The American Waiter: A Turn of the Century Perspective

That’s a 19th-going-on-20th century perspective, to clarify. In 1902, John B. Goins, an  African-American waiter in Chicago, wrote a manual, The American Colored Waiter. Nor was this your basic “how to serve food” instruction. With notes on everything from dress codes to carving, and from setting a banquet to why one shouldn’t accept tips, Goins tried to cover everything. Two copies of this book are in public libraries. By 1908, he produced a second edition, not commonly found in libraries, which contained directions for serving in American hotels.

This past summer, Special Collections was lucky enough to acquire a third edition, published in 1914, The American Waiter: Instructions in American and European Plan Service, Banquet and Private Party Work. This volume is actually written in two parts, the second being Goins’ appendix, which tackles the European service experience.

The American Waiter is a fascinating little book and a wonderful look into the history of service and dining. It is filled with illustrations and tables, documenting everything from how to serve multiple diners at a single table, seated at different times to how to build complex banquet seating.

Like many new acquisitions, this book made the rounds through several offices in Special Collections before it found its way to cataloging. One of the pages in the gallery above, pg. 189, caught everyone’s attention. While Goins isn’t advocating waiters do the job of other kitchen staff, he does devote some pages to basic recipes and certain…delicacies, shall we say? The animal and recipe depicted? “Planked ‘Possum a la Higginbotham.” It seems best to spare some of the details, but this recipe does include directions like:

Have a good-sized oak board perforated with holes. Split the opossum on under side from head to tail…Place a weight at points 4 to hold the ‘possum down until it commences to brown…Cut up dressing in diamond shape…Place the plank on a large platter and present to guest.

I can’t help but notice the use of the singular “guest” here and wonder whether it’s a mistake or there would only be one person willing to attend this dinner…

Goins provides both obvious lists of “do and don’ts” throughout parts 1 & 2. He also hides them in and among his text, like so many juicy tidbits. Most of them wouldn’t surprise and are still important in high-end service today: present yourself nicely, know your menu, don’t forget to keep the water glasses full. There are a few practical hints: “Don’t play or get familiar with the female help,” don’t complain, and don’t spend time in the bar. Then there are a few things a little less familiar in the modern age: “don’t strike,” don’t talk too much to the home owner if you are privately serving at a hosted party, and, surprisingly, don’t expect a tip. Goins has a great deal to say on the subject of tipping and doesn’t hesitate to expound:

I have always been opposed to the accepting of tips. Only once have I had the opportunity to work under the NO TIP system…I found there almost ideal conditions for the waiter and secured uniformly good service in the dining room. To me, the tip seems more in the nature of a bribe; or, rather, it is so given in many instances, the waiter being expected to favor the party who tips him.

And if you are in a place that allows tipping, don’t make a fuss if you do get a tip, he adds. No need to embarrass those who don’t plan to give you that something extra. Goins recommends eradicating the entire system of tipping…but clearly, the service industry didn’t agree.

Our History of Food & Drink Collection covers lots of topics and has a more than a few manuals. Until recently, though, most of them household variety, aimed at ladies and young women. The American Waiter from 1914 makes a nice companion piece to a 2010 addition to Special Collections, The Expert Waitress (1896) that we featured back in January. Manuals for specific groups of people is a bit new for us, but entirely relevant. It’s just as important to know what about the history of who was serving and making food as it is to know who what in charge of the food.

This post only scratches the surface of a wide-ranging and intriguing volume (and there’s more than just possum, I promise!). If you can’t check it out with us, take a look online. And don’t forget to tip your server!

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6 thoughts on “The American Waiter: A Turn of the Century Perspective

  1. What an interesting sounding book! My stepfather was a European Goldmeister transplanted to the US. During the Great Depression he performed any kind of work, including waiting table. He regarded everything that he did with professional acumen, and insisted that a good waiter observe all the rules of courtesy and attention, plus should always wear dark suit, white shirt and a jacket, and always carry a white towel over his arm to care for any spills, wipe glasses before pouring wine, etc. These days most waiters don’t even know where to place the cutlery or drinking glasses.

    As for tipping – sadly, most restaurateurs these days pay minimum wages and rely on tips to complete the income of their employees. That’s really difficult and tiring work, too – so we tip according to effort and service, but try to allow at least 20% to the best. Sometimes more under special circumstances or exemplary performance. You can still find “professionals” out there, but they are few and far between!

    1. Goins actually does make the same point, Lee. While he may view tipping as a “bribe,” he does also go on to say that it is expected in so many places because wages don’t meet necessity…

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