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

Menus reveal the social customs, mores, and foodways within a given class of society. While the wealthy no longer need places like the Palette, love hotels still exist in large cities, primarily serving members of the middle class hindered by high real estate prices and urban crowding. For example, the Liberty Inn in New York promotes itself as “your rendezvous for romance.” Overlooking the Hudson River in the Meatpacking District, this hourly hotel has a bar where you can enjoy adult beverages and energy drinks while you wait for a room to become available. (The establishment does not take reservations.) There are also some good nearby restaurants, such as Del Posto, Morimoto, and Colisschio & Sons, situated only a block and a half north on Tenth Avenue. 

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.


Deana Sidney 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.