Behind the Scenes in a Restaurant

Public Space: the Exchange Buffet, NYC, 1920s

In 1916, the Consumers League of New York City issued a study of 1,017 Women Restaurant

Employees. Titled, Behind the Scenes in a Restaurant, the study offered insight into the working conditions and ostensibly sought to bring about changes in laws regarding women working in the industry.

 Like other Progressive-era organizations, the Consumers League (formed in 1891) sought to tackle social problems through academic study, lobbying, and legislation. A very orderly process, well in step with a modern era. (And thus the study includes lots of good graphs and charts.)

A Waitress as Moral Subject. Illustration from the League’s Report.

But also like other do-good Progressive groups, the League revealed a significant moral undertone to its work. The League presents the waitress “class” as rife with potential problems: poverty and ignorance, and it notes with a kind of calm alarm that many waitresses in New York are foreign-born and live in tenements. (!)

This kind of characterization is in keeping with the mindset of the Progressive movement. Many upper class, educated, and well-meaning people (including large numbers of women) looked to the city as a place full of problems and sought to “clean it up.”

The league saw in the waitress someone in dire need of an application of the League’s noblesse oblige.  Why she is a potential victim! A feminine figure who needs protection! At one point, the report notes, her work as a waitress can even threaten her “child-bearing” capacity.

Of course the work of the waitress was long and hard. And there is no doubt she was exploited. But there was also something to the career of the working woman that the League ignores. By moving out into the public sphere more and more, women were starting to be “seen” and heard. This was prelude to the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.

But the League didn’t like some of what it saw in Manhattan’s eateries.

“A certain amount of excitement attaches to the work of a restaurant waitress which appeals to young girls,” the League’s report noted. “She sees and talks to a great many people; she likes the noise and bustle and cheerful atmosphere of the dining room. Also, the employer prefers young and pretty girls as waitresses, especially where the customers are mostly men. They help to make his place attractive and popular. One waitress remarked, “When the girls get to looking bad, they are laid off and someone else is put in their place.”

Remember, you are all nice girls!

There is no doubt that the League wanted to ensure that women restaurant workers were protected against long hours, low wages, injury on the job, and a whole slate of potential liabilities involved in the work. But in some ways they also chastised women for exercising freedom of work. And they viewed the modern restaurant as a mine field for women.

The Life of a Waitress: Illustration from the League’s report, 1916.

With the early 20th-century expansion of popular (mixed gender) casual restaurants, such as diners and lunch counters, more women were working in these public spaces, and, as the League saw it more women were now susceptible to the wiles of the “crowd.” (Note that in the higher-end restaurants, the waiters remained male.)

Ironically, the kitchen had long been the premiere domestic space. But once eating shifted into the public space, it became a complicated territory to navigate.

NYC, Exchange Buffet: Come On In and Have a Bite (and Behave Yourself!)

In this new territory, the League pointed out just one of the many “moral danger[s]” facing waitresses:


Because of their position, they are peculiarly exposed to the attentions of men customers. For this very reason, the Baltimore Vice Commission recommends that only older and more experienced women be / employed in this capacity, while in Norway the law sets a minimum age limit for waitresses in public places.”


A chaste “maid-like” service uniform soon became the norm for most casual dining places. Long familiar as the outfits worn by nurses and maids, these uniforms were “correct” and almost child-like (why some even had “bibs.!”)

Lord and Taylor on 5th Ave, New York Times Ad, 1916.

Of course it was unlikely that male customers would confuse his waitress with his maid or some other “domestic” worker just because of her uniform. But the implication was there: Hands Off! This woman is a worker. She is there to serve. She is of a certain class. And she is “separated” from you by her uniform.

In a final statement (or warning to women considering restaurant work?) the League’s report observes that restaurant work is ultimately a “dead end.”

“Restaurant work is a ‘blind alley’ trade. There is little opportunity for development or advancement. What training is necessary can be acquired in a few weeks, and the only position to which a girl can look forward is that of head waitress. There are no recognized degrees of skill in any part of the work connected with a restaurant.”


Ironically, restaurant work would come to be characterized as a means to an end: think, James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce or Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life, both novels (and later film versions) include bold women who make it on their own thanks to their restaurant work.

 ~Jenny Thompson

On the Verge of a Pancake House: Louise Beavers and Claudette Colbert in Imitation of Life (1934)


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