Tag Archives: Memphis

Toddle House


The Toddle House chain occupied “cozy cottage” style buildings that were quite popular as restaurants, gas stations, and cabin camps in the Depression. On the outside Toddle Houses projected an exaggerated Colonial doll-house version of domesticity, with two oversized chimneys and a primly manicured lawn.

toddlehouseinteriorca1939Inside, though, a very functional, almost clinical interior greeted customers: A back wall of stainless steel kitchen equipment, a counter with a dozen comfortless, backless stools (“in and out in 12 minutes”), bare windows, bathroom-tile wainscoting, and NO fireplaces. Open 24 hours, their menus were limited and featured hamburgers and breakfast at all hours.

ToddleHouseStedmanpatentAdding another touch of no-nonsense modernity was the “cashier machine” invented by founder and co-owner J. C. Stedman. Designed to keep the countermen (later women) from handling money, a mechanical box near the door received meal checks and payments in coins. After a counterman observed, via a mirror inside the box, that the customer had deposited the correct amount, he lifted a treadle behind the counter and the money and checks fell through trap doors into locked bins below (nos. 14 and 15 in the patent diagram).

As awkward as the contraption was – not giving change, easily circumvented by cheating employees, etc. – it remained in use at least until the 1940s and customers liked it. In Evanston IL customers felt let down, their trustworthiness in doubt, when the cashier machine was replaced by a standard cash register in 1945. Today, the old drop box system — in my view mistakenly considered an honor system — has become an object of nostalgia.


The first Toddle Houses were opened in Southern states, principally Texas and Tennessee, in the 1930s. The chain never made it farther west than Omaha. In 1945 the company expanded northward with the acquisition of 46 Hull-Dobbs Houses, which resembled Toddle Houses to a remarkable degree. Toddle Houses built later were larger and of a style referred to as “New South” shown here that was plainer and even more symmetrical. Some had dining rooms and the front entrances with copper-clad canopies were enclosed by glass vestibules.

In 1946 Toddle Houses created Harlem House, for Black customers who were not otherwise welcome. Eventually there were 12 such units in Memphis, the company’s headquarters. An Atlanta Toddle House was the site of a prominent civil rights sit-in demonstration in December of 1963, in which demonstrators including comedian Dick Gregory were taken to jail.


The original 24 × 12-ft Toddle Houses were prefabricated and shipped to their sites on flatbed trucks. It has been reported that their exteriors were of porcelain-coated steel for portability. Since this material is inappropriate for Colonial architecture and they do not appear to be shiny in pictures, I find the description given in Philip Langdon’s Orange Roofs and Golden Arches more convincing. He says that some Toddle Houses were “veneered with a cement coating scored to resemble brick.” Others were built of brick on site. Langdon also observes that because early Toddle Houses could be transported so easily, the possibility of moving them presented advantages when negotiating land leases. I discovered a number of them that were in fact moved.

In 1962 the Toddle House company was bought by Dobbs House which turned most of them into Steak N Egg Kitchens. In the 1980s, after another company, Carsons, bought out Dobbs, an attempt was made to revive the Toddle Houses, which by 1984 had dwindled to 11 units. Carsons built at least 45 new Toddle House units.

Though Toddle Houses no longer exist, many of the buildings continue as eating places or have been adapted for other uses, as shown in a blogpost by Dinerhunter.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under chain restaurants, racism, technology

In the kitchen with Mme Early: black women in restaurants

It’s so hard to find anything about the history of Afro-American women in restaurants that I decided to go ahead with a sketchy story rather than none at all. As far as the “historical record” goes, you’d be tempted to think that they had no place in restaurants. That’s certainly false, but they were frequently out of sight. The notice placed by John Kirk in a New York City paper sums up black women’s primary role in public eating places: as cooks and kitchen helpers. Kirk advertised in 1781, “Wanted to hire an active Negro Wench, used to a kitchen, with a good character.”

In his 1899 classic The Philadelphia Negro, W. E. B. Du Bois praised black men for their prominent place in the city’s catering business, writing of “self-reliant, original business men, who amassed fortunes for themselves and won general respect for their people.” He mentioned no women, yet there is reason to think that black women not only did much of the cooking in both black and white restaurants but ran many of the eating places in black communities too. They rarely made fortunes but surely must have commanded respect.

Although black women are nearly invisible in 19th-century documents, we see glimpses of them near its end. Several women ran Denver restaurants in the 1880s and 1890s, including Miss Jane Outland in the 1880s and at least six others in the 1890s, including Tennessee-born Callie Fugett who kept a restaurant on Market Street. In Washington D.C. in the late 1890s a former slave known as Madame Early provided chicken dinners in a cabin called the Café Du Chat Noir. I wonder if she was Haitian.

The first meeting of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League in 1901 reported that women ran restaurants in Denver as well as Jacksonville and Tampa FL, including two in Tampa that were “among the best in the city.” A few years later, according to a directory of Afro-American businesses in Memphis, about half of the restaurants listed were run by women. Miss Lucy Hughes (pictured) ran the Climax Café and Ice Cream Parlor on N. Main where she sold “hot and cold lunches at all hours,” while residing with her mother, son, brother, and one male lodger who worked as a kitchen helper.

Overall, black women had even fewer employment opportunities than black men. The Department of Interior reported that in 1910 almost half of the 2 million employed black women were farm laborers. Private laundresses came next in the list, followed by cooks in private homes, hotels, and other settings. Only 2,734 women ran restaurants, probably humble eateries such as the one pictured here, one of four run by black business women in Gainesville GA ca. 1913.

After World War I things began to change in big cities. Middle-class black women opened fashionable tea rooms where they provided dainty lunches and hosted afternoon card parties. Chicago’s 1923 blue book of Afro-American society lists a number of these, such as Mrs. E. H. Hord’s Delmonico Tea Room on Prairie Avenue. In Pittsburgh, Mrs. A. E. Bush, a former pharmacy manager and wife of a prominent life insurance executive, opened the Melrose Tea Room which she decorated in old rose and blue. I have found no record of how black tea room operators dressed their black servers but I strenuously doubt they put them in mammy costumes as did so many white restaurateurs of the 20th century.

After the 1960s some black women who ran or cooked in restaurants acquired celebrity status. After her divorce, Helen Maybell opened the Soul Queen Café on Chicago’s near south side. In the 1970s the statuesque Helen (pictured), who was active in the NAACP and loved elegant gowns and furs, opened a second restaurant in which she hosted fashion shows. Leah Chase (who co-owned and cooked at Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans) and Edna Lewis (who promoted Southern cooking, authored cookbooks, and cooked for Café Nicholson in Manhattan, Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn, and others) became venerated figures in their lifetimes.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010


Filed under proprietors & careers, women

Between courses: mystery food

10betweencoursesrevIn the 1850s the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, traveled through the South to investigate the institution of slavery. His observations were published in three volumes which were influential in turning readers against slavery. Around 1857 he traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, where he stayed at the Commercial Hotel. Although it was considered a first-class establishment, things did not go well for Frederick in the dining room as his journal entry for March 20, below, reveals. Among the dishes appearing on the not-too-elegant menu were “Beef heart egg sauce,” “Calf feet mushroom sauce,” “Bear sausages,” “Fried cabbage,” and, for dessert, “Sliced potatoe pie.” Better than whole potato pie, I guess.

He wrote:
Being in a distant quarter of the establishment when a crash of the gong announced dinner, I did not get to the table as early as some others. The meal was served in a large, dreary room exactly like a hospital ward; and it is a striking illustration of the celerity with which everything is accomplished in our young country, that beginning with the soup, and going on by the fish to the roasts, the first five dishes I inquired for … were “all gone;” and as the waiter had to go to the head of the dining room, or to the kitchen, to ascertain this fact upon each demand, the majority of the company had left the table before I started at all. At length I said I would take anything that was still to be had, and thereupon was provided immediately with some grimy bacon, and greasy cabbage. This I commenced eating, but I no sooner paused for a moment, than it was suddenly and surreptitiously removed, and its place supplied, without the expression of any desire on my part, with some other Memphitic chef d’oeuvre, a close investigation of which left me in doubt whether it was the denominated “sliced potatoe pie,” or “Irish pudding.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2009


Filed under food, miscellaneous