Recently, combing through the New York Public Library’s impressive collection of menus from the last two centuries, I spotted something unexpected: A special pink menu advertising “Ladies Night” at the Sphinx Club, from 1914. Did they... have “Ladies Night” in 1914?
Turns out this incarnation was not two-for-one specials on well drinks at bars looking to attract a female clientele. Rebecca Federman, an NYPL expert on the collection, explained that these special menus were the work of then-prolific men’s clubs. The Sphinx Club, for instance, catered specifically to men working in advertising. Their “Ladies Night” would’ve been an event, like an annual dinner, where members were welcome to bring to bring their wives. Because of course a woman wouldn’t be a member in her own right.
Via the Internet Archive, here’s a snapshot from the Sphinx Club’s 1921 Ladies Night:
The library has menus from more than just the Sphinx Club, which certainly wasn’t the only gentlemen’s organization throwing this kind of dinner. There’s 1906 and 1907 examples from Boston’s Clover Club, a 1912 instance from a Brooklyn Masonic temple, and one from 1893 from Boston’s Beacon Society.
(Fun detail: This amazing collection of menus, spanning nearly two centuries and tracking the evolution of dining in the United States, is largely the work of one woman. Miss Frank E. Buttolph, 1850-1924, worked for the New York Public Library and began gathering them in 1900. Over the next two and a half decades, she amassed more than 25,000.)
There were ladies clubs as well, most famously the Sorosis Club, which was founded by women furious at being excluded from a New York Press Club dinner with Charles Dickens at the famous restaurant Delmonico’s.
It wasn’t just these men’s groups—kinda professional, kinda social—that women were shut out of. You couldn’t even necessarily walk into a restaurant and expect service. Federman pointed out that as late as 1969, the Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room still wouldn’t serve women at weekday lunch. Which earned them a public protest from NOW. The New York Times retells the story:
When the National Organization for Women decided to challenge the men-only policies at restaurants and clubs, it chose the Oak Room, which refused to serve women at lunch on weekdays, as a test case, knowing the kind of upscale publicity it would lend to the cause. One day in February 1969, Betty Friedan and several other women swept past the Oak Room’s maître d’hôtel and sat down at a table. The waiters’ response was to remove the table, leaving the women sitting awkwardly in a circle. A man at a nearby booth offered breadsticks, which were declined, and the group decamped to form a picket line in front of the hotel.
Shortly thereafter, the Oak Room opened its doors to women at lunchtime.
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