots.

Highlights

1870 After dealing in spices, coffee, wholesale liquors, and real estate, and running a beer hall, ball room, distillery, dry goods store, and country hotel, Hanoverian baron Christian Wolfgang von Dwingelo, a refugee of the failed German revolution of 1848, opens a restaurant on William Street in NYC.

1871 Amidst the smoldering ruins of the Great Fire, inventive Chicagoans put their culinary operations on wheels and tour about the city supplying long lines of hungry patrons with fried fish, sausages, coffee, and pie. In a sense these are the first American “diners.”

1873 Harvey & Holden in Washington D.C., which claims to be the largest oyster house in the nation, serves premium oysters from Maryland and Virginia every day from 6 a.m. until midnight. The restaurant is moderately priced, except for black patrons who allege they are charged extortionate prices.

1874 The enterprising Frederick Kurtz, operator of four “Old-Established and First-Class Restaurants” in lower Manhattan advises his customers that he has “reduced the Prices of his Bill of Fare to the most reasonable rates, To Suit the Times.”

1875 At Thompson’s in Chicago, about one third of the patrons are women. Unlike most restaurants, no liquor is served here.

1876 The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia is well supplied with restaurants, among them a re-creation of the world-famous Trois Frères Provençeaux [Three Brothers from the Provinces] which closed in Paris four years earlier. One commentator prays it will influence America’s tough-steak-and-weak-coffee cookery.

1876 Edmund Hill of Hill’s Dining Rooms in Trenton NJ visits the Exposition for the seventh time and has dinner at Lauber’s German Restaurant with a refrigerator salesman. He writes in his diary, “There must have been a thousand persons there at the time I was eating.”

1877 After an editorial appears in the Boston Globe stating a need for decent, inexpensive restaurants, a reader writes in to complain about how “Dirt and democracy seem somehow inseparable” and the only clean restaurants are unaffordable ones such as Delmonico’s.

1878 At the Oyster Bay Restaurant on Alpine Street in Georgetown, Colorado, oysters are served “in all styles and at all hours.”

1879 Journalist and author Lafcadio Hearn starts a cheap restaurant in New Orleans called The Hard Times where all dishes cost 5 cents. He writes to a friend that he is “going to succeed sooner or later, even if he has to start an eating-house in Hell,” but rapidly goes out of business all the same.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; a href=”https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2013/09/24/taste-of-a-decade-1970s-restaurants/”>1970 to 1980

4 Comments

Filed under miscellaneous

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

3 Comments

Filed under miscellaneous