Tag Archives: depression

Restaurant-ing in Metropolis


In the depths of the Depression, in 1934, Harper & Bros. published a book of 304 photographs called Metropolis. Most of the photos were by Edward M. Weyer, Jr., an anthropologist who wanted to show how people in greater NYC lived. Captions were supplied by the popular writer Frederick Lewis Allen.

In a 2010 NY Times story the book was described as a “romantic masterpiece of street photography” composed of “moody black-and-white coverage of day-to-day life in New York in the ’30s. Beggars, snow-shoveling squads, schooner crews, railroad commuters, subway crowds, tenement life, tugboats, a sidewalk craps game. . .”

I find it particularly interesting that a major focus of the book was to contrast how different social classes lived, illustrated in part by where they ate lunch.

The central narrative follows employees of a company headed by a Mr. Roberts. He lives in a house on a 4-acre plot in Connecticut, commutes to New York, and employs a house maid whose duties include fixing his wife’s lunch each day. On the day he is being profiled Mr. Roberts eats a $1.00 table d’hôte lunch at his club (equal to $17 today). So frugal, Mr. R.


Mr. Roberts is visited by a Mr. Smith from out of town (shown above looking out hotel window). Mr. Smith “stands for all those who come to the city from a distance,” whether Los Angeles, Boston, or elsewhere. He is “reasonably well off.” Mr. Smith eats a $1.25 table d’hôte lunch – er, luncheon — in a dining room on a hotel roof (pictured). Prices are high there, making his meal a relative bargain. Had he wanted to splurge he could have ordered a Cocktail (.40), Lobster Thermidor ($1.25), and Cucumber Salad (.45) – total $2.10. I would guess that many visitors to New York tend to spend more on restaurants than natives.


Mr. Roberts’ secretary, Miss Jordan, lives with her mother and brother in an apartment just off Riverside Drive. With a combined family income of less than $4,000 the three can barely afford their $125/month rent. She goes to lunch at a café (pictured) and orders To-Day’s Luncheon Special which consists of Tomato Juice, Corned Beef Hash with Poached Egg, Ice Cream, and Coffee, all for 40 cents. Frankly, I don’t see how she can afford to do this every day.


Miss O’Hara and Miss Kalisch transcribe dictation from other executives in the firm and each makes about $22.50 a week. Miss Kalisch lives in Astoria, Queens, and is married. Evidently she is pretending to be single in order to hold her job (her name is really Mrs. Rosenbloom). Miss O’Hara lives with her father in a somewhat decrepit apartment costing almost half her wages. Her father has been out of work for three years. The two women eat lunch at a drugstore counter (pictured) where they order Ham on Rye Sandwiches, Chocolate Cake, and Coffee (.30). I fear Miss O’Hara is living beyond her means if she does this often.

Miss Heilman, a young clerk, makes about $16.50 a week and is subject to occasional layoffs. She lives with her brother, his wife, and their two children in a 3-room apartment in Hoboken NJ, for which they pay $15/month. Like the other “girls” at the bottom of the totem pole she brings a sandwich and eats it in the office.


Mr. Smith, being on his own, must go out for dinner. Once again he chooses a hotel roof garden (pictured), where about half the guests are also out-of-towners. With a live orchestra and dancing, it is undoubtedly expensive. I’m guessing he went for the Cocktail and Lobster Thermidor this time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013


Filed under patrons

Modernizing Main Street restaurants

In the late 1920s the spreading influence of the 1925 “Art Deco” exposition in Paris inspired restaurants in the United States to remodel their exteriors and interiors in the bold new modern style. A leading trade journal, The American Restaurant, proclaimed in its July 1929 issue that modernism had become a notable trend in the industry.

Modernizing restaurants usually went further than skin-deep decorations and included new ventilation systems, dropped ceilings, concealed lighting, sound proofing, and air-conditioning. Many restaurants badly wanted to renovate their facilities, but by 1932 the Great Depression seriously curtailed funding for building and remodeling.

It didn’t take long for central business districts to decline, looking dowdy and down on their luck. Many towns felt if they could improve the appearance of stores in shopping areas it would have a positive effect on consumer spending. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Housing Act into law in 1934, there was rejoicing on Main Streets across the country. Through government-backed, low-interest private loans, the NHA was meant not only to shore up the housing market but to stimulate improvements to commercial properties.

Towns responded wholeheartedly. In Mansfield, Louisiana (population 3,357), every merchant on the main business street signed up for that town’s 1935 improvement campaign and the local bank approved four loans the very first day. In 1936 sixty-nine New Jersey cities and towns were chosen to participate in Main Street modernization programs, with committees of prominent merchants, bankers, realtors, and building contractors presiding.

Retailers of all types took advantage of the program under the banner “Modernize Main Street.” Through architecture contests and programs sponsored by manufacturers of structural glass and other materials, a style soon developed known retrospectively as Depression Modern. Although it can be traced back to luxurious Art Deco styles, it was simplified and streamlined, and used industrial building materials such as glass and aluminum rather than marble and rare woods. As shown in before and after shots of the Harmony Cafeteria the new style was less cluttered than what had preceded it.

A new facade could be acquired for as little as $1,000 but some restaurants invested far more. For instance, in 1937 Joe Yium, owner of the Shanghai Cafe at 1004 Main in Dallas, sunk $15,000 into a structural glass front of cream trimmed with black, as well as an interior with new furniture and lunch counter all done in cream and deep “mandarin” red. Like the Shanghai, the Bohemian Restaurant in Portland OR [shown above] closed for a month while it was renovated to the tune of $25,000 with a front of black glass and aluminum, increased floor space, new ranges and steam tables, and a pastry department.

Improvements eligible under the program could include interior decor, air conditioning, and other functional modifications, but nothing symbolized hope for the future nor represented modernization more visibly than gleaming new fronts of shiny glass. Colored glass veneers were provided mostly by two companies, Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. which made Carrara Glass, and Libbey-Owens-Ford, maker of Vitrolite [advertisement pictured].

Both companies offered complete storefront packages which furnished all materials needed, whether colored glass, clear plate glass, glass blocks, metal framing, signage, or even services of design consultants. Many of PPG’s model storefronts were designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, one of America’s foremost industrial designers. For luncheonettes, a PPG booklet recommended a design (possibly by Teague) using glass blocks and Carrara glass in orange, beige, and Rembrandt blue whose overall effect was “carefree and attractive” and — as you might imagine — had “high visibility.”

Coinciding as it did with the end of national prohibition, modernization paid off in increased business for restaurants, many of which took full advantage of the program. It confirmed the status of Main Street as the symbol of economic health for cities and towns in the popular imagination. However, as Gabrielle Esperdy points out in Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal, decentralization of downtown shopping districts was well underway by the 1930s. But the modern transformation of Main Street maintained considerable significance to consumer psychology. The styles remained popular until the start of World War II when they were shunned as obsolete.

Today, in American cities and towns vestiges of Depression Modern storefronts, such as black glass panels above or beneath a show window, can still occasionally be spotted.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012


Filed under restaurant decor