Tag Archives: discrimination

Early chains: John R. Thompson

Although it is largely forgotten today, the Chicago-based John R. Thompson company was one of the largest “one arm” lunchroom chains of the early 20th century. We so strongly associate fast food chains with hamburgers that it may be surprising to learn that Thompson’s popular sandwiches included Cervelat, smoked boiled tongue, cold boiled ham, hot frankfurter, cold corned beef, cold salmon, and Herkimer County cheese, served on “Milwaukee Rye Bread” baked by the chain’s bakery. Thompson was proud that his meals were suited for sedentary office workers of the 1900s and 1910s. A 1911 advertisement claimed that lunch at Thompson’s “won’t leave you logy and lazy and dull this afternoon.”

Thompson, an Illinois farm boy, ran a rural general store as his first business. He sold it in 1891, moved to Chicago, and opened a restaurant on State Street. He proved to be a modernizer in the restaurant business as well as in politics.

He operated his restaurants on a “scientific” basis, stressing cleanliness, nutrition, and quality while keeping prices low. In 1912 he moved the chain’s commissary into a premier new building on North Clark Street (pictured, today). Thompson’s, then with 68 self-service lunchrooms plus a chain of grocery stores, became a public corporation in 1914, after which it expanded outside Chicago and into Canada. By 1921 there were 109 restaurants, 49 of which were in Chicago and 11 in New York (with a commissary in NYC). By the mid-1920s Thompson’s, Childs, and Waldorf Lunch were the big three U.S. chains, small by comparison to McDonald’s but significant nevertheless.

In politics Thompson served as a Republican committeeman and managed the campaign of a “good government” gubernatorial candidate in 1904. A few years later he failed in his own bid to run for mayor, promising he would bring efficiency to government while improving schools and roads. In the 1920s he financed a personal crusade against handguns.

Despite John R. Thompson’s progressive politics, his business would go down in history as one that refused to serve Afro-Americans. Or, as civil rights leader Marvin Caplan put it in 1985, “If the chain is remembered today, it is not for its food, but for its refusal to serve it.” J. R. died in 1927. Where he stood on the question of public accommodations is unclear but the chain faced numerous lawsuits by blacks in the 1930s. However the best known case occurred in 1950 when a group of integrationists led by Mary Church Terrell was refused service in a Washington D.C. Thompson’s. The group was looking for a case that would test the validity of the district’s 19th-century public accommodations laws. After three years in the courts the Thompson case (for which the Washington Restaurant Association raised defense funds) made its way to the Supreme Court which affirmed the so-called “lost” anti-discrimination laws of 1872 and 1873 as valid.

Over the years the Thompson chain absorbed others, including Henrici’s and Raklios. At some point, possibly in the 1950s, the original Thompson’s concept was dropped. By 1956 Thompson’s operated Holloway House and Ontra cafeterias. In 1971, as Green Giant prepared to buy Thompson’s, it had about 100 restaurants, including Red Balloon family restaurants, Henrici’s restaurants, and Little Red Hen Chicken outlets.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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L’addition: on discrimination

Perhaps as his defenders claim Kentucky’s senatorial candidate Rand Paul is not a racist, but … Even though he says he would have voted for it, it seems unlikely he would enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act with any vigor. He believes that it should not apply to businesses such as luncheonettes. On the Rachel Maddow show, despite his slippery answers to her queries on this subject, he did reply “Yes” to Maddow’s question of whether a private business should have the right to refuse to serve black people. He seemed to be saying that restaurants that are privately owned (i.e., almost all of them) are not public accommodations. He believes that it is preferable that racist restaurant owners be sanctioned by consumers who would refuse to patronize them rather than by the state. Oh sure. Rather than see them all go out of business it’s more likely we’d soon be back to the days when Afro-Americans needed a guide to know where they could go for a meal without facing rejection and humiliation.

Paul’s position is somewhat reminiscent of Lester Maddox, who operated the Pickrick restaurant in Atlanta for 20 years and was dedicated to a policy of racial discrimination. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, but before he surrendered the restaurant to his employees after being sanctioned by the court for non-compliance, he created a “shrine” in the corner of the restaurant, “in memory of free enterprise.”

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Men only

Men’s grills were often located in hotels or were set off as special preserves in venues heavily trafficked by women such as tea rooms and department stores. Schrafft’s, Stouffer’s, Mary Elizabeth’s, Marshall Field’s all featured men’s grills. Designed to resemble clubs, they were decorated in Elizabethan or Dutch style with dark wood paneling and sturdy tables and chairs, in stark contrast to the pastel garden look of women’s tea rooms. Women secretly referred to men’s grills as “tea rooms for men.”

There were plenty of grill-type restaurants in the 19th century – when they needed no gender preface because everyone knew they were men’s haunts. But in the 20th, with more women out and about and entering restaurants willy nilly, the words “men’s grill” were used deliberately lest a misguided female might wander in. Policies varied. In some men’s grills absolutely no women were allowed while in others men could bring women guests (see 1966 Schrafft’s ad). But women “alone” were not admitted. Not until the 1970s, that is.

In May 1970 a prominent NYC editor, a woman, walked into Schrafft’s on the corner of 47th Street and Third Avenue with another woman. They noticed that at the back of the restaurant there was a section that looked especially attractive, with more space between tables, tablecloths, and carpeting that cushioned noise. The hostess told them it was the men’s grill and they were not permitted to eat there. They left. The editor sent a letter to Schrafft’s saying that although she was no “stirred-up advocate of Women’s Lib,” she was offended by the restaurant’s policy which, she asserted, was illegal. She received a reply from a Schrafft’s VP who said that the restaurant no longer had a policy of reserving some areas for men. The hostess’s reaction, he said, was due to a breakdown of communication.

Stuffy as they may have been there was much to envy about men’s grills. As a Chicago woman remarked, they had “fast service, good food, and cheaper prices than a comparable restaurant.” She and a woman friend crashed the men’s grill at the Carson, Pirie, Scott department store in Chicago, noting that a male patron there asked the hostess, “Why don’t you throw them out?” They enjoyed their lunch even though their waitress said, “Don’t you know men come here to get away from you?”

The 1964 Civil Rights Law did not mention gender as a basis for discrimination in public accommodations, but after its passage some cities and states enacted laws that forbade it in restaurants and bars. Chicago passed legislation in 1969. McSorley’s ale house in Greenwich Village, with a 116-year tradition of serving men exclusively, gave way in 1970 after the NY city council passed a bill. Even in states without this legislation changing social mores soon brought about new policies. Men’s grills disappeared, to the consternation of some men who, like the lone dissenter on NY’s city council, lamented, “In this troubled world there has to be an oasis in the desert for men.” However, judging from a 1970 comic book, many men disagreed.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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