The Life, Death, and Excellency of The Pig ‘N Whistle

On April 18, 1906, California was hit by a 7.9 magnitude earthquake, one of the most significant earthquakes of all time: The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.1 The tragedy ruptured all of San Francisco, leaving mass fires that lasting for days, the rubble of collapsed buildings collapsed buildings, and a death toll of over 3,000 individuals.2

Many of the remaining families in damaged were left homeless and unemployed. One such family belonged to John H. Gage, owner of the Hotel America in San Francisco, and his wife, Isadora “Dora” Violet Gray. Coming from a wealthy family, they used their means to effectively uproot themselves from San Francisco, going on to start a new life and business in Los Angeles. That business, then at its humble beginnings, was a little candy and soda fountain shop called the Pig ‘N Whistle.3

John Gage, the founder of The Pig ‘N Whistle

The name of this establishment derives from a variation of Old English that was originally found in English taverns (which was sometimes used in its advertisement): the Anglo-Saxon “Piggern” (Pig in the diminutive) was a vessel for milk or ale, and the “Wassail” is known as “was heal.” Together this meant “Be in Health”; a signal to the Gages’ new beginnings.4 Along with this, the first Pig ‘N Whistle location was next door to Los Angeles’ third city hall, and advertised to the public as a High Class Candy and Luncheon Place.

After finding success in Los Angeles, John Gage decided to branch his business out to other states. He soon moved to New York where he opened his “elegant soda fountain and candy shop” on Broadway. The Pig ‘N Whistle soon became a big hit throughout New York as well, serving city hall officials, celebrities, department stores, popular theaters, and many of the like. From there, Gage continued to expand his franchise by opening more establishments in New York and his now repaired hometown of San Francisco.

At this point, Gage no longer referred to the Pig ‘N Whistle as an elegant soda fountain and candy shop or a high class luncheon; he began to refer to his establishment as an American diner.

Diners

The concept of American diners began with Walter Scott, a Rhode Island entrepreneur in 1872.5 At the time, Scott had repurposed his old horse-pulled wagon into a car which served pies, sandwiches, coffee, and eggs to people late at night. The interior of the car contained an ice box and basic kitchen stoves; a setup that is very comparable to the modern version of a food truck.6 Because of this diners were then characterized as cars with large wheels, murals, overhangs, lettering, and frosted glass.

As time progressed, these diners (or diner cars) were downgraded as the cars became smaller. Owners looked into getting a more permanent establishment, though they wanted to keep the original idea of the diner cars. This desire to preserve the original aesthetic of diners led them to model modern day diners with narrow, elongated architecture and tile floors. Dating back to the genesis of diners, the concept revolving around these establishments were that they were small, inexpensive restaurants that were transferable to anywhere in the country.

The cultural and social significance of diners was that they were made to attract a wide variety of populations, varying in class status and racial background. Staying open 24 hours a day, especially in cities where the nightlife of urban culture thrives, diners were relaxed and free in nature.

Cultural Significance of Diners

Diners also signified optimism in American pop and art culture. An example of this is Norman Rockwell. In 1985, Rockwell made a famous painting called, The Runaway.7 The Runway pictures a young boy seated at the counter of a diner after running away from home, while a policeman and the diner employee look down on the little boy with a means to help. This painting signifies protection and service. This is what the American diner signified during and after it’s emergence in America. This form of optimism was then translated into television and movies as time progressed with film landmarks such as Happy Days and Grease. Overall diners have been an asset to American culture as it was made to bring optimism, unity, and affordability to all American citizens.

Pig ‘N Whistle

While abiding by the traditional diner ideals, the Pig ‘N Whistle ultimately veered away from the original diner setting and menu. The Pig ‘N Whistle’s menu consists of a typical, modern-day diner menu including cold and hot sandwiches, salads, sundaes, and drinks. Its overall construction were elaborate for its time though, as though the majority of menu prices were moderate, there was an inclusion of “fancy foods” available for those who were either upper class individuals or were willing to pay a higher price.

John Gage, priding himself on having a diner that was top quality and elegant, used his menu as a tool to articulate the goal of establishment. One menu item in particular could represent this: the “Pig’N Whistle Aristocrat” — a pricy sundae with an elegant twist in both its recipe and its presentation.

During this time, it was possible to order a “Dinner De Luxe”: a six-course meal for $1.00. Some of the dishes included were “Roast Stuffed Tom Turkey, Giblet Gravy, Cranberry Sauce” and “Grilled Lamb Chop, Calf’s Liver, Sausage, Button Mushrooms” with brabant potatoes and mint jelly.8 This dinner would come with additional courses and accompaniments such as seafood cocktails, soup, spaghetti, avocado salad, and asparagus Hollandaise. To finish, a patron would choose something sweet from a vast, 23-item dessert selection.

Being a former soda fountain and candy shop, Pig ‘N Whistle was used to catering their menu toward young children. While trying to maintain a high class atmosphere for adults, Pig ‘N Whistle also made it a priority to continue appealing to young children. This led to the creation of specialty children menus and booklets.9 Perhaps, marking the foundation of restaurant children’s booklets for dining places in the future.

Hollywood, Celebrities, and the Elite

Judy Garland

The menu, service, and location of the Pig ‘N Whistle attracted many elite individuals. After opening diners across the United States, Gage and his new business partner Sidney Hoedemaker strategically placed a new Pig ‘N Whistle on the ground floor of one of the most famous celebrity hotels in 1928: the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.10 Gage and Hoedemaker took advantage of the Hollywood scene, at the time booming with the rise of major motion picture studios, such as Warner Bros. and Paramount.

Shirley Temple

Stars such as Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, Loretta Young, Howard Hughs were seen at the diner.11 Judy Garland even had her sixteenth birthday party at the Pig ‘N Whistle.12 13 Because of the celebrity customers and the reputation the diner upheld, the Pig ‘N Whistle was always full with customers. So much so, this was even documented in fictional stories. In Bret Lott’s “Song of the South”, he writes a story about the childhood of a little girl growing up. As Lott describes her time growing up as a child in Los Angeles. He writes “And the one time they tried to get in the Pig ‘N Whistle Cafe next door… they couldn’t get in, the place was so crowded. And there are cars everywhere out there.”14 

Picture of the special kids menu at the Pig ‘N Whistle

The menu, service, location, and marketing of this diner gives insight into the core of what the Pig ‘N Whistle actually was. While the prices were reasonable for patrons, this establishment was not made for the middle nor working class citizens. Coming from a wealthy background, Gage wanted to make his diner an environment that would serve individuals like himself and those above his status.

This is evident in his careful selection of naming the foods on his menu, his intentional placement of the diner property, and Gage’s overall mission statement for what he wanted the Pig ‘N Whistle to represent. One can also draw this conclusion from the illustrations on the menu itself. The front and back of the menu displays pigs dressed in tuxedos, playing various instruments, holding presents, and above is a huge castle with lights signifying Hollywood. Gage’s diner was made for the enjoyment of the elite and those alike.

While this diner catered towards the higher end of life, the Pig ‘N Whistle never lost its playful nature. As previously mentioned, this diner started out as a small candy and soda shop. The menu displays a wide variety of specially made sweets and sodas for everyone to enjoy, especially the children. It is also evident that the Pig ‘N Whistle takes special care in providing for the younger generation, as they made special booklets an varying unique menus for the children to enjoy. As well as hosting child celebrities daily. The Pig ‘N Whistle, in a way, resembled the previously mentioned Norman Rockwell painting, The Runaway. Bringing a sense of optimism, unity, service, and more. Though Pig ‘N Whistle failed in its lack of diversity and inclusion regarding class status, this establishment fulfilled their mission and successfully exceeded their limitations, making the diner a household name in the 1920s.

The Death

Soon after hitting its peak in the 20s, the United States entered the second World War, which changed Americans’ lives and the way Americans ate. As the United States fell into the Great Depression, the economy collapsed and unemployment rose. Dining out became more of a luxury than an everyday thing. Instead citizens and food businesses turned to rationing, which negatively impacted the multiple Pig ‘N Whistle diners across the nation. Some Pig ‘N Whistle diners closed, but the locations in big cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, were able to stay open.

After the War ended in the 1940s, urban areas were abandoned by many American families for a new life in suburbia.15 These spaces were larger in landscape and gave individuals space to raise their families. Needless to say, this was not good business for the Pig ‘N Whistle cooperation, and they began closing the majority of their diners. By the beginning of the 1950s, Pig ‘N Whistle was reduced to five locations in it’s birthplace of California: Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Long Beach, and San Diego.16

With the turn of a new decade comes new technological advancements, enjoyments, and places that captured the Pig ‘N Whistle demographic. With the rise of automobiles, cars, drive-in movies, large family restaurants, and the development of TV, this changed the habits of so many Americans. Inside of going out and heading to a local diner, individuals saw it easier to watch TV or go to a bigger restaurant that is catered to specifically for large family sizes. People no longer saw the need to travel out of their way to a diner that did not fulfil their current needs.

The last two Pig ‘N Whistle establishments that were still last spotted in 1968 in California17 before its closing in the latter half of the 1900s, the date remaining undefined.

Conclusion

It is without doubt that the Pig ‘N Whistle has made major contributions to American ideals and standards of diners within the United States. Dating back to the genuineness and amazing marketability of John Gage and the Pig ‘N Whistle, this restaurant will go on to maintain its legacy throughout history.

Written By: ECSELMON

Originally Published: December 11th, 2020 || Last Updated: May 28th, 2022

A part of Doc Studio’s History of Food in America Collection

Bibliography

  1. “Famous in Its Day: Pig’n Whistle.” Restaurant-ing through history. Restaurant-ing through history, May 26, 2011. https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2011/05/26/famous-in-its-day-pign-whistle/.
  2. “Pig N’ Whistle Restaurant.” IAMNOTASTALKER, June 15, 2009. https://www.iamnotastalker.com/2009/06/15/pig-n-whistle-restaurant/.
  3. “Pig’n Whistle: Menus: Whats on the Menu?” Nypl.org, 2011. ttp://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/59276/explore.
  4. “Recreating Judy Garland’s 16th Birthday Party Menu.” 2020. Documentary & Oral History Studio. documentary & oral history studio. December 12, 2020. https://docstudio.org/2020/12/12/recreating-judy-garlands-16th-birthday-party-menu/.
  5. Russell, Joan. “The History of the American Diner.” pastemagazine.com. Paste Magazine, September 6, 2016. https://www.pastemagazine.com/food/the-history-of-the-american-diner/#:~:text=The%20concept%20of%20the%20diner,sell%20food%20from%20the%20wagon.&text=In%201913%20Jerry%20Mahoney%20established%20the%20first%20stationary%20diner..
  6. Gelakoska, Veronica. Pig ‘N Whistle.
  7. “Song of the South on JSTOR.” Jstor.org, 2016. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41402522?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=%28%22pig+n%27+whistle%22%29&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoAdvancedSearch%3Fgroup%3Dnone%26q0%3D%25E2%2580%259Cpig%2Bn%25E2%2580%2599%2Bwhistle%25E2%2580%259D%26q1%3D%26q2%3D%26q3%3D%26q4%3D%26q5%3D%26q6%3D%26sd%3D%26ed%3D%26pt%3D%26isbn%3D%26f0%3Dall%26c1%3DAND%26f1%3Dall%26c2%3DAND%26f2%3Dall%26c3%3DAND%26f3%3Dall%26c4%3DAND%26f4%3Dall%26c5%3DAND%26f5%3Dall%26c6%3DAND%26f6%3Dall%26acc%3Don%26la%3D%26so%3Drel&ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_phrase_search%2Fcontrol&refreqid=fastly-default%3A2cb92b6b39ee5f6a1fa385ab090a141d&seq=9#metadata_info_tab_contents.
  8. “The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.” Usgs.gov, 2021. https://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/events/1906calif/18april/.
  9. “The Runaway.” Nrm.org, 2021. http://www.nrm.org/thinglink/text/Runaway.html.

Footnotes

  1. (“The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake” 2021)
  2. (“The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake” 2021)
  3.  (Pig ‘N Whistle 2015)
  4.  (“Pig’n Whistle: Menus: Whats on the Menu?” 2011)
  5.  (Russell 2016)
  6.  (Russell 2016)
  7.  (“The Runaway” 2021)
  8.  (“Pig’n Whistle: Menus: Whats on the Menu?” 2011)
  9.  (“Famous in Its Day: Pig’n Whistle” 2011)
  10.  (Pig ‘N Whistle 2015)
  11.  (“Pig N’ Whistle Restaurant” 2009)
  12.  (Pig ‘N Whistle 2015)
  13. (“Recreating Judy Garland’s 16th Birthday Party Menu” 2020)
  14.  (“Song of the South on JSTOR” 2016)
  15.  (Pig ‘N Whistle 2015)
  16. (Pig ‘N Whistle 2015)

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