Tag Archives: dishwashing

Dining during an epidemic

1918 was an extremely challenging year for restaurants. As if coping with the (so-called) “Spanish” flu weren’t bad enough, there were food shortages and rationing due to WWI, a shortage of employees, and looming national prohibition of alcohol.

And yet the proprietors of Gailey’s Lunch Room in Chicago look quite content in September of that year. Only six days later, on September 24, a headline in a Chicago newspaper would read “Influenza Hits City.” Then on Oct. 1 a story titled “Spreading Rapidly” reported that 372 cases had been identified in the past 24 hours. On Oct. 3 another story appeared warning Chicagoans that if they coughed or sneezed while on the street, they should expect a policeman to tap them on the shoulder and ask if they had a handkerchief.

Before it ended the Spanish flu, and its associated pneumonia, would kill as many as 675,000 Americans – many in the prime of life, including more soldiers than died in combat. The Gaileys, however, survived the epidemic and were still operating their lunch room in 1920.

All over the country municipal authorities enacted measures intended to halt the spread of the flu. Most of the orders and bans issued by cities were aimed at reducing congestion, particularly in downtown areas. They could range from staggering closing times in stores and offices to limit crowding on public transportation to completely shutting down businesses. Spitting on the street could bring a fine in Seattle. Shaking hands was advised against in New York City where the death rate recorded for week three of the epidemic was 1,972. As the flu spread, many theaters, pool halls, bowling alleys, ice cream parlors, and soda fountains across the country were summarily closed for the indefinite future. Some cities asked residents to stay away from downtown at night. In some places, public funerals were not permitted, courts were suspended, schools were closed, and sporting events and meetings were canceled.

Restaurants were sometimes ordered to close early, but they were not generally shut down unless they persistently violated the more stringent health department rules being handed down. Unlike now, when going out to eat is often regarded as a leisure activity, restaurants and lunch rooms of the early 20th century were primarily seen as essential services for people living in rooming houses, those working in central business districts, and transients. In Alliance, Nebraska, on October 20, 1918, when the city was placed under quarantine and patrolled by Home Guards, and all businesses were closed, restaurants — the one exception — remained open.

However, restaurants had to adapt to new health department laws. The most common one across the country was that all dishes, glasses, and silverware had to be sterilized by immersion in scalding hot water. Rather surprisingly, this had not previously been normal practice. Nor had the use of glass covers for food on display.

Other practices varied. In New Orleans and Fort Wayne IN, and probably other cities, restaurant workers were required to wear masks. New Orleans restaurant workers were supplied with only one mask, which was to be soaked in boiling water for 20 minutes each evening and hung to dry for the next day’s use.

Denver CO and Duluth MN were among the cities that ordered patrons to be given extra space. Duluth’s ordinance stated “That restaurants, cafes and eating houses shall be limited to accommodate one person to each 20 square feet of floor space.” Denver restaurant proprietors were not allowed to continue the practice of closing off part of the restaurant and seating all the patrons in one area. At the end of October, when Seattle officials ordered all non-essential employees to stay home from work, they considered further limiting the number of people who could be admitted to restaurants. At that time Seattle also required restaurants to leave doors open for ventilation. Because of the ban on overcrowding, patrons of some restaurants in Washington, D.C., were forced to wait in lines outside.

What restaurants could serve also came under scrutiny. Some cities did not allow restaurants to operate bars, or to serve alcohol at all, presumably because it encouraged congregating and lingering. It’s a puzzle to me why in Harrisburg patrons could not simply order pie and ice cream unless it was preceded by a regular meal. Maybe it was deemed too frivolous and a waste of space that could be occupied by serious eaters.

How effective all these measures were is unknown, although progress in restaurant sanitation was made. The sterilization rule was surely an advance over earlier dishwashing methods, as were glass cases.

It is also unknown how many restaurants suffered financially or closed during the months of 1918 that the flu raged in the U.S.A. Other than Rippeteau’s in Denver and White Way Drug Store in Tampa [above], in my fairly lengthy search I found no additional restaurants advertising that they were safe. It seems as though only a few places acknowledged publicly that anything abnormal was happening, perhaps because no one wanted to focus on the situation any more than they had to.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under restaurant issues, sanitation

Washing up

“Please don’t make me a pearl diver,” begged ruined Chicago restaurateur John Raklios as he entered debtors’ prison in 1939. As someone who had worked his way up in the restaurant world, he knew there was no job lower than washing other people’s dirty dishes.

In restaurant kitchens dishwashers were long considered “life’s wreckage,” people so reduced by circumstances, drugs, and drinking that they could find no other work. In the 19th and early 20th century dishwashers worked up to 12 hours a day for a free meal and very little money. In addition, they were often tormented by cooks and others in the kitchen.

A stark portrait of the life of a dishwasher, based on the author’s firsthand experiences, is painted by George Orwell in his autobiographical book Down and Out in Paris and London. Luckily, at its best dishwashing could produce a zen-like state in which the mind is untethered  from mundane matters.

The origins of the slang term “pearl diver” are as murky as dishwater itself. According to one historic account washers would clean dishes by feeling rather than sight. They would reach down into deep sinks “sorting the dishes into rows, washing them with a wave-like motion through the water” and then scooping huge piles onto a drain board. During busy periods when dirty dishes flowed into the kitchen “like lava from a volcano,” pearl divers quickly learned to “manipulate thousands of dishes at lightening speed.”

In literary and journalistic portraits, dishwashers were typically males unused to the better things in life and therefore relatively unbothered by floating scum, filth underfoot, rats, taunts, or low pay. Despite Orwell’s claim that the dishwasher “has no escape from this life, save into prison,” there were numerous stories of men who worked their way into careers as successful restaurateurs, such as Vincent Sardi, Morris Schwartzer of the NYC Biltmore Cafeteria chain, and Philippe Mathieu, purveyor of acclaimed French dip beef sandwiches in Los Angeles.

Afro-Americans or new immigrants who didn’t speak English often became dishwashers mostly because of their reduced job prospects generally, and were thus less likely to be from the ranks of the truly down and out. The same may have been true of women who washed dishes. Until 1911, when labor laws reduced the number of hours women could work, many dishwashers were women. Evidently they continued to work as dishwashers after reforms too, because state inspections of Michigan restaurants in 1918 revealed that for every two male dishwashers there were three women doing that work. Their pay, $1.20 a day, was rock bottom for restaurant workers then.

Mechanical dishwashers were invented in the 19th century, but were not electrified or widely used until well into the 20th. Though not the first female dishwasher inventor, Josephine Cochran is credited with devising the first truly practicable dishwasher, which she patented in 1886 [illustrated, 1912]. From a comfortable home with servants who performed kitchen labor, she was driven by a wish to prevent breakage. But her invention, which led her to form a company called Garis-Cochrane, ended up in hotels and restaurants rather than private households.

Before being electrified, generally during the teens and 1920s, mechanical dishwashers were manually operated, some requiring two people to turn handles that swished baskets of dishes through suds. The heavy baskets were lifted out of the water by pulleys which required considerable strength, sometimes resulting in the replacement of women dishwashers by men.

Despite strides in kitchen mechanization in the 1920s, it is notable that a survey of Rockford IL in 1929 found that only 16 of the city’s 179 restaurants had mechanical dishwashers. Even as late as the 1940s many restaurants still washed dishes by hand, often inadequately. Health department crackdowns following World War II found that scalding hot water and/or chlorine rinses still were not employed in many of the smaller restaurants across the country.

Though it’s unclear how many worked in restaurants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there were 522,900 dishwashers making an average of $8.19 an hour in 2008.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Filed under proprietors & careers, sanitation, technology