Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Dining at a Love Hotel in the Gilded Age

New York City
ca. 1892

Women were a popular motif on cigar boxes in the late nineteenth century. Dressed as goddesses, angels, or warriors, they were often depicted as voluptuous and seductive. Even so, it is rare to find a label like the one shown below with an illustration of a female nude, perhaps because such cigar boxes were intended for brothels. The Victorians were adept at being discreet whenever they strayed from their strict moral code espousing sexual restraint. Not surprisingly, ephemera relating to this part of their private lives can be scarce. A menu from a little-known hotel called “The Palette” provides a case in point. Operating in New York during the Gilded Age, it was patronized by members of upper class who were leading double lives. Never mentioned in contemporary newspapers and magazines, this obscure hotel remains something of a mystery, despite the fact that the prices on its menu were in a league with high-society haunts like Sherry’s and Delmonico’s. 

The Palette Hotel was housed in a double brownstone at 102 West 52nd Street, a few feet from Sixth Avenue. On each side of the front door, there was a silver plaque bearing the word “Palette.” A vice report in 1890 claimed that “only the misguided of the upper-ten (percent) ” frequented the hotel, succinctly describing its rich clientele as “women who in their homes, in churches and in society hold positions of honor and respect, and men whose loyalty to wife and family is believed to be absolute.”2 In fact, getting into the hotel without being seen was important at a time when outward appearances greatly mattered. Following the typical pattern, a man and a veiled woman would emerge from the hansom cab as soon as it rolled up to the hotel. After running up the stoop, and quickly pushing the door bell (then a new electrical device), someone “almost immediately” opened the door. Once the couple was safely inside, the first order of business was usually to have dinner in one of the small, magnificently-furnished dining rooms. Having a romantic dinner in a secluded setting was in itself a breach of the moral strictures, completely outside the social norms of the era

The menu shown below probably dates to the early 1890s. An illustration of an artist’s palette on the cover alludes to the name of the hotel, coyly reinforcing its clandestine spirit. While the expensive dishes like stuffed duck, stewed terrapin, and Chateaubriand indicate the social status of this establishment, it is the high price of Champagne that reflects its risqué reputation. At the Palette, Champagne was $4.00 a quart, generally fifty cents higher than other first-class hotels and restaurants.3 However, this was relatively modest compared to the price at the city’s most elite bordellos, such as “The Studio,” located two blocks away at 106 West 50th Street, where Champagne cost $5.00 a bottle, or about $125.00 in today’s dollars. 

Providing a window onto social history, menus reveal the foodways and customs within a given class of society. Although today's wanton members of the upper class no longer need places like the Palette, there are still love hotels in large cities that serve segments of the middle class which are hindered by high real estate prices and urban crowding. Take, for example, the Liberty Inn located in the Meatpacking District of New York. Overlooking the Hudson River, this hourly hotel promotes itself as “your rendezvous for romance.” Although this hotel does not take reservations, there is bar on the premises where you can enjoy a few adult beverages or energy drinks, along with modest selection of snacks, while you wait for a room to become available. For fine dining, however, there are some good restaurants only a block and a half north on Tenth Avenue, including Del Posto, Morimoto, and Colisschio & Sons. 

1. My sincere thanks to Richard Zacks, author of Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York, for generously providing the reference material for this essay. 
2. Vices of a Big City: An Expose of Existing Menaces to Church and Home in New York City, The Press, J. E. Clark, publisher, New York, 1890, p.73. 
3. In November 1889, the proprietors of the Hoffman House, the St. James Hotel, the Gilsey Hotel, the Victoria Hotel, the Brunswick Hotel, the Windsor Hotel, and Delmonico’s made a coordinated attempt to raise their prices of imported Champagne from $3.50 to $4.00 a quart. Other first-class hotels in New York, such as the Fifth Avenue and the Astor House, opposed this scheme to raise prices, and it seems to have failed.


lostpastremembered said...

Another great post... I saw a booklet that was given out in NYC that gave quick reviews of the cities' ladies of the evening that was a hoot. I wasn't aware there were restaurants devoted to the fast set too. The menus are fun and the food did look pretty high end... as well as that wine list... isn't it remarkable that most of the champagnes are still around after all these years??

Have a great new years, Henry.

Jan Whitaker said...

Henry, what a find! Looking forward to seeing you at your exhibition's opening on the 9th.