unaccompanied women were not allowed in restaurants -- 2/21/17

Today's selection -- from Ten Restaurants that Changed America by Paul Freedman. In the mid-1800s, unaccompanied women in America were generally not allowed to dine at restaurants:

"Midday dining presented a challenge for women too busy or too far from home to return there for lunch. They might be in the company of other women or alone, but at any rate not escorted by men who were occupied with work and work-related socializing; men had their own luncheon habits. In the nineteenth-century United States, men made the rules about public dining and admitted women to restaurants on sufferance, according to a complex series of arrangements. Different practices governed the two main meals of the day.

"Restaurants depended economically on women accompanying men at the evening meal. ... Lunch, however, was segregated by gender and involved a series of problems, according to the social customs of the nineteenth century. In the grand and even not-so-grand metropolis, men were increasingly likely to work at some distance from home and to stay near their workplace for the midday meal. The point at which women too absented themselves from the house created a demand for their sustenance. The growth of cities and the creation of specialized shopping districts meant that it was often incon­venient for women as well as men to return home for lunch. ...

"The public rooms at fancy restaurants were usually reserved at lunch for men only, but some of them allowed women to have lunch in private dining spaces. In the era before Prohibition, bars offered free food, which, along with a crowded and boisterous atmosphere, encouraged demand for drink. Free-lunch bars were hopelessly inappropriate spaces for respectable women, as alcohol-driven conviviality was inevitably coarse -- the antith­esis of what was considered ladylike.

Ladies luncheon at Delmonico's

"Restaurants and bars afforded opportunities for men to meet and con­sort with women deemed not respectable. Certain oyster cellars provided private stalls with red curtains and individual gas lamps as well as larger private rooms where, as George Foster describes in New York by Gaslight (1850), 'men and women enter promiscuously, eat, drink and make merry and disturb the whole neighborhood with their obscene and disgusting revels.' New York had a dozen or so 'private supper rooms' in the 1840s, and after the Civil War they were understated but ubiquitous in many neighborhoods. These were attached to restaurants that catered to the usual public, but they had their own entrances. Only couples were served; a group of men could not reserve one of these rooms for the sake of mere ordinary privacy. The meal and drink charge were as much as double the stated price on the regular bill of fare. A small room had a set table and adjoined a convenient bedroom, and any sort of food could be ordered at any time of night.

"Respectable women had to be isolated from these louche scenes, and were consequently hemmed in by rules concerning their presence in res­taurants. An example of the complexities of female dining is provided by the Fourteenth Street branch of Delmonico's, which drew the highest ele­ments of society during its brief reign from 1862 to 1876. Its rules highlight the ambiguity but nevertheless the importance of social boundaries and the attempt to 'manage' female patronage. Here ladies were not allowed at all in the first-floor café. They were welcome in the restaurant at dinner, but only in the company of men. At lunch they could dine only in all­-female groups and only in private rooms."

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Paul Freedman


Ten Restaurants That Changed America


Liveright Publishing Corporation


Copyright 2016 by Paul Freedman


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