"Meet Me at the Fountain": Suffrage, Department Stores, and Food

On Sixth Avenue, the famous Greenhut Siegel Cooper Company department store was ubiquitous and immediately recognizable. At six stories, it was the largest department store in New York City. Designed in the Beaux Arts style in 1896, the building invoked French neoclassicism in the center of New York. The crowning jewel of the store was the fountain in the center of the store, and it led to the phrase “meet me at the fountain.” Like a modern shopping mall fountain, it was a spot for rendezvous and relaxation. Francis Morrone affectionately described, “The quintessential New York experience was to buy a five-cent ice-cream soda and sit beside the fountain, taking in the pageantry of fashionably attired women making their shopping rounds.” The appropriately named “Big Store–A City in Itself” was in the heart of the Ladies’ Mile, the most influential shopping district in Manhattan.

The early twentieth century was an unprecedented time for women. During this period, women enjoyed an increasing degree of socially acceptable movement in public spaces. Previously, they were subjected to male chaperoning in public, especially for young women. However, Gilded Age consumer culture in the 1900s allowed them to access public space in a new, unheralded way. Free from husbands and fathers, elite women could indulge in shopping. On the other hand, working-class women relied on these department stores as a source of employment and independence. Both types of women benefited from this on-site tea room. While working-class women were employed, elite ladies were free to have discussions away from the prying ears of men.

We Want to Vote for President in 1904. MCNY Collections. Museum of the City of New York. 1904.

At this time, suffrage and temperance were the two most important political and social movements for women. Eight years after this menu’s publication, both prohibition and female voting rights were enacted. Both tea rooms and department stores played a necessary role in feminizing politics by creating safe and intrinsically female spaces for peer-to-peer social interaction.

Department stores were relatively new but vital inventions. Mass-produced goods allowed women to shop in one place for their families instead of making it themselves or through hired help. More importantly, women began to shop partially for pleasure instead of pure necessity. The female-centric design of department stores was intentional, and drove one California store owner to describe his store as an “Adamless Eden.” Women could shop with an unprecedented level of independence surrounded by mostly female employees. 

While the department store interiors were very feminine, the sidewalks were more gender neutral. This allowed activists in California, New York, and Great Britain to use storefronts as their ‘political arena.’ This notion of protest emerged when wealthy suffragettes utilized their purchasing power to buy out department store windows, decorating them with pamphlets and their signature yellow color. Suffragettes could publicly advertise their cause to women and men across class lines without worrying about the possible dangers of protesting. 

Bain News Service, Publisher. Suffragette meeting in gymnasium, New York
. , . 2/16/08 date created or published later by Bain. Photograph.

The significant purchasing power of women caused department stores and other manufacturers to target advertisements towards those sympathetic to suffrage. For instance, a Knox Gelatine ad from the era depicted two women, one dressed for the house and the other possibly for work, who are ready to “cast their votes” for Knox Gelatine. Companies willingly presented radical ideas and even reconciliation between two types of women because this idea sold so well. Purchasing power as a form of leverage was a distinct blend of progressive ideologies and Gilded Age capitalism. Store owners probably realized that being unsympathetic to suffragettes alienated their primary clientele. To demonstrate their devotion to suffrage, one store invited its female customers to vote in an election for the charity that would receive the most donations during its annual charitable bid. This not only demonstrated the importance of progressive philanthropy in business, but also left no doubt about their stance on suffrage in the minds of their mostly female clientele. The advertisements at Greenhut Siegel-Cooper targeted women very carefully. Even products intended for men were advertised more for their wives and less for them. These ads also recognized the savvy of these women and were more about good deals rather than prestigious products. Generally, company owners recognized and appreciated their female clientele. 

Department store tea rooms served as a conduit for women’s activism by creating an inherently feminine space. Restaurants generally barred women unaccompanied by a man, so these served as essentially the only communal and acceptable eating establishments. The first tea rooms operated inside women’s homes, and they served an essential role in allowing women to make their own money. Designed as “counter-attractions to gin-shops” in Scotland during its temperance movement, they quickly spread throughout the United Kingdom.

The American tea room ideology had a similar political bent, but it also served as an alternative to heavy tavern-style meals. The Siegel and Cooper menu reflects this  aversion to heavy foods. For lunch, ladies could order oysters and soups for appetizers. Entrees were also surprisingly light–including items like chicken pie with tea biscuits and sandwiches. Desserts included dainty, womanly food like ladyfingers and chocolate eclairs. While taverns existed for working and middle-class men, wealthy men tended to dine in hotels and other high-class locales. Some of these dining options provided alternative eateries for women, but this still left a gap for middle-class women’s dining. Tea rooms were the perfect alternative for these women, but it also gave women some agency by running their own businesses. Women’s ideals about how to manage a home crept into tea room designs, as these establishments had cozy touches like flowers and candles. Tea rooms began to flourish as an alcohol-free dining alternative during Prohibition. Indeed, the teas served were central to the menu in the tea room, and included oolong, English Breakfast, and Young Hyson. Taverns had always served as an essential part of political discourse as early as the American Revolution, allowing men to espouse democratic ideals in a non-elitist, alcoholic, and masculine space. With the tavern being tossed aside, the tea room now proved that politics could be a distinctly female endeavor without the dangers alcohol present.

Hawley, Ellen. “The Department Store’s Acceptable Public Spaces for Women Pre-WWI.” Femme Fashion Forward 1880-1930, 30 Apr. 2019

If wealthy and middle-class women established these cultures, working class women ensured their success. Most of the employees in department stores and large tea rooms were women, including the majority of the 7,000 workers at Greenhut Siegel-Cooper. Advertisements from the store highlighted its willingness for female employees. The store required a variety of women, ranging from trained and experienced jewelers to cashiers and waitresses. The feminine ideal of the store is emblematic in the menu’s design. A beautiful, young, and respectable woman serves a tray of hot tea. This reminds customers that they were being provided for by the best kind of women. Progressive sentiments and reforms were evident in worker’s conditions. The store provided a lunch room for all employees, and younger employees received free lunches. They also offered on-site hospitals, and employees could take an entire day’s rest without losing pay. A tea-time speech presented by the Women’s Welfare League revealed the vital role female-run groups played in the company. Welfare secretary, L.L. Ray, described her function in securing rights for employees. Her achievements included securing a better infirmary, reading and relaxation rooms, and even a sunroof. She also detailed how the lunches were thoroughly inspected to ensure the safety of workers. While most issues went through Ray, owner Joseph Greenhut could even be reached in urgent crises. Ray also provided emotional support to these employees by tending to their “domestic issues” and giving advice. Ray’s important role within the company as welfare secretary demonstrates just how vital women were in running a successful business.

Greenhut-Siegel Cooper and its tea room were demonstrative of a larger social movement. On one hand, wealthy women could enter the newly invented car, shop for fashionable, mass-produced fashion. They could also use the power this independence provided to leverage political power for suffrage movements. Additionally, they could use this independence in the newly popular tea rooms as a gathering place for not only suffrage meetings but also towards temperance. Outside of the elite, women could confidently secure employment in these industries with a great deal of benefit. The owners of these companies, both as owners and as employers made a concerted effort to keep their female constituents happy. This specific case serves as a microcosm for a larger social change for women in the Progressive Era, and it was mostly done over tea and eclairs after buying hats. 

Bain News Service, Publisher. Suffragettes at Union Sq., New York . , . 2/16/08 date created or published later by Bain. Photograph

Endnotes

Endnotes

  1. Joyce Mendelson, Touring the Flatiron: Walks in Four Historic Neighborhoods, New York Landmarks Conservancy, 1998, 90-92
  2. “Display Ad 13 — no Title.” 1911, New York Times (1857-1922), Mar 05, 11. http://ezproxy.loyno.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/97223893?accountid=12168
  3. Francis Morrone, The Architectural Guidebook to New York City, Gibbs, 1994.
  4. Morrone, Architectural Guidebook, 1
  5. “Classified Ad 2 — no Title.” 1909, New York Times (1857-1922), Dec 05, n.p. http://ezproxy.loyno.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/96894360?accountid=12168,
  6. “19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Women’s Right to Vote (1920).” Our Documents – 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Women’s Right to Vote (1920). https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=63.
  7. Sewell, Jessica. “Sidewalks and Store Windows as Political Landscapes.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 9 (2003): 85-98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3514427. 86.
  8. Sewell, “Sidewalks”, 86.
  9. Ibid, 87.
  10. Ibid, 91.
  11. Ibid, 92.
  12. Ibid, 92.
  13. “Display Ad 45 — no Title” 1911, The New York Times (1857-1922), Sep 24 1911, X7
  14. “Display Ad 4 — no Title.” 191,. The New York Times (1857-1922), Feb 26, 1911,. 4. http://ezproxy.loyno.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/97213408?accountid=12168
  15. “Display Ad 4— no Title.”, 4.
  16. Cynthia A. Brandimarte, “To Make the Whole World Homelike”: Gender, Space, and America’s Tea Room Movement.” Winterthur Portfolio 30, no. 1 (1995), 1.
  17. Brandimarte, “To Make the Whole World Homelike”, 3.
  18. Ibid, 2.
  19. “Tea Room Greenhut Siegel Cooper Co.” Greenhut Siegel Cooper Co. 1-5.
  20. “Tea Room.”, 1.
  21. Ibid, 3.
  22. Strickland, “The Secret Feminist History of Tea Rooms”, n.p.
  23. Brandimarte, “To Make the World Homelike”, 3.
  24. “Tea Room” 3.
  25. Steven Strusinski, “The Tavern in Colonial America”, The Gettysburg Historical Journal (2003), 29.
  26. L.L Ray. “The Department Store Problem” in Annual Meeting Volume 11 by National Civic Federation, (1911), 378.
  27. “Classified ad 2 — no Title” n.p.
  28. “Tea Room Greenhut Siegel Cooper Co.”, Greenhut Siegel Cooper Co., 1.
  29. Joseph Bryce, The Square Deal, The Square Deal Press, (August 1913), 145.
  30. Bryce, The Square Deal, 146.
  31. Ray, “Department Store”, 378.
  32. Ibid, 379.
  33. Ibid, 380.

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Brandimarte, Cynthia A. “”To Make the Whole World Homelike”: Gender, Space, and America’s Tea Room Movement.” Winterthur Portfolio 30, no. 1 1995. 1-19
Bryce, Joseph. The Square Deal. Square Deal Press. August 1913. 45.
“Classified Ad 2 — no Title.” 1909. The New York Times (1857-1922). Dec 05. http://ezproxy.loyno.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/96894360?accountid=12168,
Display Ad 4 — no Title.” 1911. The New York Times (1857-1922). Feb 26. http://ezproxy.loyno.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/97213408?accountid=12168
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Mendelsohn, Joyce. Touring the Flatiron: Walks in Four Historic Neighborhoods. New York Landmarks Conservancy, 1998.
Morrone, Francis. The Architectural Guidebook to New York City. Gibbs. 1994.
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Sewell, Jessica. “Sidewalks and Store Windows as Political Landscapes.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 9 (2003): 85-98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3514427.
Strickland, Sarah. “The Secret Feminist History of Tea Rooms” JSTOR Daily, March 6, 2019.
Struzinski, Steven. “The Tavern in Colonial America”. The Gettysburg Historical Journal (2003).
“Tea Room Greenhut Siegel Cooper Co.” Greenhut Siegel Cooper Co.