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Pan-American Exposition of 1901

Personal Accounts and Stories

The Exposition's restaurants and dining establishments were often crowded and for many visitors, proved expensive if not unpredicible in terms of the quality of food served. As a result, box lunches--often contained in simple shoe boxes wrapped in twine--were a common accessory among many fair-goers. Also, the free samples provided at the hundreds of food company exhibits complemented, even replaced, the fare at the Exposition. Some reporters delved into the depths of human nature and foibles by exploring people's reactions and interactions at these minor eating events.

Pack Your Lunch in A Box and Save Some Money

To save money, many Exposition visitors either prepared box lunches to bring with them or chose to purchase their meals off grounds. Under the trees on Delaware Avenue was a favorite spot with those bringing box lunches. One guide book advised, under a special comment on Exposition lunches: "Visitors will have little trouble in this part of the city getting good lunches put up in shape to carry on the grounds for 25 cents or less. Some of the large stores on Main Street are advertising a wonderful 15 cent lunch combination." As reported in the Express of 8 June 1901, one could purchase a box lunch for 25 cents at the Automatic Café on 284 Main Street. "The novelty today is the machine that will deliver a drink, a sandwich, a piece of pie or a box of food, after you have dropped a check into the slot. . . called the Automatic café, because all of its food is served through such machines. There are no waiters, and, consequently, no tips to give. The food is kept in tightly closed receptacles, so that it is clean and fresh."

The Boxes Lunches were Carried in to the Exposition Did Not Always Find Trash Cans

[Excerpted from the Buffalo Evening News, 21 May 1901.]

"…an ocean of litter, left by the crowds of the dedication day which had flooded the streets of the Midway and the Esplanade had to be removed and the sweepers who had done such effective service on Sunday and Sunday night were out again in regiments. Such an accumulation of waste paper and card board lunch boxes as was gathered up would keep a paper mill going for a week. Old shoe boxes are evidently the favorite receptacle for the Exposition. Two or three thousand of them were rolling before the brooms."

Boxed Lunches are Opened and…

[The observations of Lillian Betts. Excerpted from "The People at the Pan-American," The Outlook 69 (14 September 1901).]

….Whatever may be said of previous Expositions, this is the Exposition of the people. Here and there are evidences of wealth; but the mass of the visitors to the Pan-American are the people who work with hands and head to earn their daily bread. The shoulders rounded over the desk; the laboratory, the book, the plow, are all there, telling their stories of service, giving the history of their owner's contribution to this epitome of American civilization. As noon approached the feet move more slowly, lines appear in faces which in the morning were wreathed in smiles, the searching, the questioning expression of the morning is giving way to bewilderment. So much has been seen; and the consciousness of how much more remains to be seen has sapped mental and physical strength, and every bench, every nook where a seat is possible, is taken. The first day there is a struggle to overcome the diffidence of eating in so public a place. This disappears rapidly, for mother-love yields before the importunity of a hungry child. Boxes are opened, and the family group, or the group of friends, are soon chatting, comparing notes, making comments, arranging for the afternoon. Here is a group of three women -- tall, angular, severe. . . There is a remoteness from the crowd about them that is not the remoteness of mere strangeness, but that which comes from lives lived apart from life. They look as if one more stop were impossible. Each carries a box neatly wrapped and tied. They sit down in the shade of the beautiful electric building. Even to sit down in the shade is so grateful that they look at one another in enthusiastic silence. The crowds pass and repass. Soon every seat near them is taken. All about people are eating, children are being fed, the popcorn boy is shooting his wares. The three saints from the unknown land of Quiet look at each other, at the untied boxes in their laps, at the unconcerned lunchers all about them. There is no use, they never can eat so publicly. The tallest, the thinnest, the most rigid of the three speaks. One flash of unspoken admiration from either side into her face, the three rise, turn the bench around, and, facing the building, with their backs to the stream of life, they eat their lunches, happily forgetting the public. . . .

Free Food, Human Nature, and the Business of Samples: Eyewitness Accounts

[Excerpted from Lavinia Hart, "The Exhibit of Human Nature," Cosmopolitan XXXI, no. 5 (September 1901), p. 3-4.]

. . .In the center of the Manufactures building was a gathering that defied imagination. All types of women were huddled together, rich and poor, esthetic and commonplace. It was lunch-time and they were in the work of managing a free lunch. Women whose diamonds were gems and whose gowns were creations elbowed women who might have been their cooks, to get free biscuits made from the "finest baking powder on earth"; free pancakes made from the only pancake flour that wouldn't result in sinkers; free soup from the only can containing real tomatoes; free samples from all the varieties of mustard, jam and pickles; free sandwiches of minced meat; free cheese, preserves, chow-chow, plum-pudding, clam broth, baked beans and pickled lobster.

"Ladies," said the girl behind the prepared-flour counter, "you all know considerable more about sponge-cake, but unless you have used our flour, you don't know it all. Now, the sponge-cake I am cutting --"

No reflection was intended and no offense taken. The ladies devoured the sponge-cake, and finished their meal with free samples of seven kinds of lithia water, four highly recommended mineral waters and three brands of unfermented grape-juice.

"Well," said a fat lady from Seneca County, "That meal's the first thing I got for nothing since I landed in Buffalo

I knew she was from Seneca County because she had an altercation with the grape-juice agent.

"You folks don't know how to raise grapes," she said sententiously; "you ought to come down to Seneca County to learn about vineyards."

"Madame," said the grape-juice agent with a superior smile, "we have hundreds of acres devoted to --"

"Don't care how many acres you've got," said the fat lady smacking her lips; we've got the grapes. And our grapes jell, that's what our grapes do. I tried yours once--had a crate sent down from my sister Susie's. Tried 'em six days. Jell? They never showed the first symptoms. On the seventh day I rested, and gave the whole mess to the hogs. No sir, your grapes can't jell in the same kettle with Seneca County grapes," and the fat lady took a third glass of grape-juice and passed on.

All of the fifty thousand people who visit the Fair daily don't patronize the advertisers' free-lunch counters, however, or the manufacturers would have to go out of business. Some bring luncheons in boxes and baskets and spread them on the benches or beneath the trees near the Delaware Park entrance; and the wise ones who find it hard enough travelling even without luggage, go to the beautiful buildings on the fair grounds and take chances on hardboiled eggs at five cents or make sure of them at ten. And these wise ones have a relish with their luncheon which is all the sweeter for being unsuspected. The young women behind the counters are of s type they've long been waiting for--angular, sharp-featured, spectacled, aggressive, the schoolmarm type that instilled into their childhood all the bitterness it ever knew.

A gentleman of sixty swung on a high stool before the counter where presided the perfection of this type. Perhaps a strong resemblance made vivid the memories of half a century back and goaded him on. For forty minutes he wiped out old scores and made the schoolmarm miserable. Why wasn't the chowder hot? How many times had the beans been warmed? Did the lady forget to put tea in the pot? Was that slipshod fashion the way to make a sandwich? Didn't the lady know her business, anyway?

It wasn't the lady's business, she would have him understand she taught school in the Berkshires.

The gentleman hadn't doubted that she taught school. But why was she here then?

She was working her way through the fair, and intended lecturing on it next winter....

With So Much Free Food Available, Restaurateurs Were Not Happy

The 27 July 1901 Express reported: "The serving of food in Appetite Avenue and Hungry Alley, as the two food roads have been christened in the Manufactures building, has been discontinued at the noon luncheon hours and the dinner hour just prior to 6 o'clock.

The restaurants objected to the serving at the meal hours, as, they said, many folk went to the avenue and the alley and got a free meal going from exhibit to exhibit eating biscuits, rolls, pickles, puddings, pies, cakes and drinking coffee. Some visitors made two or three rounds of the two aisles to make a really full meal."

"The Free Lunch Counter"

[The following text was excerpted from the (Buffalo) Express, 31 May 1901. Note: the photo below was not featured in the Express article and instead appeared in The Cosmopolitan (September 1901) p.506. No photo credit was given.]

No matter how rainy or unpleasant the day, the exposition free-lunch counter is well patronized. To be sure, the familiar fly-specked sausage, soggy potato salad, discolored onions and small slices of hard rye bread are missing from the menu, and no Wandering Willies, with tin cans suspended from their rope belts, stack up against the counter. But it is a success, nevertheless. Women are its chief patrons, and the list of food runs from pickles to gingerbread. This free-lunch counter is in the northern part of the Manufactures and Liberal Arts building and borders on parts of four aisles. In the vocabulary of the exposition authorities there is no such phrase as free lunch, and so their records describe this counter as the food section.

It is amusing to watch some of the more timid women as they reach the vicinity of the lunch counter. They dislike to join the throng of food grabbers, but the temptation of seeing their neighbors sampling the good things is usually too much to overcome. They may be in a hesitating frame of mind when they start in at the shredded wheat booth, but by the time they have countermarched on the other side of the aisle and encountered the sweet pickles and pineapple preserves they are out for everything that's on the counter. The gingerbread, crackers, candies, cough drops, porridge and other prepared-grain dishes that quickly follow come easy.

They leave the building with a . . . of tastes mingling in their mouths, while their brains are awhirl with the sentences that are served with the food, which run something like this:

"This is only one of the score of ways in which our rolled oats is prepared. It's the simplest way. So just think what the other must be."

"The pineapple preserve is only one of the preserved fruits which are put up in the same way. This is just to give you an idea of what our preserves are."

"This gingerbread is made from our famous flour. Yes, of course, we put ginger in it, but it is the flour that makes the bread so nice and flaky. You can cook it in a few minutes in any sort of an oven."

"That apple butter is made from apples from our own farm. So you know just what you are eating."

"No, we aren't giving away jars of fruit today. We are afraid our samples won't hold out if we do that."

"Yes, these pickles are grown for us especially. That's why they are all of such an even size. No, really, I don't believe I could give you our pickling recipe. It's something like a patent, you know."

"It's the way in which our oats are rolled that gives them such a nice flavor. I thought you would like it. Just pour a little hot water on the oats, stir them up and breakfast is ready."

"This tea is specially imported by us in limited quantities once a year. Yes, I thought you were a person who would appreciate the flavoring. No, I can't sell you a five pound package today, but I can take your order for one."

A man now and then will slid up to a booth and sheepishly take a hand-out from one of the neatly dressed women and then try to crack some inane joke, just to show how unconcerned he is. The woman understands the situation and charitably laughs at the alleged witticism.

"You want to know the worst trouble I have with the crowds?" repeated on bright young woman, who daintily places butter on a cracker the size of a quarter. "Why, the only trouble I have is to make the people hold their hands right. 'Hold your hand out straight' is what I have to yell at them most of the time. People will try to take the tiny crackers by the edge, just as they would do with the big ones, and they usually get smeared with the preserve. When they hold out their hands straight I drop the crackers in their palms and then they can't get mixed up with the preserves."

One of the young women in charge of a food exhibit was interrupted by a well-dressed middle-aged woman yesterday who said: "Are you Mrs. B --," mentioning the name of the wife of the proprietor of the food product exhibited, which is a household word.

"No, I am not," replied the young woman.

"Well, has she been here today?"


"Do you expect her later this afternoon?"

"No, I don't. To tell the truth, I don't even know that there is a Mrs. B --. For all I know Mr. B-- may be a bachelor or a widower. I never saw him, though I have been employed by his firm for several years."

"Well I should think he would have a wife to take care of such an exhibit as this," said the middle aged woman and then she went across the aisle to get a sample of gingerbread. …