Monday, May 10, 2021

Economic Precarity


One of the underlying themes of American ephemera is the expansion of the middle and upper classes. Over time, higher incomes and increased leisure time fostered a culture of consumption and new social customs like eating outside the home. Not surprisingly, menus become increasingly scarce as you descend the economic ladder. By the time you reach the lower classes and those living in poverty, such material evidence is practically nonexistent. Nevertheless, menus and photographs occasionally surface that reflect segments of the population being pushed from a livable life, often by a financial crisis or war.

Richmond: 1864 
Julia Johnson Fisher of Camden County, Georgia wrote in her diary in 1862, “We are always hungry—hungry the year round …”  Hunger was the dominant note of life in the Confederacy. Chronic food shortages developed in the secessionist states as a result of the naval blockade and lack of rail equipment. The effects of these wartime actions are evidenced by the absence of tea, coffee, and desserts made with sugar on this menu from March of 1864. In stark contrast with the North, the cuisine at Southern hotels was distinctly local in character; the ham-and-greens dish shown here was made with a poisonous wild plant called poke sallet weed. The American Hotel was destroyed by fire on April 3, 1865 during the fall of Richmond.

Boston: c. 1880
Frank’s Dining Room was a type of inexpensive restaurant that catered to average people in the late nineteenth century. These modest eateries offered a set meal of roast meat with bread and vegetables for as little as 15 cents. Advertising trade cards like the one below frequently featured an à la carte menu on the back that listed some of the basic dishes.

Denver: 1898
This photograph shows the penny lunch counter at the Medical Mission and Workingman’s Home, a charitable establishment in Denver operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Photos from the period rarely show people in a place where food was in the process of being served. The bill of fare on the back wall offers fifteen simple dishes. Despite the exceedingly low prices, the sign requests that payment be made in advance, indicating the patrons were teetering on the edge of society.
The wall menu is transcribed below. The fare was intentionally vegetarian, reflecting the plant-based diet preferred by many Seventh-day Adventists. The first vegetarian restaurant in the United States was established three years earlier in 1895.

Soup              1 cent 
Beans             1 cent 
Bread             1 cent 
Bunns [sic]   1 cent 
Zwieback      1 cent 
Milk               1 cent 
Mush             1 cent 
Coffee            1 cent 
Rolls              1 cent 
Pudding        1 cent 
Doughnuts   1 cent 
Wheat            1 cent 
Butter            1 cent 
Sauce             1 cent 
Eggs               2 cents 

Chicago: 1899 
For over twenty years, retailer Isaac Woolf hosted a large dinner for the impoverished Chicagoans on Thanksgiving Eve at his clothing store on State Street. The tradition began in 1882 when he provided a special holiday dinner for a hundred newsboys. The annual charitable event was expanded to include poor families and destitute elderly couples during the severe economic downturn of the 1890s. This promotional bifold describes the Thanksgiving feast in terms of the quantity of food used to prepare 12,000 dinners in 1899. By the following year, the number had grown to 14,ooo.

 Eastern Europe Relief: 1921 
Hundreds of millions of Europeans were in danger of starvation in the chaotic aftermath of the First World War. The U.S. Food Administration, headed by future-president Herbert Hoover, was transformed into the American Relief Administration (ARA) charged with sending food to Central and Eastern Europe. When government funding for this agency expired in mid-1919, Hoover transformed the ARA into a private organization. He also established the European Children’s Fund. In the winter of 1921, fund-raising dinners were held at which a lighted candle was placed in front of an empty highchair to represent the hungry children dubbed the “invisible guests.” The meal invariably comprised a bowl of stew (thin rice soup), bread, and cocoa, as shown on this menu from the event at Symphony Hall in Boston.

Five days later, the same dishes were served at the Montclair Golf Club in New Jersey. This brochure states the dinner was an “exact duplicate of the food served daily in 2740 Hoover kitchens in Czecho-Slovakia during 1919-1920.” 

The successful campaign extended into the heartland, as shown by this menu from the dinner at Texarkana, Texas. 

 Ellis Island: 1923 
Approximately 12 million immigrants passed through the Immigration Station on Ellis Island during its active period from 1892 to 1924. In those years, U.S. immigration officials came on board and conducted cursory interviews of the first- and second-class passengers who were then free to disembark once the ship docked. Ellis Island was mostly used to process poor immigrants. A thousand-seat dining room opened in 1908 when the tidal wave of new arrivals was peaking. Although the transatlantic shipping companies provided the funds for the meals on Ellis Island, many immigrants perceived that America was welcoming them with good food and novel items like chewing gum, doughnuts, and white bread. The imagined goodwill gesture was deeply appreciated and long remembered. The date of this menu falls between the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924, both of which greatly reduced the need for Ellis Island.

Miami: c. 1930
The stock market crash in the fall of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression, forcing restaurants and retailers to reduce prices. This business-card-size ink blotter advertises a set dinner for 15 cents, reflecting a brief return to the rock-bottom levels of the late nineteenth century.

New York City: c. 1932 
Publishing magnate Bernarr Macfadden established One Cent Restaurants to provide nutritious meals at low pricesThe first of six such eateries in New York opened in December of 1930. 

A penny purchased a variety of items, such as a bowl of soup or two slices of whole wheat bread. A complete dinner cost ten cents. 

New York City: c. 1932
Macfadden’s charitable foundation also sponsored cafeterias where the prices were set slightly above cost. This menu comes from the Pennyteria on West 26th Street. 

Cleveland: 1932
These photographs show seemingly middle-class customers at a Pennyteria in October of 1932. The press release on the back is titled “Clevelanders Forget Depression with Penny Restaurant.”

Silver City, New Mexico: 1933
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) provided employment for unmarried men between the ages of 17 and 28.  By July of 1933, there were 1,433 CCC camps being run by U.S. Army reserve officers who followed standard military practices, such as issuing special menus with rosters on the holidays. This Independence Day menu comes from a camp carrying out projects on public lands. The menus were often saved as mementos of the youthful experience that provided clothing, $30 a month in wages, and three square meals a day.

Spavinaw Lake, Oklahoma: 1933
The food at the CCC camps was initially prepared by army veterans. However, as the public work program expanded, the recruits were brought into the kitchens and trained as cooks. This certificate was awarded to an enrollee who completed training as a mess steward in 1936. The CCC provided work for more than three million men before it was disbanded in 1942, thereby ending one of the most popular programs of the New Deal. 

Flint, Michigan: c. 1933 
In addition to reducing prices in the Great Depression, some modest eateries eliminated the typical 5-cent price increments, perhaps as a marketing ploy. This advertising ink blotter shows the blue-plate specials at the New Deal Cafeteria cost either 16 or 18 cents. The desserts were an additional 7 to 9 cents each.

 U.S. Route 66c. 1937 
The White Swan was a restaurant and bus terminal in Sullivan, Missouri on US Route 66 that once ran between Chicago and Santa Monica. The two-lane highway served as the primary route for farm families that migrated to California in the 1930s when a severe drought and dust storms devastated the Southern Plains. “66 is the mother road, the road of flight,” observed John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath

Kansas City: c. 1938
A widely-supported plan to stimulate the economy was put forward by physician Francis Townsend who envisioned the federal government providing $200 per month to every retired person over the age of 60. The proposed pension fund was to be financed through a 2% national sales tax. Townsend Clubs boasted over two million members who pressured Congress to act. The movement continued after the less-generous Social Security Act was passed into law in 1935. This flyer was distributed by Townsend Club #3 that gained supporters by serving a 25-cent dinner on Saturday nights. 

Economic precarity is fundamentally political in an interdependent society where people periodically require the care of othersThe COVID-19 pandemic is the most recent example of a catastrophic event that caused broad swaths of the population to suddenly lose their jobs. Once again, the federal government and private citizens stepped forward to provide relief.


Bob Ridout said...

Henry, what a great collection of memorabilia you have. I like how you have used these rare items to make the point that we have always dealt with hunger. And it continues today.

Bob Ridout

R McCoy said...

I never expected that menus would underscore significant historical social changes, but they do. Thank you

Jan Whitaker said...

Wonderful collection!

Unknown said...

Nice job Henry. These are really great, and it is the perfect time to bring people's attention to gastronomy and economic precarity!