Tag Archives: early 20th century

Restaurant wear

dinnerdresses1912

Although affluent women of the upper classes patronized restaurants in the 19th century, they usually did not do so unless they had a male escort, preferably a brother, father, or husband. Respectable women were not supposed to appear too much in public view, and only in select eating places such as the dining rooms of leading hotels.

But as the century ended the situation began to change. Dining and entertaining in restaurants became fashionable and women appeared in public during the daytime without an escort, whether at lunch or afternoon tea. And they wanted to be seen.

The idea that there was a certain type of clothing right for these occasions began to take hold. Around 1900 the terms restaurant wear, restaurant gown, and restaurant frock proliferated in newspaper stories that reported on what stylish women were seen wearing in Paris restaurants.

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It was a sign that restaurant-going had truly arrived. It no longer inevitably carried the stigma of vice and moral peril. Even though the majority of American women, especially those living in small towns and rural areas, might never see the inside of a swank tea room or café, those reading the society pages could imagine all eyes on them as they entered an elegant restaurant dressed in the latest style.

In 1903 women of Tacoma WA who followed their paper’s “Fashion Hints from the Shops” learned that black silk costumes for restaurant going were “quite the thing.” The prettiest gowns had skirts with flouncy semi-trains and a pleated top with velvet bows in front worn with a long fringed silk scarf.

Top tea rooms and restaurants became stages for virtual fashion shows. Clever dressmakers were said to “haunt” tea rooms to get ideas of the latest styles. In New York, Delmonico’s and Sherry’s were prime spots to see the pleats, flounces, laces, scallops, eyelets, and ribbons of the much be-decked outfits of 1905. The wisdom of the day had it that women went to such places not for the food, but to see what other women were wearing.

dinnerdresses1909frockThose traveling in the open autos of 1909 wore heavy, unattractive coats to protect them from road dirt and grime. But the bright side, pointed out the Philadelphia Inquirer, was that the coats were loose enough around the shoulders that “really elaborate costumes may be worn beneath them without harm.” The example, hard to appreciate in the black and white drawing here, was a coral pink restaurant frock with braided trim and crocheted buttons topped with a hat sporting what were mysteriously described as “vivid coral wings.”

Enormous attention was paid to women’s necklines with the new interest in restaurant wear. Time and again readers were warned not to confuse restaurant wear with formal wear. The rules were firm. Formal wear meant revealingly plunging necklines, bare arms, and no hat. Restaurant wear, by contrast, meant a frontal coverup, with a moderate neckline or even a high choker-style collar. The dress must have sleeves and the costume was to be topped off with a hat.

But rules are often broken. According to Julian Street’s 1910 magazine article titled “Lobster Palace Society,” gauche gold-trimmed Babylonian restaurants such as the Café de l’Opera in New York’s Times Square made every effort to seat women with low necklines prominently on the ground floor.

dinnerdresses1922franksederphilThe 1920s featured a new silhouette, as shown in this advertisement for glamorous gowns in 1922 as sold in Philadelphia’s Frank & Seder department store. Hats were getting smaller in the 1920s and 1930s, sometimes replaced with hair ornaments.

dinnerdresses1933repealFar from the Depression dampening the wish to get dressed up and go out on the town, the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 introduced a new fashion category, the cocktail dress. Tailored looks prevailed, and in 1938 a fashion columnist chided women who instead chose “luscious, romantic, billowy” frocks to wear to restaurants and nightclubs, sternly telling them that “such fragile, pale bits of formality are not worn!”

dinnerdresses1945cotillionrmhotelpierreThe trend toward simplification and informality continued in the 1940s with a wartime preference for plain, dark dresses as shown here. By the mid-1950s many women reportedly tried to pass off sundresses as appropriate for the cocktail hour (verdict: “Nothing could be more incorrect for after-five-wear.”) while teens couldn’t see why they shouldn’t wear jeans to a restaurant. Not nearly special enough, reasoned the columnist Dorothy Dix. Advice thrown aside, the casual trend continued.

Since the 1970s “restaurant wear” has come to refer mainly to uniforms for restaurant staff.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under elite restaurants, night clubs, women, restaurant etiquette, patrons

Famous in its day: Thompson’s Spa

thompson'sSpa782Beverages have played a big role in the operation of restaurants. I even tend to sort them mentally by what kind of drinks they featured. That is, by whether they had a bar or dealt in alcoholic beverages or were based around coffee, tea, or soft drinks. Throughout history many restaurants began as saloons, coffee houses, or soft drink stands.

Thompson’s Spa, a long-gone chain in Boston that grew to about a dozen units in the 1930s, began as a soda fountain – a “spa” — selling non-alcoholic “temperance drinks.” Open year round, it provided both cold and hot drinks such as these from its 1895 menu:Thompsons'SpaTemperanceDrinks1895In case anyone wandered in thinking they were going to get a whiskey, a sign hanging on the wall set them straight: “This is a temperance bar.” Not a big problem since they could duck around the corner and into the alley where the Bell in Hand stood, looking to all appearances like an old London tavern.

Before very long Thompson’s proprietor, Charles Eaton, added sandwiches, doughnuts, and pie to the menu, ALL of which counted as basic foodstuffs – not desserts — to Bostonians then.

thompson'sSpaNewspaperRow1929Eaton was a graduate of MIT who in 1880, after briefly practicing as an architect in his home town of Lowell MA, had invented an electric telephone signaling device that he sold to Bell Telephone. For some odd reason he chucked that career and joined his brother-in-law (named Thompson) in running a wholesale drug store in Boston. Perhaps selling was in his genes; his father had done well peddling snacks to railroad passengers, thereby earning the title “popcorn king of Lowell.” The drug business must have been slow because in 1882 Eaton and Thompson decided to install a soda fountain for non-alcoholic beverages.

The original Thompson’s Spa was located on the corner of Washington and Court streets in Newspaper Row where the city’s newspapers were located and also home to many of their employes. Near Thompson’s was Pi Alley, aka Pie Alley and officially Williams Court, where many printers, compositors, and pressmen lived in rooming houses and, undoubtedly, ate in restaurants. Eating places were accordingly plentiful in the neighborhood, among them Gridley’s Coffee House and Mrs. Atkinson’s.

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Thompson’s kept the appellation “spa” even as it gradually expanded into a regulation restaurant. It added a fuller menu plus much-appreciated amenities such as seats for customers, who had previously had to stand while they ate. Women were finally admitted in 1909. [1933 dinner menu shown]

Although Thompson’s had servers, the spa exhibited some of the earmarks of an automat. Like the early German automat which was primarily a delivery system for beverages, Thompson’s had an elaborate piping system to supply chilled liquids to serving counters. With the decision to add ice cream to the menu in 1915, a new soda fountain was installed that permitted syrups to flow through pipes as well. A bonus was that the soda clerks could prepare an entire ice cream soda or sundae while facing the customers rather than turning their backs.

Thompson'sSpa4GuardsmenBillSamArthurGiffordAfter Eaton’s death in 1917, followed by a bitter battle with his widow, his three sons took over the business and began to expand it beyond the sprawling Washington street edifice it had become. By 1939 it occupied eleven locations in downtown Boston. In addition to soda fountains the Spas had air conditioning, sound proofing, table service, and wall murals. But the company’s finances were not in good shape, due partly to overexpansion during the Depression. In 1946 it was acquired by the Sheraton (hotel) Corporation which daringly installed a cocktail bar at the Washington Street location. In 1949 Sheraton sold the company to New York’s Exchange Buffet Corporation which also failed to make a go of it and began closing units in 1952.

In 1958 the two Spas that remained, one of them on Washington street near the original location, were closed. Former executives and employees tried to carry on at one location for a few years.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under chain restaurants, lunch rooms