Children have always been present to some extent as guests in public eating places, but not until the 20th century did they have special menus and dishes designed just for them.
Department stores and tea rooms, where unlike most restaurants the principal patrons were women, were the first to focus on children as guests. New York’s Mother Goose on 35th Street off Fifth Avenue was popular with children in 1911 because of its storybook theme and servers dressed in costumes. From these early days, tea rooms were also places available for children’s parties. The Brown Owl Tea Room in Marblehead MA made lunches for children whose mothers were away.
In 1918 the Rike-Kummler department store in Dayton OH advertised a “Special Lunch for Children” for 20 cents that demonstrated the belief of that time that children should be fed a bland diet. It consisted of Rice Baked in Cream, Peanut Butter Sandwich, Milk, and Ice Cream.
Printed children’s menus, based on the idea that children liked to choose their own meal, arrived in the 1920s, often at department stores and other restaurants patronized by women of comfortable means who were out shopping. In Boston, Filene’s and the Shepard Store offered children’s menus. In 1927 Shepard’s offered a children’s menu in its 6th floor Colonial Room with specials such as a 50-cent meal of Poached Egg with Creamed Spinach, Baked Potato, Bread & Butter, and Milk.
Vegetable plates were common on children’s menus from the 1920s through the 1940s, as shown on both a menu from St. Clairs’ in the 1920s and one from Macy’s [shown below] in 1936. Creamed chicken was also typical of children’s menus before the 1950s, as both the Macy’s and the 1947 Pig n’ Whistle [shown below Macy’s menu] menus illustrate. Hamburgers weren’t found much until after WWII.
Children’s menus went beyond food listings to include games, puzzles, and pictures to color. Some came in the form of masks or paper toys to be assembled. The Howard Johnson’s chain put its children’s menu in the centerfold of a comic book in which an adventure concluded with a hefty HoJo’s meal of fried clams and a “large charcoal-broiled steak.” Odd, since steak was not on the children’s menu.
The number of restaurants offering children’s menus continued to increase throughout the 20th century, intensifying in the 1970s and 80s. Reporting on a Gallup survey in 1975, Food Service Magazine observed that more working mothers, increased family income, and smaller families suggested “a more profitable family market than ever before.” And many more children’s menus.
The new era of child-centered restaurant patronage was kicked off by the 1977 opening in California of the first Chuck E. Cheese pizza and video game restaurant for children. It was chain restaurants in particular, both of the fast food and coffee shop types such as Sambo’s and Denny’s, that were perceived as the most family-friendly and also the ones that children preferred.
Blandness continued according to Consumer Reports, whose testers in 1984 attributed the lack of seasonings in fast food to child patrons, who are often the ones who choose where the family eats.
But it wasn’t just the increase in restaurants that catered to families with children that marked a change.
Unlike the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, it was no longer somewhat upscale restaurants that attracted families. This was not only because of prices too high for mass patronage but also because they did not engage in family-friendly practices. Usually they did not furnish high chairs, did not advertise widely or offer coupons or specials, and failed to celebrate birthdays and family holidays such as Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, and Thanksgiving. Nor did upscale restaurant menus feature dishes preferred by children. They typically lacked post-WWII children’s favorites such as hamburgers, french fries, and pizza. They had no children’s menus.
© Jan Whitaker, 2018