Women’s Work in “Behind the Scenes in a Restaurant”

By Carrie Levinson, Reference Services and Outreach Librarian

We tend to take labor laws for granted nowadays. There are limits in many jobs to how many hours one can work, minimum wage determinations, and other protections for those in the workforce. However, this was not always the case, particularly for certain kinds of workers. In the early twentieth century, for example, these laws had nothing to say about women in many professions, such as those working in restaurants. This resulted in long, grueling hours for many women, without respite or protection from exploitation.

Eight hours of work versus fifteen for restaurant workers

Fig. 1. Diagrams showing the normal working day versus a restaurant worker’s day. Consumers’ League of New York City (1916). Behind the scenes in a restaurant: A study of 1017 women restaurant employees. New York, NY: Author.

The Consumers’ League of New York City was alarmed by this, and decided to conduct a study, which turned into the pamphlet “Behind the Scenes in a Restaurant: A Study of 1017 Women Restaurant Employees.” The study had three aims: to find out the actual labor conditions in New York State restaurants; to determine whether these labor conditions led to a “wholesome, normal life” for the workers in these restaurants; and to see how these conditions impacted society as a whole (1916, pp. 3-4).

One thousand seventeen women were surveyed for this over the course of five months, in different locations such as their homes, their workplaces, and employment agencies. In New York City, all the interviews were given at the Occupational Clinic of the Board of Health (Consumers’ League of New York City, 1916, p. 3).  The workers came from all types of restaurants, allowing the League to get a representative sample of participants. Women of all ages were asked, as well as women of different nationalities (though women of color were noticeably absent). The largest group interviewed here was “Austro-Hungarian” (39%), followed by “American” (presumably meaning non-immigrants) (33%), German (8%), Irish (7%), Russian (4%), “Other”, (4%), English & Canadian (3%), and Polish (3%). While there is clearly an effort to be inclusive, there is still racist/ethnicist ideology that creeps in:

The largest single group is made up of Austro-Hungarians. The demand for cheap, unskilled labor in this occupation calls for the kind of service which these girls and others of the European peasant class can give. The outdoor life in the fields of their native land fits them for the hard labor required in a restaurant kitchen (Consumers’ League of New York City, 1916, p. 8).

Despite this language, the League was extremely concerned over the exploitation of these workers, noting that many worked 15-hour days (Fig. 1). Seventy-eight percent of workers exceeded a 54-hour week (Fig. 2), which was prohibited for women who worked in stores and factories. One of the participants, a 20-year old woman, worked 122 hours a week (Consumers’ League of New York City, 1916, p. 13)!


Fig. 2. Weekly hours of labor of women employed in restaurants. Behind the scenes in a restaurant… (1916).

The long hours (Fig. 3) were not the only thing this report examined. Other issues included tipping, irregularity of work, and the low wages earned by many in the profession. Such practices prevented these women from having regular social or family lives and had deleterious effects on their health.

The Consumers’ League argued that because of these conditions, a regular working day for restaurant workers was “not only reasonable, but…essential to the best welfare of their people as a whole” (1916, p. 28). They recommended a legislative amendment under the already-existing Mercantile Law.


Fig. 3. A movie of the restaurant worker. Behind the scenes in a restaurant… (1916).

Did restaurant workers in New York State get the protections they so desperately needed after this report was published? Not immediately. By 1933, a New York law limiting the amount of hours women could work was passed, but then it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1936. Women restaurant workers had to wait until the federal Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938 to have the right to a minimum wage and overtime (Hart, 1994).

Although it did not instantly better the situations of women working in restaurant positions, this report and others like it raised awareness of what it was like to be working in these conditions, and they remain as a testament to those who toiled for long hours to clean, prepare, and serve food to so many others.

This book and other recent acquisitions will be on display and available for “adoption” at the Celebration of the Library night, also featuring a lecture by New Yorker author John Colapinto. Join us on April 11th at the Academy!


Consumers’ League of New York City (1916). Behind the scenes in a restaurant: A study of 1017 women restaurant employees. New York, NY: Author.

Hart, V. (1994). Bound by our Constitution: Women, workers and the minimum wage. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Death, Deformity, Decay: Memento Mori and the Case of the Colloredo Twins

This guest post is by Rach Klein. Rach is an art history Masters Candidate at McGill University whose research focuses on the early modern grotesque, medical illustration, and print. She is a current recipient of a Joseph-Armand Bombardier grant, as well as a Michael Smith Foreign Studies scholarship.

Throughout the last month I have had the privilege of working in the NYAM Library, looking directly at their remarkable collection of broadsheets and rare books.  The opportunity to closely examine the objects and images that I am studying is unparalleled. My research locates a framework for viewing 17th-century non-normative and “freakish” bodies in the memento mori traditions of the previous century. Memento mori, a Latin phrase meaning, “remember you will die,” became shorthand for a host of visual imagery and cultural objects rooted in medieval Christian theory, which permeated the European early modern.  With a specific focus on the culture of spectacle employed by early modern “shows of wonder” and touring freak shows, the research that I have been doing at NYAM combines visual analysis with medical history and disability studies to suggest that integral to the creation of early modern “freaks” is a manipulation of non-normative persons into objects that spark mortuary contemplation. Guiding this research is the case of Italian conjoined/parasitic twins Lazarus Colloredo and Joannes Baptista Colloredo (1617–1646). Their journey, which is remarkably well-documented in both text and image (for example, see Fig. 1), showcases the duality of the so-called “freak body” and its links to mortuary philosophy.

Historia Ænigmatica, de gemellis Genoæ connati

Fig. 1. Mylbourne, R. (Publisher). (1637). Historia Ænigmatica, de gemellis Genoæ connatis, [Engraving]. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.

In 1617, Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo were born into a life of spectacle and uncertainty. Protruding laterally from the breast of Lazarus was his twin brother, Joannes Baptista, whose malformed body lived partially inside him. Unable to speak or move independently, Joannes Baptista was deemed a “parasitic twin”.  As living persons that defy expectations of the “normative,” visual documentation of the Colloredo twins’ spectacular bodies/body provides insight into anxieties about the boundaries between animate/inanimate, normal/abnormal, beauty/ugliness, soul/body, and, ultimately, life/death. Jan Bondeson calls attention to how remarkable their story is, even within the history of conjoined twins. He says:

Conjoined twins are the result of imperfect splitting of a fertilized ovum and the site of conjunction depends on which part of the splitting has not occurred. Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Collerado represent one of the very few convincing cases of viable omphalopagus parasiticus twins (who lived).[1]

The words in parentheses here, “who lived,” iterate the challenges of piecing together a history of marginalized persons such as those who are disabled and deformed, and the gentle surprise provoked by the twins’ survival.

Perhaps the most interesting discovery found throughout my research is the nonlinear timeline in scholarship about these twins due to a misattributed/incorrectly labelled print from Giovanni Battista de’Cavalieri’s series of engravings, Opera nel a quale vie molti Mostri de tute le parti del mondo antichi et Moderni (Monsters from all parts of the ancient and modern world), published in 1585 (Fig. 2). This image, which is reprinted in Fortunio Liceti’s 1634 De Monstrorum Caussis (Fig. 3), is captioned with the twins’ names and place of birth, despite having been created thirty-years prior to their birth. As with many “freakish” bodies, the accuracy of their experience exists separately from its visual history.[2]

Although these contradictions of dates and attributions make reproducing a clean narrative difficult, they reflect a larger theme of teratology: that bodies are detached from persons, and imaginative ideals misaligned from lived experience. The image by de’ Cavalieri was likely a representation of an earlier set of conjoined twins in the 16th century, perhaps based on conjoined twins mentioned by Ambrose Paré in 1530. This image is subsequently reproduced in Liceti’s 1665 edition of his work, now titled De Monstris. Hence, the twins’ image has been collapsed into a narrative that took place well before their birth, and which frames them as simultaneously alive and dead.



Fig. 3. Liceti, F. (1634). [Rueffo puer Amiterni natus uno brachio, fed pedibus tribus in hanc effigiem] (p. 117). De monstrorum caussis, natura, et differentiis libri duo … Padua, Italy: Apud Paulum Frambottum.

Worries and uncertainties over death and the body make themselves known in images and stories documenting the “freakish” body. Art that has been traditionally deemed “grotesque,” “macabre,” or more colloquially, simply “disturbing” is part of a symbolic system that expresses metaphysical anxieties about what lurks beneath the surface of the body. I am not attempting to medicalize nor romanticize the history of those who are or have been designated as disabled, deformed, monstrous, and freakish. Rather, my aim is to provide a critical and historical study of how non-normative bodies have been catalogued as a memento mori for its witnesses and used by able-bodied viewers as tools of self-reflection and meditation, a practice that actively erases personhood in favour of objectification.[3]


[1] Bondeson, Jan. The Two-headed Boy: And Other Medical Marvels. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

[2] Jillings, Karen. “Monstrosity as Spectacle: The Two Inseparable Brothers’ European Tour of the 1630s and 1640s.” Popular Entertainment Studies 2, no. 1 (2011): 54–68.

[3] My work is particularly indebted to the disability, feminist, and race scholarship of Tobin Siebers (Disability Aesthetics), Rana Hogarth (Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840), and Elizabeth Grosz (Volatile Bodies).

Further Reading

Bates, A. W., Emblematic Monsters: Unnatural Conceptions and Deformed Births in Early Modern Europe. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009.

Benedict, Barbara M. Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Daston, Lorraine, and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 2012.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York University Press, 2008.