Saturday, Jan. 1, 1921: Women who wait

Posted on February 22nd, 2006 – 10:38 PM
By Ben Welter

Sticking with the Minnesota Daily Star of 1921, we bring you “Nickeled and Dimed,” 1920s style:


It All Depends on the Girl,
They Say, Answer-
ing Charge


Written for the International News Service

New York, Dec. 31. – Does the waitress walk in the way of temptation?

According to Mrs. Frances Donovan, prominent Chicago social worker, it is the most dangerous occupation a woman can enter.

Osseo eatery
This unnamed restaurant in Osseo no doubt attracted its share of unsavory patrons in the early 1920s. (Photo courtesy

According to five representative waitresses interviewed by the writer, such sweeping statements cannot be made truthfully, and the “temptation” all depends on the “girl who waits” herself.

“Do not raise your daughter to be a waitress,” warns Mrs. Donovan, who has come to her startling conclusions after an investigation of conditions that covers nine months. In order to inform herself accurately concerning this subject, Mrs. Donovan says she has worked in restaurants, both cheap and expensive, in hotels and grill rooms, in tea shops and in exclusive clubs. All of these eating places, she says, offer a menace to the girl who works in them.

In the cheaper restaurants, she says, the patrons expect little visits with the girl who serves them food – the men who come in at other times than the rush hour.

Mrs. Donovan’s Experience

Mrs. Donovan tells of her first tip received in an exclusive tea room.

“‘ There’s 20 cents on your table, dearie,’ one of the waitresses told me. I hastened back to pick it up. I thought I had earned it. Under the dimes was the business card of my late customer, with his name, address and telephone number. I wondered why, but I soon learned the meaning of this card left for the waitress.

“The result is,” concludes Mrs. Donovan, “that almost every waitress has two or three husbands during her life; that 48 per cent of them are divorcees; that 50 percent of them are married temporarily and that the remaining 10 per cent are single.”

Judging from Mrs. Donovan’s conclusions the “waiting” business would seem to offer unparalleled opportunities to enter matrimony, but not to be secure in wedlock.

As against such reflections upon an honest calling from girls who actually wait on table for their livelihoods, the following opinions were garnered:

What Waitresses Say

“Everything depends on the girl herself,” said one trim waitress in a medium-priced restaurant. “I think it is very wrong to say such things about any one class of working people.

“As far as temptation goes, there is certainly as much in a factory; that is, as many opportunities for men to approach girls and annoy them. Or, in a department store, a man can pretend to be buying something and stop to talk to a girl if she catches his eye. I don’t believe what that social worker says about waitresses.”

In an uptown tea room a sweet-faced serious looking girl said:

“That is foolish. No man, even of the worst kind, will bother a girl if she shows him by her actions that she is not the sort he is looking for. Men respect a girl who behaves herself and will not annoy her more than once.”

An investigator of social conditions, Miss Stella Minor, prominent in the New York Probation and Protection association, was then asked to give her opinion on the subject.

Miss Minor’s Opinions

“It is difficult to get data on such a matter,” began Miss Minor. “It seems a hard thing to say, but restaurants, as a rule, are not good places for young girls.

“Few of the girls who have come under our notice have been waitresses, though. Yet we have occasional complaints.

“I have placed some girls in nurses’ homes, in hospitals and in the better class of tea rooms, where they will be in high class surroundings. I know that girls say that men in the cheaper places ‘expect’ them to be friendly.

“In one case a girl told me that when she asked for the job the manager said in reply to her complaint that the pay was too little that she would have a fine opportunity to ‘make appointments.’ She brought the matter to us. It is on such testimony as that that we do not send girls to restaurants.

Dance Halls Held Bad

“Of course, they are not like the dance halls from which we receive six complaints a month. But, nevertheless, there is this unpleasant situation constantly staring the waitress in the face. To come in contact with such a phase of life is not good for a girl, nor is it good for her to hear such advances.

“On Fifth avenue, where women shop and have lunch, and on the side streets where there are many small restaurants, it is safe and pleasant for young girls, but not elsewhere.

“The large chain restaurant systems try to keep up a standard of treatment and watchfulness for their employes. But they cannot help what the patrons may say to a girl.”

Who is right? Are young waitresses more subject to the advances of ill-intentioned men than any other class of working women?

Or will the ability of young women to make others respect their dignity overbalance such dangers as may exist in any work that brings them near the public?

Minneapolis restaurant
Minneapolis, about 1918: On the outside, at least, this unimaginatively named eatery didn’t look like much of a threat to the morals of these women. (Photo courtesy

Comments are closed.