Saturday, November 6, 2021

The 15-Cent Houses


Almost everyone living in large cities ate in a restaurant from time to time during the late nineteenth century. Unless poverty stricken,  average citizens patronized small eateries that served English-style fare at rock-bottom prices. There was nothing fancy about the food or the service. Dubbed 15-cent houses, these meat-and-potatoes restaurants seldom warranted attention in the press and exceedingly few menus have survived. One source of historical evidence is provided by handbills and business cards advertising specific dishes. A selection of such ephemera from ordinary restaurants in Boston 
from 1875 to 1885 reveals the food customs of the middling and working classes, especially when compared to similar material from other dining niches of society. 

The 1878 edition of the King’s Handbook of Boston reported nearly 500 restaurants, noting that except for those connected with hotels, there were not many worthy of particular mention.” The dining rooms that fed the masses were not temples of refined etiquette and artful cuisine. “What people want here is a good square meal; they are not particular about what they eat, if only they have a lot of things placed in front of them,” a waiter remarked to an Englishwoman who later wrote that the United States produced “a superabundance of bad cooking, indigestible hot breads, tough beefsteaks hardly warmed through, (and) greasy potatoes…”1 European visitors were also startled by how quickly Americans wolfed down their meals. Waiters often brought the dishes to the table all at once so guests could “gobble, gulp and go.” 

8 Tremont Row 
By 1880, Boston had a population of 363,000 people; only New York/Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Chicago were larger. Restaurants multiplied as urbanites ventured farther afield and boardinghouses no longer provided meals. The one- and two-room restaurants that catered to the middle and lower classes were typically named after the proprietor. This small flyer lacks an illustration, making its survival all the more improbable. 

Morse’s New Dining Room
9 Tremont Row 
Business cards and trade cards were a cheap and effective way to reach consumers.2 The advertisements were printed on illustrated cardstock reflecting the latest advances in color lithography. This 4- x 5½-inch example was produced by J. H. Bufford’s Sons, a “publisher of novelties in fine arts.” 

Revere Dining Rooms
4 Cambridge Street 
Some cards featured a political theme, as shown by this cartoon about the disputed presidential election of 1876. At the time, the country was in a severe economic depression and urban workers earned less than $3.00 per day on average. This restaurant promised free tea and coffee with a “good” ten-cent meal.

J. F. Reynolds Dining Rooms 
4 Cambridge Street 
This address is the same as that shown above for the Revere, indicating the restaurant changed hands. The comic illustration was part of a series about family life. 

Sandwich and Coffee Depot 
103 Portland Street 
This 4½- x 8-inch sheet provides space to write in the “extra dishes” (daily specials), indicating it may have been the actual menu. The fare was remarkably uniform from place to place.

I. B. Clapp Lunch & Coffee Room 
24 Portland Street 
The word “lunch” referred to a light meal, and was not restricted to the one in the middle of the day. This business card is datable to about 1885 when Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado first played in London. The comic operetta sparked a fad for Japanese design throughout the English-speaking world. 

Flower’s Central Dining Room 
39 Kneeland Street 
Proprietor George Flower sold his private-label cigars for five cents each. Quasi-public spaces like restaurant dining rooms reeked of stale cigar smoke in the nineteenth century. This card was illustrated in the style of Kate Greenaway, an English artist renowned for children's books in the Victorian era.

Quincy Dining Room
8 Beach Street 
The so-called “specialties” on this card represent the typical everyday fare. Roast turkey was usually the most expensive dinner advertised.  

Frank’s Dining Room 
15 Harrison Avenue 
Proprietor Frank Flower distributed a large quantity of business cards in a wide variety of styles. On this example he purports to have a “big bill of fare,” a claim that can only be substantiated by the discovery of a menu.

Frank’s Dining Rooms 
19 & 21 Harrison Avenue 
In the mid-1880s, Frank’s moved a couple of doors to a larger space where it reportedly served 1500 meals a day. This illustration shows the Democratic ticket in the presidential race of 1884, remembered as one of the dirtiest campaigns in American history. 

Franks was “the only low-priced first-class dining room in Boston,” according to the puffery on this card.

Oregon Dining Room 
1296 Washington Street 
Lithographed cardstock was manufactured in themed sets. This specimen comes from the same series as the one shown above. 

Cosmopolitan Dining Rooms
700 Washington Street 
The Cosmopolitan appears to have been a relatively large establishment with entrances on Washington and Kneeland Streets. Not surprisingly, restaurants were mainly patronized by men. This comic illustration titled “I’ve Got a Mother-in-Law!” was copyrighted in 1882. The back exhibits glue stains from having been pasted into a scrapbook, the primary way in which the cards have been preserved. Card collecting was a popular hobby in its heyday. 

Norwood Café 
14 Oak Street
This flyer reports the café had been purchased by George N. Briggs, formerly the head cook at the nearby Cosmopolitan Dining Rooms. 

Berntsen’s Dining Room 
40 Essex Street 
This card announces the second-floor dining room had been taken over by a cook named H. Berntsen who previously worked at the fashionable Lindall. The new owner promises to serve the very best dairy butter at a time when oleomargarine was deridingly called “bogus butter and real butter was often rancid or adulterated. Positive, but vague linguistic fillers like “the very best” are indicators of low prices, even today. Expensive restaurants are not compelled to reassure guests about the quality of their food. 

A discount was typically available for meals purchased in advance.  At Berntsen’s, the price of 21 dinner tickets was $3.00 for men and $2.50 for women.

Women’s Restaurants 
Women were now entering the urban workforce and taking the horse-drawn trolley downtown on shopping excursions. The trend was partly fueled by the increase in women’s education and by a decline in marriage rates; eleven percent of the women born between 1860 and 1880 never married, the highest rate in American history. There were then only about a half dozen or so women’s restaurants in Boston.3

Charles Copeland 
85 & 87 Court Street 
The first venues to welcome women “without escort” were ice cream parlors and confectionaries. The 6-, 13- and 19-cent price increments on this card indicate it may be from the late 1850s.4 

563 Washington Street 
McDonald’s provided a genteel social setting where women could meet with friends. This bifold shows the variety of drinks drawn from its “mammoth soda fountain...with no extra charge for cream.” The imprint is dated 1881. 

Cook’s Ladies Coffee and Lunch Room 
23 Avon Street 
Cook’s was located around the corner from the Jordan Marsh department store on Washington Street. It primarily served lunch, but offered a basic breakfast and early supper. The back of this card is blank. 

The date on the menu below appears to have been printed in a space provided on the regular daily menu, indicating the bill of fare did not change very often. Last-minute adjustments were made by hand, such as the Saratoga chips (potato chips) that are crossed off. Instead of beefsteaks, this menu offers fillet of beef with Madeira sauce and delicacies like broiled reed birds on toast. Bold font calls attention to the strawberries and cream. However, commonplace foods like fish balls were also available. 

s expanded into an adjacent space during the prosperous Gilded Age. The back of this card is also blank. It would be fascinating to know what dishes the proprietor would have selected from the above menu to entice female patrons. 

 The Upper Classes 
Even when having a quick meal near the office, the wealthy partook in a more diverse cuisine that featured French influences and game dishes symbolizing the seemingly endless bounty of the United States. While menus represent the primary source of information about the dining customs of this stratum of society, business cards reveal the dishes that were likely to attract affluent guests. 

Lindall Dining Rooms 
9-11 Exchange Place 
The Lindall catered to the moneyed elite in the Financial District. The card below offers a rich array of oysters, soups, and salads, and a selection of hot entrées curiously titled “Calcutta lunch portions.” In October of 1879, the Boston Evening Transcript reported, “The Lindall Restaurant originated the idea and first brought into use the Petit Lunch, for those gentlemen who are compelled to dine late. It is called the Calcutta Lunch, from the fact that a large number of the dishes are prepared with an appetizing and health-inspired curry, the same as used in the East Indies and other tropical climates. In this respect, most truly, the Lindall is without rival.” 

The card shows four curries—veal, chicken, lamb, and lobster. Other exotic dishes include conscoosoo [sic], which may have been couscous with a spoon of meat stew on top, and bear cutlet with soubise sauce. The remaining items are the dishes most favored by the upper-middle and upper classes when dining away from home. Many of the foods, such as terrapin, broiled quail, mutton cutlet, tripe Lyonnaise, pâté à la financière, and salmi of duck, have disappeared from the American scene, as have the 15-cent houses.

1. E. Faithfull, Three Visits to America: New York, 1884. 
2. While trade cards advertise a product and business cards reflect a person or business, all such cards from the nineteenth century are categorized as trade cards in the ephemera market. 
3. In 1882, women’s rights activists in Boston began a movement that led to the establishment of three downtown coffeehouses—The Casino, The Alhambra, and The Hollis. The coffeehouses were “fashioned after the continental cafés, designed to furnish food, comfort, and entertainment to the hungry, the thirsty, and the lonesome, and in an indirect way to promote temperance.” James C. O’Connell. Dining Out in Boston: University Press of New England, 2016. 
4. The Oriental Tea Company was founded at this location on Court Street in 1868.