Friday, August 7, 2020

Can a Girl Get a Drink (in 19th century America)?

by Patti Sherry-Crews

Could a woman on her own get a drink in a restaurant before the 20th century in America? Could she order a meal? Could two female friends meet up in a hotel to catch up over lunch? The answer is no, no, and no.

Restaurants were the purview of men. Lunch hour business meetings or stepping out for a quick meal when running home was inconvenient was part of a man’s world. A woman could go into a restaurant but only accompanied by a man who wanted to show her off.

It’s an interesting reflection on the mindset of men at the time that they thought women dining alone could invite unwelcome attention, be subject to unwholesome ogling, or heaven’s forbid, she might be a prostitute drumming up business.

Some hotels had what was called a Ladies’ Ordinary. A women-only room set aside in a restaurant or hotel for respectable ladies to dine.

But fear not! There was a fun place for ladies to meet up. Behold the Ice Cream Saloon! These havens of purity didn’t serve alcohol, knowing women abhor liquor (what!?). Ice cream saloons were placed near stores because after a hard day of shopping a group of ladies could relax with light fare. The fare being ice cream and oysters (who is thinking these things on behalf of 19th century women? Oh, yeah, 19th century men). 

The ice cream saloons were decorated to look like the parlors the women had in their homes (so as not to distress or confuse the ladies by placing them in unfamiliar settings, I suppose). Hence the later term ice cream parlors.

Ironically, these ice cream saloons did take on the unsavory reputation that excluding women from restaurants tried to avoid. Because the ice cream saloons were not restricted to ladies only, they became a handy place for unchaperoned young people to meet on the sly, or worse yet, a trysting spot for adulterous couples.

This changed in the early 20th century thanks to women activists, calling for other reforms, challenged the restaurants. This was at a time where women were joining the workforce and becoming more visible in society at large. And ultimately, the restaurant industry recognized it was profitable to them to serve women diners.

I like ice cream. I like oysters too, but I prefer to pair my oysters with a chilled bottle of Pinot Grigio while sitting at a sidewalk cafe. Or if I’m day-drinking, a Bloody Mary over an oyster bar brunch.
In my new release, His Unexpected Companion, my hero who is dining with an old friend first sets eyes the heroine. The girl only wants a decent meal and a drink before hitting the trail. Here's how she handles the situation:

“I don’t plan on being a bachelor forever, but when I meet the right girl, I’ll...” Henry’s eyes lit up and his jaw slackened like the incarnation of his every hope and dream had just stepped into the room wrapped in ribbon and carrying a birthday cake. Kit turned in his seat to see what had caused such a reaction. A vision. A woman with hair the color of mahogany piled in curls on top of her head and large eyes set in an intelligent face, where all features rested in perfect proportion. Her creamy skin had a hint of rose across the cheeks. Her dress was almost the same shade of brown as her hair, only iridescent, with a silver panel on the bodice filled with pink seed beads and narrow ribbons of light green and pink. She stood in the doorway, looking from side to side. “That’s her. That’s the woman I’m going to marry,” said Henry, his Adam’s apple rising and falling above his stiff collar. “Hang on, sport. She’s probably looking for her husband. A lady wouldn’t be here on her own.” Just then, a waiter approached the woman and said something in a low whisper. Kit turned back around. “Beautiful...” muttered Henry. The lady’s voice carried sure and clear across the room. “No, I will not sit in the lounge until my husband gets here. As I am not married, that wait could put me well beyond any dinner time in the foreseeable future.” Kit turned sideways and cocked an ear in the direction of this unseemly display. “Madame, I’m sorry we cannot serve unaccompanied ladies in the restaurant. Perhaps you’d like dinner sent up to your room?” said the waiter, still speaking in a quiet voice. “I don’t think I would like that. Do you know how long the evening can be when you’re trapped in a room? Hmmm? Thought not. No, I’m going to sit at a table right here.” The waiter bent and said something so low, Kit couldn’t hear him. Henry was staring, his face frozen. “I have one particular talent. Do you want to know what that is?” She continued to the waiter, her voice louder now. Kit and Henry exchanged wide-eyed looks. Faces turned as other diners honed in on the conversation taking place. And though he hadn’t been aware of it until it's deafening silence, the chatter of silverware on bone china ceased. The waiter must have asked her what her one talent was, because she answered with her voice very loud, now. “I can shout longer and louder than anyone else in my family. Came in handy when Ma wanted everyone called in from outdoors. Want to hear me? No? Thought not...” she leaned toward the man whispering in her ear. “Yes, get the manager, by all means. The service here is appalling.” Kit spun around again to get a glimpse of this trouble- making woman, who must surely be ashamed of herself. She stood tall and straight, her chin tilted upward. In the dim room, lit only by candles and gas lights on the walls, she shimmered from head to toe. The image of a rainbow trout of many hued scales stilled in a mountain stream came to his mind. Oh, he knew this was not the most romantic description, but seeing her now, he could almost smell the pine trees and hear the tinkling of water running down a brook. Wild, yet majestic. Holding its own against an opposing current. She looked at her audience with an unflinching countenance. The maître d’ made his way toward her, and all prepared for the next act in the drama. Henry leaned in. “Oh, here we go. It’s time someone put her in her place.” Though not his concern, Kit blushed with shame on behalf of the woman. Sometimes, a person could get them-selves into a situation that was hard to dig out of. He under- stood that. He wanted to look away, but he was riveted to the unfolding scene. The maître d’ tilted his head sideways as he quietly explained something to the woman. She sucked in her cheeks. “I see. Thank you for explaining why a woman traveling alone cannot sit down to a nice meal.” Her voice raised as if addressing the room. “However, though you haven’t exactly voiced this, what I infer from your explanation is you appear to take a dim view of your fellow beings. Either my presence is likely to result in the gentlemen here to behave in base ways—which I very much doubt, since as you say yourself this is a respectable establishment, not a saloon—or, I am here to procure more than a meal. Rest assured, I am not a prostitute.” The sound of cutlery hitting plates filled the room. Someone choked on their food. She met the flustered maître d’s eyes. “I have money of my own and intend to spend it lavishly in your establishment. Now, if you will kindly see me to a table... You may tuck me in a corner if that makes you feel better, and we shall see how well everyone behaves themselves.” He thought she was going to get shown the door for sure. But, instead, the maître d’ gave a slight bow from the waist and led the way to a table. When she passed their table, Henry ducked his head and put up a hand to shield his face, but Kit couldn’t look away. She turned her face to him as if deigning to acknowledge his presence. His mouth went dry and his chest expanded, holding a deep breath when their eyes met. She raised her eyebrows in surprise.

About the book:
Olivia Darling is her own woman—self-sufficient, intelligent, and wise to the ways of the world. She’s also beautiful enough to rile other women and garner unwanted attention from men, which could bring more danger down on her than living the outlaw life she’s taken to. Headed home to Colorado, she’s ready to put her past behind her—but what kind of reception will she get?
Kit Traver is headed home to Colorado, giving up his law practice back East to return to the place he loves—and the woman he intends to marry. His life neatly planned, this journey will give him the time he needs to be alone with nature before he takes on the responsibilities of practicing law again and being a married man. 
When Kit and Olivia meet in Denver, it’s not the best first impression—for either of them. But, they are traveling the same trail, so it’s only natural they ride along together. It’s obvious to Kit that Olivia needs his protection—if only from herself!
But traveling together ignites a fire between them that can’t be ignored, especially once they arrive, only to discover that everything has changed while they’ve been away. With her father mysteriously murdered, Olivia has her hands full trying to keep the big ranchers from pushing her off her family’s small spread. Can Olivia and Kit make a home together? Will Kit walk away from his socialite family for the love of HIS UNEXPECTED COMPANION?


Andrea Downing said...

Having been lucky enough to read this book, let me say first of all, it was truly great. But no surprise that women weren't allowed to dine alone. Having recently published a book that takes place in the '70s, I discovered that even that late women couldn't open a bank account or apply for a credit card without a husband's or male relative's counter signature. When you figure in the abuse that's been recently coming to light, there are no surprises that women's subjugation to men goes back a very long way. Thanks for a very interesting addition to that long and sorry history. I was especially interested to learn the origin of "ice cream parlor." Great stuff Patti.

Kristy McCaffrey said...

I never knew about the ice cream saloon. Somehow women always found a workaround. :-) And I'll pass on the oysters.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thanks, Andrea. I'm glad you enjoyed my book and my post! And of course, you're talking about the 1970's not the 1870's. It's hard to believe that was a restriction in OUR lifetime.
Yes, Kristy, I don't get the oysters! I had not heard of ice cream saloons either.
I'm glad you both stopped by today!

Elizabeth Clements said...

I'm so glad you wrote about ice cream parlors/saloons. I didn't know of this until your blog. Years ago when I wrote my first historical (before the age of Google) I had an ice cream parlor in my story. It's been so long since I wrote that I don't remember what research I did nor why I included it lol, just that the woman had been introduced to ice cream in Italy and brought the product to New Brunswick.It was probably one of those little gems one finds when doing research. I love your excerpt and so look forward to reading the book. In fact I'll order it right now. She is my kind of heroine.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Big hug, Elizabeth! I once had to look up ice cream parlors because I wondered when they started, because it seemed to me an unlikely thing with the refrigeration and all. I was surprised how long they've been part of the scene.

Kaye Spencer said...


I knew about ice cream parlors and that unaccompanied-by-a-male women were generally refused service in restaurants. My question to you in your research is: Was this dining without a male partner mostly found in larger cities? What I'm getting at, is if your heroine is in her home town (perhaps where she grew up or has married and moved to) and she stops by unchaperoned at Mildred's Restaurant on a Saturday when she's in town shopping, does this 'rule' still, generally, apply?

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi Kaye! My heroine is in Denver which is not her home. But I think from what I read the rules applied as women were supposed to be keeping home while the men were out taking care of business. Though, I suspect there would be some leeway as in situation you described--I can see people being more lax in small towns or more casual dining options. Interesting question!