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. They were often portrayed as angels, warriors, or voluptuous goddesses. However, it is rare to find a label that features a female nude since the cigar boxes with these images were seemingly intended for brothels. The Victorians were adept at being discreet whenever they strayed from their strict moral code espousing sexual restraint. Not surprisingly, ephemera that reflects this part of their private lives can be scarce. A case in point is provided by a menu from a little-known hotel called “The Palette.” Operating in New York during the Gilded Age, it was patronized by members of upper class who were leading double lives. This obscure hotel, which was never mentioned in contemporary newspapers or magazines, remains something of a mystery. The cuisine and prices on the menu indicate that its dining room was in a league with Sherry’s and Delmonico’s.

The Palette Hotel was situated in a double brownstone at 102 West 52nd Street, near Sixth Avenue. Silver plaques bearing the word “Palette” were unobtrusively positioned on each side of the front door. A city vice report in 1890 stated that “only the misguided of the upper-ten” frequented the hotel, 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. The usual procedure entailed a man and a veiled woman quickly emerging from a hansom cab and running up the stoop to push the door bell, then a new electrical device. The door would be immediately opened. The hotel offered small, magnificently-furnished dining rooms, although having a romantic dinner in a secluded setting was in itself a breach of the moral strictures of the era

The menu below comes from the early 1890s. The cover illustration of an artist’s palette coyly alludes to the name of the hotel. While dishes like stuffed duck and stewed terrapin reflect its high social status, the price of Champagne reveals the risqué nature of this clandestine hideaway. At the Palette, Champagne cost $4.00 a quart, perhaps fifty cents higher than other first-class hotels and restaurants.3 Still, the price was much less than what was charged 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 food and social customs within a given class of society. Although the wealthiest members of society no longer need places like the Palette, love hotels still operate in large cities where the middle class is 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 patrons can have an adult beverage or energy drink while waiting for a room to become available. (The Hotel does not take reservations.) There are also some good nearby restaurants, such as Del Posto, Morimoto, and Colicchio & Sons, all located 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.