Among sandwiches, the club sandwich stands out by having a strong association with restaurants for more than a century. It was not often eaten at home and probably still isn’t. It is unusual, too, in that it was considered both delicate and hearty, making it a favorite with men and women alike when it became popular in the 1890s.
Its versatility included being appropriate for almost any time of day. It was considered an excellent late-night supper, good with beer, healthful, refreshing in hot weather, and perfect for ladies’ luncheons. The sandwiches appeared widely on menus – in hotel and department store dining rooms, after-theater restaurants, men’s grills, railroad dining cars, and tea rooms.
The origin of the word club, which still gives it a certain cachet, is a mystery. One account attributes the creation of the sandwich to an engineer who introduced it to his “lunch club” cronies on a day when they were suffering from hangovers, but the occasion seems to have taken place years after the sandwich had achieved recognition.
For instance, at least five year earlier, shortly after the Palm Tea Room opened in New Haven’s Edward Malley store in 1898, an advertisement notified customers that in addition to ham sandwiches and chocolate eclairs, several items “New to New Haven” were available, among them Club Sandwiches at 15 cents each.
By 1900 the sandwich’s form and composition were largely standardized. It was made with three slices of toasted white bread, spread with mayonnaise, layered with thinly sliced chicken, bacon, tomato, and lettuce, and cut twice diagonally into wedges. Fresh tomatoes were not always available inexpensively year round, so the full-scale club sandwich may have been a seasonal specialty until after WWII. Other variations included ham instead of bacon and turkey instead of chicken; crusts could be trimmed off for a daintier appearance.
Over time almost anything could be used to fill a club sandwich, but few variations on the classic combination endured. In 1935 Walgreen’s offered one made of liverwurst, perhaps reflecting that it was the Depression.
Club sandwiches recommended themselves to lunch rooms by their good profit margin. The Childs’ restaurants, the largest chain of the early 20th century, found in 1910 that it could prepare a double-decker club for 4.6 cents and sell it for 20 cents. It went for the same price at drug stores which began adding it to their soda fountain menus. Its popularity at soda fountains was also reflected in the creation of an ice cream club sandwich made in a special mold. The trade journal National Druggist reported in 1911 that in terms of sales the novelty was “a wonder.”
The club sandwich was given a reprieve during the government’s food prohibitions of World War I. Initially targeted along with meat pies and liver & bacon because it contained more than one kind of meat, the ban was quickly lifted.
Another obstacle club sandwiches faced seems truly quaint today. Judging from the number of times women sought advice from newspaper etiquette columns on how to eat them in the 1920s and 1930s, many of them found the club sandwich embarrassing to eat in public. Should they pick it up or eat it with a knife and fork? Strangely – and unimaginably – the latter method was advised.
But it overcame these minor problems. In the 1920s commercial bakers produced a bread specially made for club sandwiches in restaurants. It was a square “cream bread” with a thin crust, meant for toasting, and sized a bit larger than the smallest sandwich loaves.
Though scarcely considered exciting today, the club sandwich has become a menu classic that can be ordered almost anywhere.
© Jan Whitaker, 2015