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The Rise of Waitressing: Feminization, Expansion, and Respectability
Children love to sleep in houses other than their own, and to eat at a neighbor's table; on such occasions they behave themselves decently and are proud. The people in the town were likewise proud when sitting at the tables in the cafe. There, for a few hours at least the deep bitter knowing that you are not worth much in this world could be laid low.
—Carson McCullers, "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe"
George Smith, a veteran waiter, was "not worried" about competition from waitresses, a Detroit union journal headlined in 1942. According to Smitty, a few women could "carry a tray with the best of men and dish out first class service," but "to work in the best jobs" you had "to learn to whisper in the dining room and holler in the kitchen." Most waitresses, he insisted, simply got confused. They were "either delicate flowers who whisper[ed] both places, with the result that the chef [did not] ... get the orders straight, or Amazons who holler [ed] in the dining rooms as well as the kitchens, thereby grating the nerves of the guests." Few observers have shared Smitty's particular prejudices regarding female "waiteresses," but historically most have agreed that men were more suitable for waiting work, especially in "first-class" establishments.
Although women served food in the earliest colonial hostelries, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century women worked in boardinghouses, tea rooms, coffee shops, and cafes, the majority of commercial food and lodging establishments employed men until the 1920s. Before the twentieth century, most women food servers worked in private homes as domestics. The formation of a group identity among female food servers in the twentieth century, then, rested on two historical transformations: the commercialization of food service (or its removal from the isolated home realm into the commercial sphere) and the growing acceptability of women in this new public waiting work.
Early Dining and the "Professional Waiter"
In colonial American cities, public food service work took place in taverns and inns that were also centers of political, literary, and social exchange. Meals, when available, typically were prepared and served by the male victualer with the aid of his wife and family. Outside helpers, if required, assisted in a variety of tasks: food preparation (including harvesting from an adjoining garden), food service, and household cleaning.
As water, rail, and stagecoach transportation developed in the nineteenth century, the business of feeding and lodging changed character. Numerous small hostelries expressly for travelers sprang up in out-of-the-way villages and at road and rail crossings. In urban areas, especially on the East Coast, larger, more elaborate structures were erected beginning in the 1830s. These first "hotels" provided accommodations for transients and facilities for community functions on a scale far exceeding the early inns. The Tremont House in Boston, for example, opened in 1829 with 170 guest rooms, ten public rooms, and a main dining room that served two hundred diners at a single setting. Many catered to male travelers and were reluctant to provide shelter to unaccompanied women, let alone hire them.
Later in the century, luxurious, multistoried hotels catered to a growing urban wealth and taste for extravagance. Monuments to conspicuous consumption, these hotels indulged every culinary whim of their guests. Despite widespread reliance on the American plan, in which meals were included in the price of lodging, hotels vied for patronage by offering the finest in cuisine along with impeccable service. As befitted European traditions of formal dining, "impeccable service" invariably meant male personnel, including male waiters in the dining rooms. Men were also stronger, employers explained, and could more easily climb stairs with trays loaded down with heavy silver, glassware, and food.
American hotels differed from those in Europe, however, in that diners often were served by black men. In the decades after the Civil War, employers frequently relied on waiting crews composed entirely of black men. The shortage of white male immigrant and native-born labor, the availability of black job seekers, and the southern tradition of black servants in the home all contributed to this American departure. Black men—especially those outside the South—lost the more desirable service jobs to white men by the end of the nineteenth century, and they fell further behind once feminization gathered speed in the early decades of the twentieth century. But as Table 2B in the Appendix shows, black men maintained a disproportionate share of the work until the 1940s. As late as 1930, one-fourth of male waiters were black.
In the decades before and after World War I, as a stratum of hotels opened that was a notch below the highly touted palaces preceding them, the real boom in hotel employment began. Exemplified by the Buffalo Statler Hotel built in 1908, these new hotels met with instant success. Appealing to businessmen and travelers, they provided the modern conveniences and privacy of the finest hotels at a moderate price. They also adopted the European plan, in which travelers paid separately for room and meals. Informal dining typified the commercial hotel, with a cafeteria or coffee shop as the common eating arrangement.
Initially, male waiters, black and white, predominated in these scaled-down dining rooms as well as in the older, exclusive hotel restaurants, but a few employers experimented with female help. Employers hired women of all races and ethnic groups in these early decades, but nine out of every ten jobs went to white women. Ellsworth Statler hired white waitresses for the 2,257-room "inn" he had built as an exhibit for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Women waiters "proved to be a curiosity," attracted clientele, and helped Statler turn a profit. Resort and summer hotels, especially those catering to couples and families, also replaced their male help with female. Non-southern black waiters in particular lost ground. Those working in the most elegant establishments faced competition from newly arrived white male immigrants; others were replaced by white women. The owners of the Hotel Chalfonte, a prominent resort in Atlantic City, brought 250 white waitresses from Boston in a special guarded train to replace the hotel's black male crew in 1909.
As the supply of male labor contracted during World War I, even more hotel owners looked to women. At the war's end, some rehired "the old-style professional waiter—a hallowed institution in the hotel world," but others retained women on a permanent basis. In addition, when waiters, cooks, and other male culinary workers joined the labor walkouts of the postwar era, employers in some of the "biggest and best" hotels engaged women as strikebreakers. In 1919, New York City "bosses hired girls to take the places of the men" for the first time, New York City's fledgling culinary worker tabloid headlined after four thousand food workers quit their posts.
Although "nothing could have induced" some hotel proprietors "to give women a chance if the strike of the [New York City] waiters had not forced them into it," a different verdict emerged in the strike's aftermath. Women were superior employees, proprietors now determined: they were more obedient and compliant than waiters and cost much less. Employers defended the "radical step" of using women by pointing out the "greater cleanliness, tact, efficiency, and adaptability" of waitresses. Proclaiming his newfound fondness for women, the dining-room manager of New York's Waldorf Hotel announced that "no matter what the conditions of the labor market will be in the future, women will serve the banquets and be part of the dining service at the Waldorf." Other employers agreed, arguing that if busboys did the hauling of heavy food trays and wine stewards served the liquor, all obstacles to female employment would be removed.
By the early 1920s, male waiters still held the majority of jobs in the most exclusive hotel restaurants, but their dominance in the industry as a whole had ended. As the golden era of luxury hotel dining faded in the 1920s and 1930s, the larger hotels replaced their posh dining rooms with smaller, informal restaurants and coffee shops, the change in ambience facilitating the shift from a male to female staff. And, as in the preceding decades, the number of black men declined disproportionately because they were being displaced by white men as well as white women. The growth of restaurants outside of hotels, particularly those catering to the working and middle classes and to the increasing number of female diners, also transformed the nature of food service work and spurred feminization.
Harvey Girls, Hashers, and Tea Room Maids
The feminization of food service in the independent restaurant sector resembled that of hotel dining: the kinds of jobs held by women multiplied much faster than those held by men, and women displaced men in jobs that had traditionally been reserved for male personnel. Before the twentieth century, waitresses could be found serving food in boardinghouses, music halls, private clubs, and such commercial establishments as Fred Harvey's famous chain that fed railroad passengers along the Santa Fe system, but the vast majority of independent restaurants relied on male waiters. Waiters predominated in the more elegant restaurants where "fashion demanded the superior presence of the male" and in numerous other environments thought improper for the nineteenth-century working girl: aboard ocean vessels, in railroad dining cars, and in the saloons and bars set up for the urban working man. Having replaced the old-style tavern and corner grocer as the favorite urban drinking dispensary by the mid-nineteenth century, saloons competed for patrons by offering free food with the purchase of a 5 cent schooner of beer. Typical establishments provided a buffet from n to 3, a hot meal at 5 o'clock, and a final repast about midnight. One Chicago saloon employed five full-time countermen just to carve the meats and fill the platters for hungry patrons.
In the 1910s and 1920s, waiting jobs opened up to women as new types of restaurants prospered and "eating out" became a pastime no longer reserved for the rich or the single male businessman or traveler. Between 1900 and 1930, the number of restaurants nationwide more than tripled, and by 1938 more than one million people were employed in eating establishments. The new consumer demand for restaurant dining arose for a variety of reasons. The wealthy, accustomed to fine continental dining when away from home, began patronizing fashionable restaurants in their own local communities. Smaller, apartment-style homes and the loss of domestic help—between 1900 and 1940 the ratio of servants to private families fell 36 percent—also sent many of the wealthy into the public sphere in search of lavish service and culinary elegance. But the largest group of additional restaurant patrons came from the middle and lower classes.
Changes in the living patterns of the urban working classes fostered more dining out among the general public. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, boardinghouses had provided the comforts of home (in a limited fashion) to unattached men and women. Then, rooming and lodging houses dominated the trade, offering living quarters for newly arrived immigrant workers as well as for the army of clerks, stenographers, and shopgirls streaming into the inner cities from the surrounding countryside. But, unlike boardinghouse keepers, few proprietors in the furnished room districts prepared culinary fare, and fewer still provided kitchen facilities. Consequently, a small but thriving industry of cafes, tea rooms, "hash houses," lunchrooms, and cafeterias sprang up to serve this new clientele—a large portion of which was female—and to compete with the older working-class taverns. The "roomers" were joined by the growing throngs of urban commuters, middleclass female shoppers, and tourists, all clamoring to be fed. Drugstores added soda fountains; department stores offered lunch counters and even full-menu restaurants. During World War I, servicemen and the newest female labor force entrants frequented commercial eating establishments as well.
Restaurant entrepreneurs competed for this new mass market with simplified food delivery systems that lowered costs while increasing convenience. Customers in the Childs Dairy Lunch or the Thompson's or Waldorf chain sat at one-armed desk seats and bused their own trays. Drive-ins and prepackaged mobile lunch cars opened their awnings. The Automat, introduced by two Philadelphia lunchroom operators, Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, took self-service one step beyond the cafeteria—"the restaurant industry's first attempt at emulating the assembly line." The Automat relied on a mechanized service approach in which patrons retrieved precooked dishes from under glass cubicles by simply dropping in the right combination of coins. Some lamented this new style of food consumption: "Eating is no longer a 'fine art,'" protested an observer in 1932, "but is becoming a sort of 'hit and run matter.'" Despite protests, the trend continued.
The move toward inexpensive, simple dining added to the demand for women. The cheaper labor of women was necessary where employer profits were lower. The quick yet personable service needed in informal eateries also clashed with the leisurely, aloof style of the male waiter, traditional in full-service, formal restaurants and upper-class homes. The presence of a friendly, attractive female server suited owners perfectly. As one Cleveland manager confided: waiters simply "did not respond to his suggestions for courteous and smiling service."
With employers emphasizing beauty, sex appeal, and a pleasing personality, waiters found it difficult to compete. According to one: "It is hard to overcome the prejudice of the bosses regarding the small items wherein we constantly fall down, to-wit, lacking neatness in our appearance, forgetting how to smile, demonstrating our animosities toward one another for all to observe." The only exceptions were restaurant owners of "certain nationalities who accept our [male] service because of old customs which were established in the land of their birth ... where waiters typify high-class standards." Other waiters were more sanguine, believing that waitresses would be limited to "drug and other stores with lunch counters." They argued that there was "still a place in the sun for the real service waiter" or the "first class waiter" who worked "in the best jobs."
In the 1920s, restaurateurs also began experimenting with restaurant decor, hoping to appeal to the growing consumer taste for style and novelty. Restaurants lagged behind department stores and other retail businesses in responding to the "new ethos of consumption which emphasized color, spectacle, and sensual pleasure," but by the 1920s many recognized that restaurant dining could fill psychological and social needs as well as dietary ones. Concerned with creating "an atmosphere divorced from everyday reality," one Los Angeles businessman designed an interior that "captured the feeling of a redwood forest." A neighboring cafeteria resembled a tropical paradise—complete with simulated rainfall. Others strove for more modest effects: a relaxed, "homey" atmosphere familiar to the new, non-elite diner or a subdued upper-class drawing-room environment suitable for female teas and luncheons.
By and large, employers preferred women in these new-style eateries. Few of the exotic "theme" restaurants called for men: women were more suited for the role of decorative object. One of New York's most popular restaurants hired young, attractive waitresses to match its elaborate color scheme: "service in the Fountainette room is by waitresses with red hair; in the main dining room, blondes; in the lunch room, brunettes." Indeed, one industry analyst in Restaurant Management recommended matching waitresses to each other, observing that "a corps of waitresses of uniform size and color" could add as much to a restaurant interior as expensive or unusual furnishings. Even employers who worked the more traditional theme of "family-style dining" preferred female servers to complete the effect; in this case, however, they looked for the nurturing, motherly type. Tea rooms, department store restaurants, and other light luncheon spots that catered to a predominantly female clientele hired women as well, admonishing them to act and dress like maids in upper-class homes.
The advent of Prohibition in 1920 opened up further opportunities for women. Overnight, bars were transformed into soda fountains, luncheonettes, or coffee shops. "Practically all the eating houses established ... where bars were formerly located are employing girls," a Los Angeles culinary union organizer observed. Victorian society demanded higher standards of morality from women than from men; women were expected to abstain from drinking, serving, or mixing liquor, or even being in the presence of liquor consumption. Without liquor, many drinking and eating spots became more acceptable places for both female patrons and servers. Owners also sought the cheaper labor of waitresses because restaurants without liquor made less profit. "We old-time hams have become obsolete since the service houses have dispensed with the handling of alcoholic beverages," a veteran waiter wrote. By the end of the 1920s, women claimed 59 percent of all table service jobs nationwide (Table 1).
Although black women had never comprised a large percent of the occupation, their proportion dropped precipitously after 1920 and never recovered. In 1920, 12.1 percent of waitresses were black, by 1930 only 7.6 percent (Table 2A). Because of their sex, black women had been excluded from the waiting jobs in which black men had found acceptance—those in elegant hotels, trains, and other situations that catered to travelers and businessmen, did not require a homelike, informal, or intimate atmosphere and hence were more amenable to black and male personnel. Yet because of their race, they were at a disadvantage in competing for the new jobs opening up to women.
Excerpted from Dishing It Out by DOROTHY SUE COBBLE. Copyright © 1991 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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I The Occupational Community of Waitressing.................... 15
CHAPTER ONE The Rise of Waitressing: Feminization, Expansion, and
CHAPTER TWO Work Conditions and Work Culture.................... 34
II Waitresses Turn to Economic and Political Organization.................. 59
CHAPTER THREE The Emergence and Survival of Waitress Unionism, 1900–1930.. 61
CHAPTER FOUR The Flush of Victory, 1930–55.................... 86
III The Waitress as Craft Unionist.................... 113
CHAPTER FIVE Uplifting the Sisters in the Craft.................... 115
CHAPTER SIX Waitress Unionism: Rethinking Categories.................... 137
IV Controversies over Gender.................... 149
CHAPTER SEVEN "Women's Place" in the Industry.................... 151
CHAPTER EIGHT "Women's Place" in the Union.................... 174
EPILOGUE The Decline of Waitress Unionism.................... 192
APPENDIX Tables and Figures.................... 205
Abbreviations Used in the Notes.................... 219
Posted February 1, 2002