Tag Archives: free lunch

Dining on a dime

To celebrate my blog’s 10th anniversary, I’m looking at what a dime would buy in American restaurants of the 19th and 20th centuries.

It’s not too surprising that a meal could be bought for a dime through much of the 19th century. BUT, does that mean that a restaurant meal was much cheaper then than today?

Not necessarily. For example, compare the situation of unskilled laborers in 1869 and now.

In New York City in 1869, when the average hourly wage for an unskilled laborer was about 15 cents, a meal of meat or fish with two slices of bread and a potato could be had for 10 cents. Adding pie, the bill came to 15 cents. A laborer had to work one hour to pay for this meal. And, any restaurant with prices this low – most were more expensive – was almost certainly dirty and smelly.

Today, by contrast, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that $16.60 is the median hourly wage for an unskilled construction worker, meaning half of workers surveyed make less than that and half make more. Using this as a typical wage, we also have to consider that various taxes are taken out resulting in a smaller net amount, something that was not the case in1869. Subtracting $5.00 gives a net wage of $11.60. At McDonald’s a regular hamburger costs .95, but let’s make it a double for $1.89; small fries are $2.09, and an apple pie is $1.14. The total comes to $5.12. So a laborer has to work less than one-half hour to pay for what is probably a more substantial meal than in 1869. And – this is not intended as an advertisement for McDonald’s — the restaurant is undoubtedly cleaner.

Before Prohibition cheap restaurants had a hard time competing with saloons’ free lunches in many parts of the country. According to research on urban working-class saloons (Jon M. Kingsdale, American Quarterly, October 1973), along a 4-mile section of a major street in Chicago in the 1890s there were 115 saloons with free lunches, but only five 10-cent restaurants and twenty five charging 20 to 35 cents. Brewers bought food cheaply in large quantities and furnished it to saloons at cost.

Not surprisingly, it became harder to find 10-cent meals, or even single dishes, in 20th-century restaurants. And, of course, even in the Depression people who had jobs made more per hour than they did in the 19th century, making a 10-cent sandwich, for example, a better deal.

But in the 1970s it was basically impossible to find anything on a menu for ten cents. (But, keeping in mind the McDonald’s example above, it was possible to find something in a restaurant that cost no more than one hour’s wages.)

Here are some samples of what you could get for a dime in American eating places over the years:

1854 A New York City temperance restaurant tried to lure patrons away from strong drink with plates of meat for 10 cents, as well as tea, coffee, and cocoa for 3 cents a cup. Since a typical laborer’s wage was even lower then than in 1869, this was a bargain only in the sense that prices were higher in most other restaurants.

1869 In contrast to New York City, a workman could do pretty well in San Francisco, according to one newspaper account that asked, “Where else in the world can a man sit down to green-turtle steak, bread and butter, celery, sauces, etc., . . . with but ten cents in his pocket? A very popular cheap eatery was in the What Cheer House which served over 1,000 patrons a day in dining rooms crowded with people waiting to grab a vacated seat. On average, workers in California made 60% more than New Yorkers, about $2.00 a day.

1884 At the Novelty Lunch Room in Grand Rapids MI a hungry worker could get Hot Griddle Cakes and Maple Syrup or Pork and Beans for 10 cents. A nickel more bought pie or cake. Michigan’s median daily wage for a laborer was then $1.42.

1889 Boston was said to be the home of sandwiches of all kinds, with Wyman’s taking credit as originator of the Fried Egg Sandwich. As noted on this trade card from the 1880s, Wyman’s specialty was a ten-cent lunch. At this time Massachusetts’ median daily wage for a laborer was only $1.22, about 12 cents an hour.

1895 Eating places known as “Beefsteak Johns” in NY sold single dishes such as roast beef and potato for 10 cents, while a regular dinner costing 20 cents had meat and potato plus soup, tea or coffee, and pie or pudding. But a few years later a letter to the editor of the Daily People signed “Hamburger Steak” charged Beefsteak Johns with paying low wages and serving bad food. It ended with “Forward! To the days of the Socialist Republic when the food of the workers will not be adulterated by the little business man in the restaurant line.”

1904 Fairgoers generally expected high prices for food at world’s fairs, but at the St. Louis World’s Fair the Universal Lunch Co. ran barbecue stands selling hot beef sandwiches for ten cents.

1910 Prices were lower in self-service eating places such as the newly opened Servself Lunch in Detroit’s Majestic Building which billed itself as the finest quick lunch in America. Most items, including soup, corned beef hash, pork and beans, macaroni and cheese, chicken pie, boiled eggs, sandwiches, corn flakes, baked apples, griddle cakes, and pastry, cost a dime each.

1922 Cooper’s Cafeteria in the college town of Champaign IL offered weekend specials such as Veal Loaf with Tomato Sauce or Creamed Chicken on Toast for 10 cents, while most side dishes and desserts cost 5 cents.

1928 and 1929 At Macy’s Department Store in New York, where it was “Smart to Be Thrifty,” the store shaved a penny off items that would have been 10 cents in most restaurants, such as Vegetable Soup, almost all pies and cakes, and a variety of beverages including Coca-Cola and Orange or Raspberry Phosphate. Each cost 9 cents. But a 1929 menu from Schrafft’s at 181 Broadway in New York listed absolutely nothing for 10 cents. The average hourly wage for manufacturing workers before taxes was about 56 cents in both years.

1932 The White Castle chain adopted a promotion to attract women customers (who generally avoided the restaurants). They were mailed coupons by a hostess named “Julia Joyce” that offered five small hamburgers to carry out for only a dime. The economy was depressed and the average hourly pre-tax wage for factory workers had dropped to 47 cents.

1941 With the U.S. supplying food to Great Britain for the war effort, the cost of food went up. Restaurants responded by raising prices. In Springfield IL a Wimpy’s hamburger stand increased the price of its 10-cent burgers to 12 cents.

1950 In New York City the Automat raised the price of coffee from 5 to 10 cents. At the Children’s Milk Bar in the Lord & Taylor department store, children could snack on milk and crackers for 10 cents.

1951 In Beaumont TX the Pig Stand was selling hamburgers that cost 10 cents before WWII for 25 cents. The average hourly pre-tax wage for manufacturing workers was $1.59.

1962 Even at inexpensive restaurants and drive-ins, beverages such as coffee or a small soda were usually the only items priced at 10 cents.

1965 A Burger Chef in Baton Rouge LA celebrated its 6th anniversary with 10-cent hamburgers. Ordinarily they cost 15 cents.

1974 See cartoon.

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Lunch and a beer

It won’t come as a surprise to learn that the free lunch wasn’t really free. As everyone knows the patron of a saloon had to buy a beer or some other sort of drink in order to partake of whatever edibles the proprietor had to offer. What might be news, though, is that it wasn’t exactly what we would call lunch nowadays. It was more of a snack eaten between meals, sometimes around noontime, sometimes not.

Although the standard free-lunch time began at 11:00 a.m. through much of the 19th century, some saloon keepers put out a spread as early as 9:00 in the morning, hours after most working people had their breakfasts. Or it might be at night – a kind of happy hour. At some saloons lunch on the house was provided every day, but at others it was more of a special occasion celebrating a grand opening, holiday, or proprietor’s birthday.

The dishes did not conform to our modern idea of a snack. In early June of 1872 the owner of a Sioux City IA saloon promised a Saturday morning spread where patrons could accompany their juleps and Roman punches with oyster soup, fish with egg sauce, deviled ham, lobster salad, pickled oysters, salmon, tongue, pickles, lettuce, and radishes – a very different kind of morning break than today’s coffee and doughnuts. Which proves that our snacks have become lighter, while lunch has gained the stature of a regular meal. It also shows that profit on the sale of whiskey and beer could be more than enough to underwrite a veritable feast.

It’s likely that the free lunch is a very old custom. Certainly there were plenty of free lunches to be had in New York City in the 1840s and 1850s. But in their advertisements saloons rarely described a spread equal to what the drinking man (respectable women did not enter saloons) could find in New Orleans, considered the country’s finest free lunch locale. In Northeastern cities often only plates of crackers and cheese made it onto the counter, possibly accompanied by a crock of soup. The New Orleans free lunch was more elaborate, with beef, mock turtle soup, “delicate slices of highly flavored buffalo tongue,” and “well dressed salads.”

The rule of thumb was that where there was intense competition, there would be high-quality saloon fare. San Francisco qualified, as did St. Louis and Chicago. Chicago’s spreads were rarely elegant, but they were hearty. Beer drinkers there favored sandwiches of dark rye bread piled with liver sausage or herrings, strong mustard, and sauerkraut.

In the 1860s, upscale saloons patronized by better-off customers started calling themselves buffets or cafés. Later some would charge a small charge for a “merchant’s lunch.” Business men liked these lunches because they were quick. The food was ready, no tipping was necessary, and little ceremony was involved. You could eat standing if it suited you, in fact there were few tables and chairs.

Feeling the loss of customers, restaurateurs repeatedly tried to abolish the free lunch habit, as did temperance advocates who wished there could be cheap but respectable restaurants that competed successfully with saloons for the workingman’s business. The average saloon normally charged only 5c for food and drink, an amount for which most restaurants could not furnish a decent meal.

The anti-saloon movement grew stronger with the approach of World War I. Alcohol-free quick lunch chains such as Thompson’s and Child’s — the McDonald’s of their day — learned that by doing a high-volume business they could serve lunches almost as cheaply as saloons. With national prohibition in 1920 the restaurant industry, freed from saloon competition, blossomed and took its modern shape.

Reformers from the 19th century would be thrilled to learn that cheap lunches today are no longer normally washed down with a beer.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Beans and beaneries

“Beanery” was less a name that an eating place would claim for itself than a slang term for a cheap and lowly lunch room. In these eating places baked beans was a staple dish going back at least as far as the mid-1800s. Milliken’s Beefsteak & Coffee Room in lower Manhattan offered its customers pork and beans in 1845. The price was 6 cents, the same, surprisingly, as roast beef or chicken pot pie.

Before sweet things became standard breakfast fare, baked beans were considered ideal for the morning meal. In fact the beauty of beans was that they made a square meal 24 hours a day. Like ham and eggs, they were favorites at all-night eating places. They could also be found in other nighttime establishments such as Silk & Anderson’s Saloon, Billiard and Keno Hall in Trinidad, Colorado, established in 1876, where baked beans, ham, and cole slaw made up the free “lunch” spread from 9:00 at night until 2:00 in the morning.

Baked beans could be found in restaurants all over the U.S. – Cincinnati, San Francisco, New Orleans – but it was in hard-edged Chicago, New York, and Boston where the slang term “beanery” especially captured the imagination of writers. Despite the unsentimental words of a 1908 hash house waitress, “There ain’t no romance about pork and beans or any of it. It’s all to the real life, and a punched check for a finish,” novelists of that time loved to set their tales of salty characters in big city beaneries.

Each city’s beaneries had a different character. Chicago’s South Clark Street, “toothpick row,” was full of them but beans also did duty in the city’s saloons where a 5¢ glass of beer earned a free lunch of beef and baked beans, with pickles, olives, and celery for trimmings. New York City was known for its “beef and” places, as they were called. The beef, in this case, was corned and everyone knew the missing word after beef was beans.

In Boston baked beans formed a considerable industry. Bakeries and other bean specialists ran hot ovens full of beanpots every night, turning out 32 million quarts annually which they delivered daily to restaurants and lunch counters. Baked beans often appeared on menus accompanied by brown bread, a combo known as “B. B. B. & B. B.” Even in 1921 when beans were slipping out of favor as a restaurant dish, the Childs chain found demand strong enough to keep them (and oysters) on their Boston breakfast menus.

It was said that baked beans was too frugal a dish to be popular in Los Angeles where garden produce was available year round. Yet “Ptomaine Tommy” DeForest laid claim to inventing a bean dish unique to L.A., the mysteriously named “size,” a hamburger on a bun covered with chili and diced raw onions.

By the 1960s Americans had outgrown their love of baked beans. In a restaurant trade book of 1966 they are listed as “foods to shun,” along with kidneys, chipped beef, turnips, and rutabagas.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Filed under food, lunch rooms