Friday, November 18, 2011

Ladies Cafe, Hotel Bismarck

Original Bismarck Hotel (1894-1924)
Ladies Cafe, Hotel Bismarck

Location: Randolph Street, between LaSalle and Wells Streets, (1894-1924); later at 171 West Randolph Street, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Opened/Closed: early 1900s

Recently we've examined a couple of turn-of the-century ladies cafes. So don your hat and gloves, as we're going to continue our tour with a visit to the Hotel Bismarck. During the time period in question, the Hotel Bismarck was a small four-story Italianate hotel in downtown Chicago.

Let's take a peek at the "Main Restaurant and Bar" first.
Hotel Bismarck Main Restaurant and Bar (1905)

In Early Chicago Hotels (2006), William R. Host and Brooke Ahne Portmann describe these rooms in the following terms:

The decor--beer steins, murals, sgabelle chairs (chairs created by adding a back to stools)--recalls the old country. This dining room led to a surprising nest of rooms reached only by passing from one to the next. At the end was the "farmhouse drinking room" featuring a mural--common in similar drinking rooms in Germany--painted by artists in gratitude for the proprietor's hospitality.

If this description seems vaguely masculine, or coded in a masculine way, you would be correct. And we don't have to guess at this either. Quite frequently with old postcards, we're staring into empty rooms and imagining who might have been there. With the Hotel Bismarck, we don't have to guess. Take another look at what was called the "Main Restaurant and Bar." Who do you see? All men! This is keeping with the nineteenth century idea that "regular" restaurants and drinking establishments were male spaces that "decent" women wouldn't dream of setting foot within.

A hundred years later, vestiges of that attitude still remain, though only an alert feminist mind would notice. For example, a woman who is raped by a stranger in her home generally gets (nominal) public sympathy. But if she's raped by a stranger in a bar, even "polite" people will question her "poor judgement." The underlying assumption, of course, is that bars are not still not considered acceptable places for women--at least on a subconscious, unspoken level. (Of course, the less "polite" still slam a woman raped in a bar as a "slut" who was "asking for it.")

In addition, we still see places that are not explicitly or formally labelled as male or mostly male that are exactly that. Your average gym or football field qualifies, as do many business boardrooms and legislative meetings. Walk into an average neighborhood bar on a slow night, and it's not unusual to find yourself the only woman there. Or even your typical Radio Shack on a Saturday afternoon.

Now take a look at the Hotel Bismarck "Ladies Cafe and Restaurant." It's still mostly men! Even though "unescorted" women were probably not admitted into the "Main" restaurant--or were, at minimum, discouraged from doing so. I was initially so startled by this realization that I enlarged the postcard for a better look. Except for the two women standing under the center arch--and that's way to the back--there are no depictions of two or more women together. You see women with male escorts (husbands, brothers, fathers, etc.) You see men sitting at tables with no women. But you see no women sitting at tables with no men.

Hotel Bismarck Ladies Cafe and Restaurant (1907)

For those who study or immerse themselves in womyn's spaces, this apparent paradox is not surprising in the slightest. If a space is labeled as being for "women" or "ladies," it's almost an open invitation for male ownership, management, or intrusion in general. The times that a space is truly a womyn's space--i.e. that it's owned, managed, and controlled by women for women only--are extremely rare and under constant threat.  

So it's no surprise that the (so-called) "ladies cafe" also served as a more formal and "general" banquet room. According to Host and Portmann's commentary,

Murals of castles, ceilings embellished with ornamental patterns from ancient Rome and the Renaissance, and chandeliers with small electric lights create a festive, tasteful ambiance.

With one small Chicago hotel as an example, we can see precisely how spaces designated as "women's" generally function within the larger scheme of things. And in a nutshell, that is as compromised.

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