A large dining room in Childs Restaurant; long communal dining tables and wait-staff visible, circa 1899. Byron Company, New York, NY. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Victorian diners loved white tile, too.

Allowing strangers to prepare the food we put into our bodies is, to a certain extent, a leap of faith. When we decide to consume meals anywhere outside our own homes, we are trusting that those involved with the preparation have taken every precaution to follow—at minimum—current food safety standards.

Unless you live in New York, Chicago, or another location that visibly grades restaurants on adherence to public health standards, food safety may not be something you think about on a regular basis. That is, until a high-profile case surfaces, such as the recent E.coli outbreak at Chipotle. Learning that people are getting sick from eating food prepared by a major, national restaurant chain—particularly one that advertises itself as “food with integrity”—is unnerving.

Ever since we became aware of the fact that food preparation has a direct result on health and safety, it has become a societal obsession.

One of the first food safety stories to make the headlines in America was that of Mary Mallon (better known as “Typhoid Mary”), a New York City cook who was found to be an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever and ended up infecting approximately 50 people in the first years of the 20th century.

Prior to that, New York City was shaken by the swill milk scandal of the 1850s, when cows were fed residual mash, or “swill,” from local distilleries. The cows then produced contaminated milk, which claimed the lives of thousands of babies and children—the primary consumers of milk at the time. According to an 1858 article in The New York Times, more than 8,000 of the city’s children died from drinking swill milk in 1857 alone.

In 1889, two brothers in New York City opened a restaurant that was a direct response to concerns about food safety. Samuel S. Childs and William Childs opened the first Childs Restaurant on Cortlandt Street in Manhattan’s Financial District, focusing on affordable meals for the working class coupled with extremely high standards (historically speaking, at least) for hygiene, cleanliness, and food safety.

The Childs brothers knew it was not enough simply to tell their customers about their emphasis on hygiene—they had to show them. The brothers accomplished this by outfitting the interiors of their restaurants with white tiles, conjuring images of the sterile environment of a hospital. (Samuel Childs studied both medicine and engineering, and drew upon his education when designing the interior of the restaurants.)

Menu from the 90 Fulton Street location, circa 1900.
(New York Public Library Digital Collections)

In the same vein, the restaurant’s waitresses were clad in pristine, starched white uniforms—reminiscent of those worn by nurses—and made a point of having janitorial staff visibly cleaning in front of customers at all times. Another significant selling point was the milk brought in daily from the Childs’ Dairy Farm in New Jersey—a particularly enticing feature for New Yorkers for whom the swill milk scandal still lingered in recent memory. In fact, “Fresh milk expressed from our own dairy every morning” was printed on the side each menu—a precursor to our farm-to-table fervor.

This unique emphasis on food safety and hygiene—coupled with other features, such as being one of the first cafeteria-style restaurants—made Childs Restaurants very profitable, and the brothers opened other branches, paving the way for the now-ubiquitous chain restaurants and their more short-lived cousin, the sleek, smooth-surfaced automat (now making a bit of a comeback).

The Childs Restaurant chain reached its peak in the 1920s, with more than 120 restaurants in cities including Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Toronto, Miami, and Milwaukee in addition to a number of locations throughout the New York metropolitan area. The restaurants were frequently located in high-traffic commercial districts, providing the ideal respite for weary shoppers. The cafeteria-style dining also appealed to women—both workers and shoppers—as a quick and more socially acceptable way to dine on their own.

While the original focus on hygiene and sanitation reflected the zeitgeist of the end of the 20th century, by the 1920s, William Childs believed “the public has long since become convinced of the purity of Childs kitchens” and set his sights on designing fashionable exteriors, a 1928 article in New McClure’s explained. For example, in 1925, facing opposition from the Fifth Avenue Association—which could not envision an affordable luncheonette alongside the likes of Tiffany’s or Altman’s—the Childs brothers enlisted the services of architect William Van Allen, the designer of the Chrysler Building, for their Fifth Avenue location, the first of eight Childs Restaurants on the avenue.

In 1927, William Childs required the restaurants to adopt his practice of vegetarianism, which did not prove to be a popular move, and ultimately resulted in a change in ownership in the 1930s. Childs’ 1938 obituary in The Reading Eagle provided some insight into his decision, quoting him as saying, “I did it for the same reason that I put white tile in my first restaurant. I honestly thought that was what the public wanted.”

The sparkling, white interior of a Childs Restaurant sometime between 1920 and 1940. (Wurtz Brothers, New York. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.)

Although the onset of the Depression did cause some of the less profitable franchises to close, The Childs Company never relaxed their stringent standards of hygiene and sanitation, noting in the 1933 company report to stockholders: “all controllable items have been substantially reduced without impairing Childs’ well-known standards of cleanliness, quality of foods served and prompt and courteous service.”

Childs Restaurants were selected as a vendor for the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, NY, where the chain ran 80 hot dog and hamburger stands throughout the fairgrounds, in addition to a 1,000-seat sit-down restaurant in the Railroad Building. Childs once again relied on their sterling reputation to market their food to fairgoers. A map from the 1939 World’s Fair highlighting the locations of Childs Restaurants and vendors noted that, though the chain “started in an era more noted for its gaudiness than attention to sanitation and cleanliness,” Childs’ “white-tiled walls quickly became a symbol for the dependability of its food and its cleanly service.”

Today, the most well-known former Childs Restaurant is located on the Coney Island boardwalk. Designed in 1924 by architects Ethan Allen Dennison and Fredric C. Hirons, who both studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, it is now landmarked and currently in the process of becoming an amphitheater. A few blocks away, another former Childs’ houses the Coney Island Museum and Sideshow on Surf Avenue. Both buildings embrace their maritime surroundings, featuring stucco external walls adorned with terra cotta nautical ornamentation, including seashells, fish and figures of Neptune.

More than a century after the first Childs Restaurant opened its doors, it’s not uncommon to see white tiles adorning restaurant walls—notably, this style appears in Chipotle’s open kitchens. However, as the recent E.coli outbreak has shown, no amount of white tile can make up for good hygiene practices.

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