As the turn of the twentieth century approached, New York was at the tail end of nearly a century of non-stop transfiguration. The post-Civil War war boom had been especially good to the industrialists and financiers of Manhattan. Corporate headquarters were springing up in droves, validating the city as the commercial capital of the nation, maybe the world. The inexhaustible supply of cheap labor from Europe had been stoking the fire of local industry (now an inferno) for decades.
Buildings were coming down and going up—mostly going up—as soaring land values pushed construction skyward. The bristle of skyscrapers was beginning. The grid had asserted its form as the city moved up the island, past Wall Street, past 14th, where the visionary Commissioners Plan of 1811 went into effect. At the island’s edge, speedy, efficient steamboats had long since replaced old-world masts and sails. Horsecars and foot traffic over roads that at the century’s halfway point were still mostly unpaved gave way to steam trains and then elevated steam trains that showered the street with soot and sparks as they thundered and shrieked past the tenement windows and gave way, in turn, to electric trains and subways and, eventually, automobiles, all shifting the population around the island—or, by century’s end, onto or off the island—for the purpose of making and spending money.
For most of the nineteenth century, the white-collar layer of commercial New York had been male. As the industrial economy ramped up with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, and then again in the postwar era, it was men who filled the trains and stations and sidewalks and the offices mushrooming across Manhattan; even as demographic and architectural changes transmogrified New York, the spheres of gender were preserved, prima facie evidence of the natural order. But with post-war expansion and nascent regulation across many sectors, administrative demands expanded, as well. Typists, stenographers, switchboard operators, telephonists—many new roles that hadn’t yet been gender-coded—were becoming necessary to manage scaled-up endeavors from Wall Street to the Garment District to Broadway. In an era besotted with profit, the bottom line dictated conditions in 1900 (when thirty percent of Manhattan’s clerical workers were female) that would have been almost literally unthinkable just two decades before (when virtually none of them were.) Women’s labor cost less. Traditional social spheres collapsed, and what had till then been the exclusive, worldly world of men was transformed into something New Yorkers hadn’t been seen since pre-industrial days: a commercial world occupied by men and women together.
When rank-and-file office workers of the old, male order took their lunch breaks, they headed for fraternal venues: saloons, cafes, and buffets that served a Merchant’s Lunch—pre-prepared for quick service, cheap, no tipping, and you could eat standing up, a break from the desk. Or they settled in among the smoke and bustle and noise of one of the one-arm joints, where clerks and copyists and cashiers stuffed themselves into stiff chairs with attached tray arms (you might remember them from grade-school), crunched between two other scarfing office workers for the ten minutes it took to bolt coffee, sandwiches, pie, donuts. From the restauranteurs’ perspective, feeding the largest number of office workers in the shortest time was the only way to survive in the high-rent business districts. Ambiance was not an issue.
Female clerical workers, whose relative refinement and respectability were their passport to this shared world, also needed quick, cheap food, served close to their offices. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, women unaccompanied by men had been more or less verboten in New York eating establishments; with the rise of the department store, female-only venues or sections of existing restaurants established a modest presence in the city. But the genteel customs of the tearoom, with its delicate, frivolous fare and leisured pace, were more in tune with a day of shopping than the working day, and an invasion of the male territory of the saloon or one-arm joint was something no one wanted. What was needed was a new kind of restaurant: a place where both men and respectable unaccompanied women—and, incidentally, people across the most of the social spectrum—could eat under the same roof in social comfort. Restaurants that deliberately and thoughtfully invented that environment enjoyed their own boom in business, complete with rapid expansion. Two of the most successful, Childs (1889) and Horn and Hardart (1912, in New York), relied on two key values, hygiene and high class, to create a lunch-hour setting that was essentially the commercial expression of the Progressive Era’s ideal America: a well-crafted structure with European references, housing the scientifically optimized provision of wholesome necessities and luxuries to a well-mannered, if diverse, constituency.
‘Hygiene’ was to marketing terminology at the epidemic-intensive turn of the century what ‘authenticity’ is today. The great lunchrooms deftly telegraphed reassuringly impeccable standards of cleanliness that ensured female visitors felt not only acknowledged, but honored—even flattered— by the implication that their personal standards were exquisite. Adherence to what one contemporary called a “ladies’ cult of hygiene” was expressed in the white-tiled floors and white marble tables; in the WASPy menu, reassuringly sanctioned; in the nurselike white, starched uniforms and caps on the waitresses, who were themselves just emerging, in this type of environment, into a measure of professional respectability.
Along with hygiene, expressions of gentility respectfully acknowledged and reinforced the refined sensibilities of both male and female customers, and ensured that the gentlemen and the lower classes were inspired to mind their manners. At Childs’, chandeliers lusciously illuminated the sanitary space; at Horn and Hardart’s flagship Automat, diners passed through a shimmering façade of beautifully-executed stained glass thirty feet wide and two stories high; under carved and colored ceilings they enjoyed superior “gilt-edge” drip coffee dispensed from spouts shaped like silvery dolphins. Price: five cents.
Another nickel would get you a stack of the English-muffinesque bread below. Enjoy them for a quick, comforting lunch the same way Childs prepared them for the office workers of late nineteenth century—split, with butter—though, alas, without the chandelier.
Childs Butter Cakes
[Makes about 24]
1 (7-gram) package active dry yeast
3 cups warm water (about 100 degrees)
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
Dissolve the yeast in 2 cups warm water (100 degrees). Add salt and butter and stir until the butter is melted.
Gradually add 2 cups of the flour, stirring with a fork or whisk to blend the flour into the liquid. When you have a thin batter cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and set aside in a draft-free place until the mixture is light and seething, bubbles bursting regularly on the top—30 to 45 minutes.
Add 1 cup more warm water and stir it in.
Gradually add the remaining flour, stirring it in with a wooden spoon, until a cohesive dough forms.
Turn the dough out onto a well-floured board and knead for 5 minutes. You should have a soft and silky dough. Return the dough to the bowl. Cover with a towel and let it rise again, this time until doubled in bulk, about 30 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto the well-floured board.
Using about a quarter of the dough at a time, roll out the dough ¼ inch thick. Using a 3-inch round cookie cutter, cut out circles of the dough.
Let the rounds of dough rise for about 15 minutes.
With a spatula, transfer the rounds to a well-seasoned griddle preheated over medium-low heat. As soon as the first side of a cake is lightly browned, turn it over. Repeat this turning several times to ensure even cooking. When finished, both sides will be nicely browned, and the muffin will be puffy but firm to the touch. Continue with the remaining dough.
Cook on wire racks. Store in the refrigerator wrapped in tinfoil. Or split the cakes and store them in plastic bags in the freezer. (Presplit, they are ready to toasted without thawing.)
To serve, split the cakes with a serrated knife and toast on the cut side. Serve with butter, jam, jelly, or preserves.