When we think of departments stores today, we are often confronted with the frenzied madness of Black Friday sales or the panicked search for a last minute Christmas gift. Believe it or not, this was not always the case. There was a time in American history, particularly at the turn of the twentieth century, when trips to department stores were leisurely endeavors and an essential act in creating modern consumer culture. We can can see evidence of this bygone shopping experience clearly displayed in the Siegel and Cooper Quick Luncheon menu.
The Quick Luncheon menu is a construct of the place, purpose and time. An examination of the Siegel and Cooper directory puts the location of Quick Luncheon on the fourth floor. Such a location, buried in the heart of the store suggests the lunch room may serve a number of purposes. First, in order for a customer to grab lunch, they would have to traverse three floors of tempting material goods. This seems like an excellent business strategy for increasing the bottom line. After all, why just sell a sandwich and a cup of coffee when one could sell both those items along with a fashionable new hat? Secondly, and most importantly, the motivation for the location of the lunch room seems to be a device to keep the shopper captive. It stands to reason that the more time a shopper stays in the store the more money they will spend.
Now to the menu itself. A quick examination of the offered fare gives one the impression of informality. There are a variety of sandwiches and entrees to select from a sturgeon sandwich to lamb stew. Imported teas from China, Japan, India and Ceylon also appear on the menu showing evidence of global trade. The mention of tea from Ceylon is interesting as Ceylon is now modern day Sri Lanka. In 1906 the Pacific island was a part of the British Empire.
Tea could be ordered for one or purchased in a small pot to share. Iced tea is also on the menu along with a variety of other iced drinks such as Morgan’s Imperial Ginger Ale by the bottle. Kindly ask for it by name if you please. In 1906 iced drinks were quite a luxury item and must have hit the spot on a hot August day in Manhattan. By this time, ice was mechanically produced and delivered in blocks. The server would then chip off pieces with a pick small enough for a glass. Think about that next time you use the ice dispenser on a home fridge!
Some of the items in the cold meat section tell the tale of country people migrating to urban areas. The inclusion of pickled pigs feet seems to speak of formerly country people seeking comfort in a familiar food item that may not have been palatable to most urbanites. The turn of the Twentieth Century was a time of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Factories drew people in mass from rural parts of the country to the city in order to find work. The same could be said of the offerings of sliced ox tongue and tongue and potato salad. Frankfurters with sauerkraut also show the influence of mass German migration during the later part of the nineteenth century. In some ways this menu can be seen as a bit of an immigrant’s story both foreign and domestic.
The section of this menu that tells us the most about department store dining its extensive offering of sweet items. The Quick Luncheon menu has 17 different in-house made pastries alone. They also feature an assortment of fresh fruit pies as well a decadent ice cream flavors served with macarons. This suggests that the Quick Luncheon restaurant catered to as much of a tea and coffee crowd as a mid-day meal customer. This menu also suggests that the Quick Luncheon of 1906 was frequented mostly by women. “The store was female territory: socially determined gender roles cast women as consumers, and store practices encouraged and intensified this tendency” (Benson, 76). One could imagine a group of female shoppers taking a break to talk of the latest fashions and enjoy a lettuce sandwich, a bowl of custard and a cup of coffee.
Beyond this, the Quick Luncheon menu was created for a certain type of women, particularly one with a reasonable amount of disposable time and income. This menu gives a glimpse into the lifestyle of the emerging American middle class. The rise of corporate dominance of the American business landscape created a new class of urban white collar male workers. They earned enough that their wives did not have to work and as a result had a great amount of leisure time. “A generous family budget provided not only consumer goods to fit styles of life that demanded ever more elaborate commodities, but also comparative leisure for the housewife…” (Benson, 77).
On the whole, the Siegel and Cooper Quick Luncheon menu tells a truly American story. It tells the tale of assimilation of cultures both foreign and rural into an urban setting, the creation of a safe space for women outside of the home and the rise of the American middle class. It also gives us a glimpse into the glory days of the great American department store. Now, who wants to join me for a tongue sandwich?