Friday, May 4, 2012

Ladies Coffee Room, Aerated Bread Company (ABC) Cafe

Aerated Bread Company (ABC) Cafe, Ludgate Hill (1900)
Ladies Coffee Room, Aerated Bread Company (ABC) Cafe

Location: For this particular illustration: Ludgate Hill, London. But at its height (1923), ABC operated 150 branch shops in London and 250 tea shops.

Opened: ABC founded in England in 1862, and opened England's first public tea shop in 1864.

Closed: ABC ended as an independent operation in 1955, and ceased operations altogether in the 1980s.

This is a fascinating picture, especially if you're interested in the (male) domination of space. Who do we see depicted as the patrons of the Aerated Bread Company (ABC) Cafe? All men as best as I can make out. Who waits on the men? Seems to be all women. And where is the Ladies Coffee Room associated with this place? Apparently there is a sign above the central stairway (not terribly legible in this reproduction) that reads "Ladies Coffee Room Downstairs." But who do we see coming up the stairs? Two men!

Just a coincidence? Not likely, as we've been down this path before. 

Loyal Lost readers may recall how one New York lady complained of all the men taking up space in the so-called "ladies restaurants" that were typically upstairs--at least in New York--from the "main" (male) dining area. This was back in 1885. We shall requote her here:

True, almost every respectable restaurant bears the sign "ladies' restaurant up stairs" but upon entering we find the room filled with men, and we meekly subside into whatever vacant space we are allotted, running the gauntlet thereto between the domineering, quizzical or supercilious eyes of the nabobs, who glare at us as if we had invaded their domain instead of they ours, and for all this we are allowed to pay double the price charged in a regular business man's eating house.

In an earlier analysis of Chicago's Hotel Bismarck, we noted something similar. In illustrations of the "main" dining room, we observed only men, which was no real surprise. But even in the so-called ladies' cafe, we counted more men than women, and virtually all the women present were escorted or accompanied by men. Only two women appeared to be together, and they were standing (i.e. not sitting at a table) and situated way to the rear.

So it appears the pattern was basically the same, whether you were in London, New York, or Chicago. Can't say I am terribly shocked.

Except that I am, because tea shops like ABC were supposed to be the exception to the rule.

Aerated Bread Company was famous in its day, and not just for its innovative, yeast-free bread making. It was also well-known for the chain of public tea shops it operated across England.  We've discussed before the pivotal role that tea shops played in the history of womyn's space, as they were one of the first public places where a Victorian woman was permitted to dine outside the home without a male escort--and without risking her reputation. As such, they also provided valuable space for first-wave feminists and feminist organizing. In fact,  the ABC tea shops were specifically recommended as safe havens to delegates of the Congress of the International Council of Women held in London the week ending July 6, 1899. (The other recommended tea shop? The British Tea Table Company.)

However, evidence also suggests that the ABC shops were infamous even in their day for underpaying their women employees and refusing to allow any employee profit sharing arrangement. A daring shareholder who brought up the idea of raising wages for ABC's "shop girls" was "hissed down" in 1898--though profits were the highest they had been in at least five years. Those "shop girls" you see in the illustration? It's not altogether clear whether they had been allowed a meal all day, or if they had, whether they had to pay for it out of their meager wages.

On the face of it, this would seem to be one of those classic class conflicts between the so-called feminist elite and your average female working stiff.

Except that I go back to the illustration of the Ludgate Hill ABC Cafe...and then I'm not so convinced that ABC was really such a great place for middle-class women looking for a bit of noonday refreshment either.


  1. Another lost womyn's space in England: Mother Levy's Nursing Home in Spitalfields, which was demolished in January 2012 despite a big campaign to save it:

    1. Thanks! I'll put that on the list of places to look into.


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