Friday, May 15, 2015

World War One on Chicago's North Shore: The Evanston Community Kitchen

 Evanston Community Kitchen on 1519 Chicago Ave. It moved to 600 Davis Street in 1925, where it remained until 1951.

One of the of the more unusual results of World War One in Evanston, Illinois, was the Evanston Community Kitchen.  It began on a small scale, in the summer of 1918 at The Woman's Club of Evanston.  There were food shortages due to World War  One, so the Club's kitchen committee, made up of Mrs James Odell, Mrs Rufus Dawes and Mrs Homer Kingsley,  decided to can and preserve 7000 jars of fruits and vegetables.   Some of the food was given to various local charities and the rest was sold for a profit to benefit the Club.
Laying the cornerstone of the Clubhouse in 1899.

The Evanston Woman's Club was founded in 1890 by a group of women led by Elizabeth Boynton Harbert in for the following purpose: To secure better homes. better motherhood, better laws, truer citizenship and a nobler woman by promoting the physical, social, mental, moral and spiritual development of members.  The Club raised funds to establish Evanston Hospital, helped organize the Visiting Nurse Association of Evanston and was instrumental in starting the first Mothers' Club, the forerunner of the  PTA.  They raised the money to build the Clubhouse, which was started in 1899.    Where they saw a need in the Evanston community, the Club found a way to fulfill it. My mother was a dedicated long time member.
The Woman's Club of Evanston.  The  first Evanston Community Kitchen was located in the basement.
 When the Influenza Pandemic reached Evanston in October 1918, the Woman's Club kitchen was turned into an "emergency kitchen."  200 meals per day were prepared during the height of the pandemic for families who had a member with the sick with of recovering from the flu. People infected with the flu were put under quarantine, and were often too sick to do anything,  so the meals took care of a community need. Since these two operations were so successful, that the ladies of the Kitchen Committee decided to pursue the idea of community kitchen.  Read More about the influenza pandemic of 1918

The founders of the Community Kitchen, Mrs  James Odell, Mrs Rufus Dawes and Mrs Homer Kingsley

Starting a community kitchen was not an idea original to Evanston,  since they existed on the East Coast of the United States and in Europe.  The members of the Club invited Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a well known lecturer on women's issues, to speak to the Club on the topic of "The Waste of Women's Labor." The ladies of the Kitchen Committee traveled to the East Coast  to observe community kitchens.  They liked what they saw and encouraged by the enthusiasm of the Club members, the committee decided to start the Evanston Community Kitchen.  It is interesting to note that the kitchen was not intended to be a charitable organization, providing meals for the poor, sick or shut-ins. These ladies wanted to make a profit to help fund the Club projects.

The group it was intending to serve were the people who were well off, not wealthy enough to have a staff of servants, but could afford to pay for meals brought to their home.  It sounded like an idea  that would be successful today, when many people buy prepared  foods, or order carry-outs from restaurants.  Mrs Odell  spoke to groups about  the benefits of community kitchens.  She stated that the "servant Problem" was one reason that community kitchens were needed.   Many household servants found  better paying jobs after World War One, and the scarcity of help changed the middle class home. The housewife couldn't count on help for child care, cleaning or cooking.  Having servants in those days was not just for the wealthy, many middle class people in Evanston in the early years of the 20th century hired live-in servants.  My first house in Evanston,  for example, built in 1904, had a maid's room and bathroom in the basement, and a bell in the floor of the dining room for calling the maid.  A maid was registered to the address in the Evanston directories in the teens and twenties.  The house wasn't a mansion, it was a  six room, three bedroom house.

A second reason for the kitchen was to "solidify the bonds of family life."  and lighten the burden of housekeeping and child raising for the housewife.  Women who ordered food from the Community Kitchen had one less thing to do, and could  be assured of a healthy balanced meal at a good price delivered to their door every evening.  The Kitchen  employed eight cooks and sold about 600 meals every week.  A typical evening meal consisted of four dishes and included dessert.  The cost was 85 cents for weekday meals, including delivery, the Sunday meal was one dollar.  The menu was changed daily, but  since it was a set menu, the family had to take what was prepared that day. Families could also pick up their meals from the shop. 

Preparing the meals for delivery. The containers on the table are being filled with hot food.

Another interesting outcome of the kitchen was the development of containers that could keep foods hot.  The Chicago Tribune published an article about the kitchen and mentioned the need for heat-retaining containers.  The Aladdin Company of Chicago stepped up and developed a product that was efficient and good looking.  It consisted of four metal dishes which were stackable and nice enough to be used at the dining table.  A glass lined metal insulated vacuum dish, similar to an old fashioned thermos bottle was eventually used.  The ladies in the picture above are holding the containers. The Aladdin company originally made oil lamps, and started to make thermal containers in 1917. The company was acquired by Pacific Market International in 2002, moved the Seattle and production moved to China.

"Let Bridget Leave" by Robert H. Moutlon, The Independent, May 1, 1920.
"The Evanston Community Kitchen, " Evanston Women's History Database, Evanston Public Library.