Why We Eat Sandwiches on Our Lunch Break

Why We Eat Sandwiches on Our Lunch BreaktcbrPDF normal

The evolution of the American worker's midday meal.

By Abigail Carroll

why we eat our sandwiches on our lunch break

Abigail Carroll is an independent author living in Vermont. Adapted with permission from Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. ©2013

When a French man traveling by train in the United States around 1890 could find no hotel or restaurant to dine in during a midday layover, he entered a small wooden building on the far side of the platform that bore a sign reading "Lunch Room." The patrons, he noticed, were eating pie. When the traveler inquired about the menu, an Irish waiter with a thick accent recited the options from behind the counter: "Peach poy, apricot poy, apple poy, and mince poy."

"Is that all?" asked the French traveler.

"What more do you want?" the waiter retorted.

The French man began to wonder whether instead of reading "Lunch Room," the sign on the wooden building should read "Beware," but it was too late now. To fill his stomach’s noontime requirements, he ordered three slices—one each of the apricot, peach, and apple. Having anticipated a more substantial meal, perhaps like those he had enjoyed in England, he instead received the equivalent of a snack. "Lunch in America has not the meaning that it has in England," he remarked disappointedly. "In England lunch means something. In America, it does not."

Perhaps the American lunch failed to mean something to the French traveler because it was no longer the hot, robust, English-style dinner he expected. It was lighter, colder, cheaper, and quicker; as such, it was something entirely new. Dinner had undergone a transformation, shifting from the afternoon to the evening and becoming a formal family affair in the process. Dinner had also taken on significance as a symbol of American freedom and prosperity.

Lunch, on the other hand, followed an altogether different trajectory. It was not a traditional meal forced to adapt to the changing social and work patterns wrought by industrialization. In fact, it had not existed as a meal at all. It had to be invented.

The impetus for lunch was the vacuum that the newly shifted midday dinner left in its wake. A stand-in was necessary to tide the grumbling stomach over until evening, when one sat down to the main meal of the day. But there were obstacles to a midday meal, especially a traditional, dinnerly one, and the main obstacle was work. The Industrial Revolution had shifted work from the home and workshop to the factory and the office, and these new sites of production made returning home for a meal in the middle of the day increasingly impractical.

Solutions to the lunch problem varied and included the restaurant, the saloon, the dining club, the cafeteria, and the brown bag. Each option solved the problem in its own way, but not without ramifications. What one ate for lunch, where, with whom, and how quickly revealed clues about social status, and this information could serve as an asset or a liability. Members of the working class were more likely to lunch in corner saloons, whereas businessmen dined in exclusive downtown clubs. Because people now ate lunch in public away from their families, it was easier than ever to pigeonhole an individual according to his or her particular approach to this meal.

Those seeking to boost social status and build a professional network capitalized on lunch, strategically choosing where (and where not) to eat, as well as with whom. They were not the only ones to make shrewd use of the new eating occasion. Companies, trade organizations, women’s clubs, and public schools all discovered they had something to gain by opening their own lunch services, be it prestige, uplift, status, profit, or social reform. Each molded the emerging noontime meal to serve purposes larger than the mere filling of stomachs, and their imprint remains formidable today.

Lunch Clubs and the Tin Dinner Pail

Once the lighter midday meal took hold, middle-class women found themselves freed from the morning duties of preparing (or overseeing preparation of) a major meal to be served in the early afternoon. With their newfound time, they frequently spent part of the midday visiting neighbors and friends, attending luncheons, or hosting them. Meanwhile, their male companions, who no longer returned home for dinner, increasingly dined with colleagues. In cities across the country, ambitious businessmen passed their midday hours in the smoky, oak-paneled rooms of elite lunch clubs. As early as the 1870s, and especially around the turn of the century, such clubs proliferated, offering men arenas in which to escape the demands of the office while simultaneously pursuing business relations in a relaxed and sophisticated atmosphere.carroll3

Lunch clubs frequently boasted professional affiliations: There was the Transportation Club for rail executives, the Underwriters’ Club for insurance agents, the Merchants’ Club for textile manufacturers, and the Press Club for newspaper and advertising men.

Dining clubs provided an exclusivity and tranquility that restaurants could not offer. They became ideal places to hold official business meetings, connect with colleagues from other companies, and engineer deals with important clients. "The lunch table has taken the place of the office desk as the battleground of big business," reported a 1909 article in a business magazine. "To sell a piece of property to a magnate by appearing at his office as an unknown," pointed out the same article, "is quite a different matter from selling the same property to the same man as the result of a quiet and informal chat over the lunch table as the guests of a mutual friend." It is hard to imagine a more elegant and esteemed place to entertain clients than under the oil portraits of famous authors at the Aldine Club or in the gothic interiors of the New York Lawyers’ Club.

Although ambitious men at elite professional clubs dined leisurely and well-bred women at ladies’ luncheons picked daintily, the majority of Americans consumed prosaically: They ate prosaic food in prosaic settings with the help of prosaic utensils and containers. Dinner had become special, and, partly as a result, lunch did not have to. For the majority of Americans, the new midday meal was no sacred family ritual; it was a practical solution to problems associated with the new approach to business. Inherently flexible, it simultaneously accommodated the demands of the stomach and the increasingly regimented stipulations of work.

As early as the 1870s, when lunch was yet to become lunch and the midday meal was still called dinner, workers were bringing cold leftovers to the workplace in cylindrical metal buckets to satisfy their stomachs in the middle of the day. In the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, southern cotton-mill workers had their children ferry hot food from home to them in baskets. Until the passage of child-labor laws, these young and often barefoot "dinner-toters" typically took over running the machinery while their parents broke for lunch. In 1910, the steelworkers of Homestead, Pa., were still eating their main meal of the day in the mills and out of dinner pails. Thanks to wives and mothers who prepared and hand-delivered their midday sustenance, the workers were able to enjoy hot food—that is, until passes became necessary for entering the premises and made this practice impossible. Homestead women adapted, preparing cold meals each morning for their men to carry to work in buckets, often supplementing the unheated eatables with preserves as a small treat to compensate for the plainness (and less-than-ideal temperature) of the fare.

During the late nineteenth century, the dinner pail became an icon of laboring America (though some folks used coffee tins, cigar boxes, and baskets). Eating dinner away from home and not in a club—a meal that looked increasingly like lunch—was a sure sign that one belonged to the working class, as attested to by the fact that carrying this humble bucket to work invited embarrassment for those who did not perform industrial labor. One prominent gentleman who found it necessary to take his main meal of the day to the office deliberated between the practicality and the stigma of doing so: "the common dinner pail . . . was not the thing for a professor," he ultimately decided, "to be seen carrying through the streets."

For those who sweated in mills, the image of the tin dinner pail became a source of pride and a symbol of solidarity. It was "the mark of honest labor," according to a writer in American Machinist, who characterized its bearer as competent, proud, and reliably knowledgeable of his trade. One writer dubbed Fall River, Mass., "the city of the dinner pail" because of the city’s high number of mills and mill workers. Debates on labor issues increasingly referred to laborers collectively as the "dinner pail army" or the "tin pail brigade." In campaigning for the 1900 presidential election, William McKinley courted the labor constituency with the promise of a full dinner bucket.


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