…Throughout the 19th century, restaurants catered to a predominately male clientele. Much like taverns and gentlemen’s clubs, they were places where men went to socialize, discuss business, and otherwise escape the responsibilities of work and home. It was considered inappropriate for women to dine alone, and those who did were assumed to be prostitutes. Given this association, unescorted women were banned from most high-end restaurants and generally did not patronize taverns, chophouses, and other masculine haunts.
As American cities continued to expand, it became increasingly inconvenient for women to return home for midday meals. The growing demand for ladies’ lunch spots inspired the creation of an entirely new restaurant: the ice-cream saloon. At a time when respectable women were excluded from much of public life, these decadent eateries allowed women to dine alone without putting their bodies or reputations at risk.
The first ice cream saloons were humble cafes that served little more than ice cream, pastries, and oysters. As women became more comfortable eating out, they expanded into opulent, full-service restaurants with sophisticated menus that rivaled those at most other elite establishments. In 1850, a journalist described one ice cream saloon as offering “an extensive bill of fare … ice cream — oysters, stewed, fried and broiled; —broiled chickens, omelettes, sandwiches; boiled and poached eggs; broiled ham; beef-steak, coffee, chocolate, toast and butter.” According to the historian Paul Freeman, the 1862 menu of an ice cream saloon in New York ran a whopping 57 pages and featured mother of pearl detailing.
Although ice cream parlors had an air of dainty domesticity, they also developed more sultry reputations. At the time, they were one of the few places where both men and women could go unchaperoned. As a result, they became popular destinations for dates and other illicit rendezvous. “Did a young lady wish to enjoy the society of the lover whom ‘Papa’ had forbidden the house?” the New York Times wrote in 1866. “A meeting at Taylor’s was arranged, where soft words and loving looks served to atone for parental harshness, and aided the digestion of pickled oysters.”
Innocent young couples weren’t the only pairs tucked together in the velvet booths. During a trip to Taylor’s, one writer observed “a middle-aged man and woman in deep and earnest conversation. They are evidently man and wife—though not each others!” Moralists were also outraged by the presence of pimps, prostitutes, and women “who were not over particular with the company they kept.” These scandalous scenes prompted rumors of ice cream “drugged with passion-exciting Vanilla” that seduced virtuous women into taking “the first step…which leads to infamy.”
These charges did little to dissuade respectable women from patronizing ice cream saloons. In fact, their reputation as “a trysting ground for all sorts of lovers” may have made the saloons all the more enticing. According to the Times, Taylor’s “always maintained its popularity, in spite of (or perhaps because of) rumors that it afforded most elegant opportunities for meetings not entirely correct.”
Oh my, passion-exciting Vanilla! I have vanilla ice cream in my freezer, and I had no idea of the evil I was hosting. I’ll enjoy it all the more for that. You can read much more about the history of Ice Cream Saloons at Atlas Obscura.