Tag Archives: restaurant prices

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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Filed under cafeterias, chain restaurants, department stores, food, lunch rooms

Taste of a decade: 1880s restaurants

1880sFrankLentine

In the 1880s a wider range of foods became available to people living in cities, allowing restaurant menus to became more varied. Cold storage warehouses and refrigerated rail cars brought cheaper Chicago beef and out-of-season produce. Mechanically frozen ice, free from the impurities of lake ice, became available. Cheese and butter, once made on farms, now came from factories. Fresh fruits and vegetables remained luxuries for most people, however, and meat and potatoes dominated menus.

Larger, better capitalized restaurants installed electric plants that provided brighter lighting and badly needed ventilation systems.

1882HartfordHalfDimeLunchThe public demanded, and began to get, lower restaurant prices, quicker service, and more flexible meal times. The dining public expanded. Boarding houses that furnished meals as part of the rent were replaced by kitchenless rooming houses whose residents went to restaurants for dinner. More hotels switched to the European plan, freeing guests to eat wherever they chose rather than pay an inclusive charge for room and meals. New types of ready-to-eat food purveyors came on the scene, such as all-night lunch wagons and dairy cafes that specialized in simple, inexpensive meals such as baked beans and cereal with milk.

New ethnic groups arrived on American shores, among them Eastern European Jews and Southern Italians. Many settled in the East but others spread to cities throughout the westward-growing nation. They brought with them new cuisines, tempting the more adventurous eaters among the settled population.

Temperance coffee houses and soda fountains continued to thrive, particularly in Boston where authorities were always looking for ways to curb drinking.

As the rise of department stores and downtown retail shops brought women into city centers, restaurants catering specifically to them appeared on the scene.

But not everyone was welcome at restaurant tables, or in the society at large. Southern states made segregation the law, keeping Black Americans out of white-owned restaurants. Racially motivated legislation cut off Chinese immigration to the U.S. and encouraged hostility toward Chinese already in the country, mostly in the West, motivating many to move eastward and  introduce curious diners to new foods.

Highlights

1883Macy'sNY1880 On the second floor of its newly expanded NYC department store, Macy’s restaurant for shoppers seats 200. [pictured] – In the silver-mining town of Virginia City NV, restaurants serve food from all over the world, including “fruits from every country and clime.”

1881 In December, Edmund Hill, proprietor of Hill’s confectionery restaurant in Trenton NJ totals up the proceeds of what he calls a “very satisfactory” year in which the business took in $18,146, netting him the handsome sum of $677.33 in wages and profit.

1880sRichmondCafe1882 Richmond’s Café in New Bedford MA informs customers that “The Café will be in charge of a lady . . . who will bestow especial pains upon lady patrons, taking charge of whatever parcels may be left in her care while the owners are out shopping.” – In Boston Charles Eaton and a partner open a temperance soda fountain and lunch room called Thompson’s Spa which goes on to become a local institution.

1883 One year after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Rockaway Oyster and Chop House in Fresno CA advertises to prospective customers that it has “all white help.” Everyone, of course, understands that white means “not Asian.”

1889Chicago1885 In Boston and other large cities customers flood into cheap restaurants near railroad depots and wharves for 10-cent noon meals. Menus are chalked up on boards and customers eat rapidly without removing coats or hats.

1886 It is considered newsworthy when a federal judge orders a restaurant in Little Rock AR to serve a Black juror along with his fellow white jurors. A report notes that it was “the first time a negro enjoyed his repast at the leading hotel in the state and among white people.”

1887 After gathering menus from 40 prominent hotels from all over the country, a collector determines that salmon is the fish most often listed, and that it is found on menus across the United States, including Knoxville TN, Detroit MI, Milwaukee WI, Salt Lake City UT, and Cheyenne WY.

1883brooksdiningroom1888 At Chicago’s New York Kitchen, where a nickel buys Ham and Beans Boston Style or “One-third of a Pie, any kind,” the dining room is lighted by a Mather Incandescent Electric System and cooled by a steam-powered exhaust fan. — In Boston Brooks’ Dining Rooms is equipped with a telephone.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under lunch rooms, patrons, racism, technology, women

Thanksgiving quiz: dinner times four

TDaymenuBeefIn 1921 a café in Kalamazoo, Michigan, advertised that it would offer a selection of Thanksgiving dinners at different prices. The most expensive was 85 cents, then came a 65-cent dinner, one at 60 cents, and a 50-cent dinner. In today’s dollars, they would range in price from a high of $11.10 to a low of $6.51.

TDaymenuChicken

All dinners began with tomato soup. They featured four types of roast meat: beef, pork, turkey, and chicken, with accompanying dishes that were not fancy. Strangely the menus made no mention of dessert. Perhaps it was not included in the price of the dinner. Since selling alcoholic beverages was illegal in 1921, it’s likely that Thanksgiving diners would have had coffee.

TDaymenuPorkThe name of the restaurant was the Bon Ton. Its proprietors were the Thenos brothers, Nicholas and George, of Greek heritage. The small restaurant advertised that it was “open all hours” and had moderate prices. It employed women as servers. I have not been able to find a photograph of it, but undoubtedly it followed the typical café configuration of its time with a counter running down one side of a narrow storefront space and tables on the other side, with the kitchen at the rear.

tdaymenuTurkey3

 

Can you identify the most expensive dinner? Study the four Thanksgiving menus (which I have re-created using menu blanks) and decide which you think was the 85-cent dinner, which the 65-cent dinner, etc.

Answers in the Comments, on Thanksgiving Day.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under menus, miscellaneous