Tag Archives: phalansteries

Co-operative restaurant-ing

Although it is a footnote to restaurant history, the notion that restaurants could provide a solution to social and domestic problems is one that has cropped up quite a few times in American history, beginning in the 1840s, continuing into the 1970s, and not totally extinct even today.

The idea of community dining began with Frenchman Charles Fourier’s plan for a society organized into communes (phalanxes) where people both lived and worked. Several were established in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s, in Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, New York, and New Jersey. The North American Phalanx in Red Bank NJ, which continued for 12 years, may have been the longest lasting. Its phalanstery, a kind of hotel or apartment building, had 85 rooms and a “refectory” where members gathered at long tables and chose their meals from a bill of fare with prices.

The Fourier-inspired communes did not survive, but the idea of collective dining did. From the 1870s until World War I feminists saw commercial restaurants as the next, virtually inevitable, step in evolutionary progress that would liberate women from kitchens. Suffragist Tennessee Claflin observed in 1871 that women’s chores such as teaching children and making clothes were leaving the home and becoming special trades. Noting that men were becoming accustomed to eating their midday meal in restaurants, she expected food preparation to be next.

Others observed the same thing, especially with the growing popularity of kitchenless apartments. An 1876 article in The American Socialist viewed NYC apartment buildings where meals were served in ground floor dining rooms as an outgrowth of Fourier’s ideals. Although limited to fairly affluent families then, apartment living was regarded as a step toward universal cooperative housekeeping.

A goal of some futurists and feminists, such as Edward Bellamy and Helen Starrett, was to have complete meals delivered to the home ready to eat. Starrett wrote in 1889 that the solution need not be a non-profit enterprise. Rather, just as butter and soap making had been commercialized, she expected that the business world would find a way to do this profitably. Indeed, in Knoxville, Tennessee, a woman started a meal delivery service as early as 1896, sending out “steaming hot” food to families. The idea got a boost during World War I when a surging war economy drew hired cooks out of affluent households (e.g., Florence Hulling).

Author and social thinker Charlotte Perkins Gilman knew of three cooked food companies in operation, in New Haven, Pittsburgh, and Boston. She fully expected efficient restaurants and food services to replace the home as a site of production, which, she wrote in 1903, “lingers on inert and blind, like a clam in a horse-race.” In her 1909 novel What Diantha Did, the enterprising heroine not only runs a hotel for working women, she also operates a lunchroom for business men, a cooked food delivery service, and a mini-maid service.

Other than supporting utopian societies and liberating women from household chores, the goals of “public service” style restaurants in the 19th and 20th centuries also variously encompassed providing inexpensive lunches for young working women, luring alcoholics away from saloons, resolving labor strife, reducing the cost of living, and promoting healthy diets.

Social motives often lay behind the start of commercial restaurants also, such as the Dennett’s chain whose funding came in part from missionary societies. And some eating places that had their starts as community co-operatives developed into commercial ventures, such as the Hollister Cooperative Coffee Club or the Mission Cafeteria in Long Beach [shown], both in California.

A curious outgrowth of the interest in communal dining occurred in Cleveland OH, where Richard Finley established Finley’s Phalansterie shortly after the turn of the century [pictured above]. Eventually he presided over six eating places in Cleveland and grew rich. Although he chose the generally unfamiliar name to pique interest in his restaurant, it turned out that he did in fact have communitarian motives in mind. His plan, reminiscent of Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft in East Aurora NY, was to establish a colony in California where workers would live and produce arts and crafts furniture and objects. I was unable to discover how far he succeeded beyond building a hotel and cottages in La Canyada and publishing a magazine called Everyman.

The story of restaurants and eating places with social motives is not complete without mentioning the hippie and communal restaurants of the 1960s and 1970s – but that will be another chapter.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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