Thursday, July 2, 2020

Three Sorosis Luncheons

New York City, 

The Waldorf Hotel was built with women in mind. Proprietor George Bolt’s wife, Louise, was herself a hôtelière who supervised its interior design, adding homey touches she thought would appeal to women. Astonishingly, when the Waldorf Hotel opened in 1893, it did not have a bar, then a male sanctuary at such establishments. The hostelry finally acquired one in 1897 when it was connected to the Astor Hotel and renamed the Waldorf-Astoria. One of the most popular features of the enormous hotel was its crystalline Palm Garden which proved to be an ideal setting for the latest customs of “lunching out” and having “afternoon tea”. What is more, the management tried to create a hospitable environment for women. In addition to employing the standard rule that the customer is always right, the staff was instructed to “never speak abruptly to a woman guest nor be indifferent to her complaints.”1 An account book from the social season of 1905-1906 shows the hotel was successful in attracting all manner of women’s groups, including Sorosis, the first professional women’s club in the United States. A look at three of their luncheons reveals the degree to which the hotel wanted to retain the business of this prestigious association. 

The account book was maintained by maître ď Oscar Tschirky who recorded the date, organization, number of guests, bill of fare, and cost of 298 private events from mid-December 1905 to mid-May 1906. Over 23% of these events were held by women’s groups, not counting the bookings made by individual women. However, women’s groups provided only about 5% of the total revenue due to the inherent nature of their daytime activities. Sorosis went to the Waldorf-Astoria more often than the others during this five-month period, convening for ten lunches and two teas.2 

Sorosis was organized in New York City in March of 1868, a month after three women journalists were excluded from a dinner at Delmonico’s where the New York Press Club honored author Charles Dickens.3 Angered by the slight, the women held their first meeting at Delmonico’s over a lunch that cost them one dollar each.4 The club was named Sorosis, meaning sisterhood or unity. Delmonico’s continued as their regular meeting place until 1891 by which time the club had outgrown the restaurant’s facilities. They transferred their “headquarters” to Sherry’s which was delighted to get the publicity that attended their patronage. The relationship with Sherry’s abruptly ended in January of 1895 when the affluent members balked at what they regarded to be high prices. Although Louis Sherry tried to smooth things out, the club voted to move its meetings to the brand-new Waldorf. Sorosis was entering its twelfth year at the hotel when the following luncheons were held. 

January 1, 1906 
Most of the menus in the account book are written in French. While the bill of fare on New Year’s Day was somewhat more elaborate than normal, the hotel still charged the usual one dollar per person. (Click to enlarge.) 

February 5, 1906 
The 233 women who attended this meeting were spread out over East Room, the Myrtle Room, and the Astor Gallery that was finished in the 18th century style of the Hôtel de Soubise, a mansion in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris. Once again, the price of this lunch, which included oysters, sole, and filet mignon of lamb, was one dollar per cover.

March 19, 1906 
This affair was held in the Grand Ballroom. The majestic surroundings and lavish bill of fare indicate it was a special occasion, perhaps marking the club’s thirty-eighth anniversary. Menus were printed for this luncheon that opened with grapefruit garnished with maraschino cherries, a starter also served in place of oysters at their holiday gathering on January 1 of that year. The soup was gombo de volaille, Bellevue, a chicken gumbo to which clam broth was added, an unlikely combination said to have originated at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia.5 The fish course, a bass mousse with lobster sauce, was followed by two entréesveal sweetbreads presented in a scallop shell and lamb medallions with fried potato patties and asparagus tips au gratin. Next came the game dish, a breast of guinea fowl accompanied by a seasonal salad. Dessert was a type of French ice cream typically made with almond extract, kirsch, candied fruit, and in this version, honey. Coffee and an assortment of cakes brought the meal to an end. For this repast, the hotel charged $3.00 per person, less than the going rate for a similar banquet without wine in the evening. 

Women from the middle and upper classes were coddled at the Waldorf-Astoria that offered its elegant spaces at nominal fees for their functions. This is not to say the hotel played a role in advancing women’s rights. On one occasion, a small contingent of suffragettes seemingly annoyed the management who were conservative by nature. And while the Waldorf-Astoria reportedly contained the first restaurant where men were allowed to smoke in the presence of ladies, it did not take the next step and allow women to smoke in public. That distinction fell to Rector’s and the Café Martin in 1907 when they both announced that women would be allowed to smoke on New Year’s Eve. 

1. Karl Schriftgiesser, Oscar of the Waldorf. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1943. 
2. Other women's groups included the Aloha Circle, teas (10 times), Victoria Whist Club, lunches (8), Minerva Club, teas (8), Les Causeries, lunches/teas (7), Rubinstein Club, lunch/teas (6), Ideala Club (1), Cotillon & Unique Assembly (1), [United] Order of True Sisters, tea (1), Bethel Sisterhood, tea (1), Gospel Settlement Fair, tea (1), St. Cecilia’s Guild, tea (1), Young Women’s Christian Ass’n, tea (1), College Women’s Club, coffee (1), New York City Mothers, tea (1), The Helpers, tea (1), Wayside Workers, tea (1), Daughters of the Empire State, ices (4), Daughters of the Revolution, tea (1), Daughters of Ohio, buffet supper (1), Daughters of the Loyal Legion, tea (1), and Daughters of Ohio, tea (1).
3. The Sorosis of New York City and Boston’s New England Woman’s Club, also founded in 1868, inspired the formation of women's clubs across the country. 
4. Thomas, Lately. Delmonico’s: A Century of Splendor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.
5. At the time, George Boldt was also the proprietor of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia.

1 comment:

Jan Whitaker said...

Great post! One of the founders of Sorosis was the prominent journalist Jane Croly, mother of Herbert Croly, who was one of the founders of The New Republic.