Tag Archives: finger bowls

Toothpicks

Although toothpicks have many uses in the home, their career as a tool for picking teeth is mostly associated with restaurants. And, like so many aspects of restaurant history, their story says a lot about social class. The short version is that when using toothpicks was viewed as a custom of European elites it was approved in the U.S., but when American working class men adopted it, it became taboo. Today the use of toothpicks after a meal is infrequent compared to what it was roughly 100 years ago when it was at its peak.

In the Quick Lunch era of the early 20th century, toothpicks became more than a means to loosen bits of food stuck in tooth crevices. They were assertions of masculinity, essential accessories for the male lunchroom crowd. A dangling toothpick sent a macho signal as speedily as a cigarette between the lips of 1960s filmstar Jean Paul Belmondo.

In the 1890s lunchroom patrons felt entitled to toothpicks just as much as to a paper napkin and a glass of water. When a distinguished Afro-American man was told by a Kansas City restaurateur in 1890 that he would be charged an exorbitant $1 for pie and coffee, he seemed to consent but later walked out saying “Sue me for the rest” as he tossed a dime on the counter. And he grabbed a handful of toothpicks on the way, staking a claim to equality in an unmistakable fashion.

Arbiters of etiquette deplored toothpicks. Starting in the late 19th century when the picks came into fairly common use in the United States, and for the next 100 years at least, a string of advice columnists from Mrs. John Sherwood to Ann Landers railed against them. All declared using toothpicks in public vulgar and disgusting. “Dear Abby” echoed her forebears when she roundly condemned public toothpick use in 1986, calling it “crude, inconsiderate, and a show of bad manners.”

Goose quill toothpicks had been acceptable in the early republic, furnished even at such elite places as Delmonico’s. But as mass-produced wooden picks made of birch and poplar became available in the 1870s, prices fell drastically until even the cheapest eatery could afford to dispense them. Their social status plummeted.

Toothpick haters frequently pointed out that providing toothpicks in restaurants was as ridiculous as handing out toothbrushes. It’s interesting that in the early 20th century another form of tabletop hygiene, the finger bowl, was also about to go under attack. Strangely, since toothpicks and finger bowls were intended for cleanups, they were criticized as germ spreaders. Because toothpicks were provided loose in a bowl or cup, restaurant patrons often grabbed them helter skelter, fingering many they left behind. Trains eliminated them in their dining cars and Minneapolis health authorities banned open containers of toothpicks in 1917.

Another solution to the germy toothpick bowl and the habit of grabbing handfuls was bound to occur to America’s legion of gadget inventors. Presto! One-at-a-time toothpick dispensers. [shown here and in restaurant above, the Dial-A-Pic]

Restaurant owners would have been just as happy to see toothpicks disappear altogether. A NYC restaurant owner confessed in 1904 that he disliked the sight of men picking their teeth at his tables as much as that of others sticking knives in their mouths. But he took a pragmatic stance, admitting that “we cannot conduct examinations in table manners before we admit persons to our dining-rooms.”

Today toothpick usage is reportedly unpopular with younger diners and has been dropping off since World War II. So I was surprised to see a little cup of wrapped toothpicks in an upscale restaurant in Kansas City this weekend. Now I’ll be on the lookout everywhere I go.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Filed under lunch rooms, patrons, restaurant customs

Dipping into the finger bowl

Once upon a time finger bowls were routinely presented with the check in expensive restaurants. To the average American, who probably never went to this type of restaurant, they were a great source of humor. Jokes typically involved an unsophisticated restaurant patron drinking water from the bowl or eating the lemon slices floating in it. The funny stories demonstrated the joy Americans take in spearing pretentiousness, a quality which finger bowls epitomized to many.

Like salad forks and menus in French, using finger bowls was an esoteric social custom that was certain to befuddle the average person. How many fingers do you put into the bowl at once? What do you do after you get your fingers wet? Must you use it at all?*

These questions would soon fade from American culture because the finger bowl was about to run afoul of history in the World War I era.

Yet in the decade before finger bowls met their downfall, the number of restaurants providing them actually increased. Live music and finger bowls were two amenities put forward as competitive attractions over places that didn’t have them. Some observers believed that because so many restaurants adopted finger bowls, it deprived them of the eliteness they once enjoyed and that this was a factor in their downfall.

Further warning signs of the finger bowl’s decline in status surfaced as early as 1908 when a veteran waiter confessed to a reporter that wise patrons should demand to witness their waiter filling the bowl. Otherwise, he warned, it was likely they’d get one with wastewater from a previous user fermenting in it.

For reasons that are still mysterious to me, 1913 was a turning point in the fortunes of the finger bowl. The Buffalo NY health department launched an attack on brass bowls, which they claimed were in use in over half of the city’s restaurants. Glass bowls could be sanitized with boiling water but brass, said the health commissioner, could not. Omaha hotelier Rome Miller declared that modern guests were more germ conscious than ever before and wanted everything – tea, coffee cream, breakfast cereal – individually packaged. For guests desiring to wash their fingertips after dining, he recommended silver holders with disposable paper inserts.

Whether due to the influence of Rome Miller or not, the city of Omaha totally outlawed reusable finger bowls in 1915. The ordinance did make one exception – for finger bowls “made from paper or other substance which shall be delivered after being once used and not used or offered for use a second time.” The crusading Mr. Miller was further vindicated a couple of years later when he learned that a New Jersey paper company was supplying 263 leading hotels with sanitary paper finger bowls. “And so the finger bowl marches on,” he wrote, revealing a surprising dedication to its future.

But, for the most part, it was not to be. Glass, brass, or paper, all would be swept aside. World War I delivered the coup de grace when the Food Administration implored restaurants to do away with excess china, silver, and glassware, whether service plates, side dishes, salad forks, or finger bowls. The few straggler bowls that survived that era were wiped out by another such war order in 1943. Since then, high-end restaurants that serve food requiring a clean-up afterwards provide scented towels while lower-price establishments go with packaged towelettes.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

*Dip one hand at a time and then dry your fingers on the napkin in your lap. Ignoring a finger bowl is a safe course.

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Filed under restaurant customs, restaurant etiquette