The saying "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch" refers to this custom, meaning that things which appear to be free are always paid for in some way.
A free-lunch counter is a great leveler of classes, and when a man takes a position before one of them he must give up all hope of appearing dignified.... all classes of the people can be seen partaking of these free meals and pushing and scrambling to be helped a second time. [At one saloon] six men were engaged in preparing drinks for the crowd that stood in front of the counter. I noticed that the price charged for every form of liquor was fifteen cents, punches and cobblers costing no more than a glass of ale.The repast included "immense dishes of butter," large baskets of bread, "a monster silver boiler filled with a most excellent oyster soup... a round of beef that must have weighed forty pounds," vessels filled with potatoes, stewed mutton, stewed tomatoes, "macaroni à la Français." The proprietor said that the patrons included "at least a dozen old fellows who come in here every day, take one fifteen cent drink, eat a dinner which would have cost them $1 in a restaurant, and then complain that the beef is tough or the potatoes watery." ($0.15 in 1872 is roughly equivalent to $2.30 today; $1 in 1872 to $15 today)
The custom was well-developed in San Francisco. An 1886 story on the fading of the days of '49 in San Francisco calls "The free lunch fiend the only landmark of the past." It asks "How do all these idle people live" and asserts "it is the free lunch system that keeps them alive. Take away that peculiarly California institution and they would starve. Rudyard Kipling, writing in 1891, noted how he
came upon a barroom full of bad Salon pictures in which men with hats on the backs of their heads were wolfing food from a counter. It was the institution of the "free lunch" I had struck. You paid for a drink and got as much as you wanted to eat. For something less than a rupee a day a man can feed himself sumptuously in San Francisco, even though he be a bankrupt. Remember this if ever you are stranded in these parts.
A 1919 novel compared the experience to a war zone by saying "the shells and shrapnels was flyin round and over our heads thicker than hungry bums around a free lunch counter.
In the cities, there are prominent rooms on fashionable streets that hold out the sign "Free Lunch." Does it mean that some [philanthropist] ... has gone systematically to work setting out tables ... placing about them a score of the most beautiful and winning young ladies... hiring a band of music? Ah, no! ... there are men who do all this in order to hide the main feature of their peculiar institution. Out of sight is a well-filled bar, which is the centre about which all these other things are made to revolve. All the gathered fascinations and attractions are as so many baits to allure men into the net that is spread for them. Thus consummate art plies the work of death, and virtue, reputation, and every good are sacrificed as these worse than Moloch shrines.
A number of writers, however, suggest that the free lunch actually performed a social relief function. Reformer William T. Stead commented that in winter in 1894 the suffering of the poor in need of food
would have been very much greater had it not been for the help given by the labor unions to their members and for an agency which, without pretending to be of much account from a charitable point of view, nevertheless fed more hungry people in Chicago than all the other agencies, religious, charitable, and municipal, put together. I refer to the Free Lunch of the saloons. There are from six to seven thousand saloons in Chicago. In one half of these a free lunch is provided every day of the week.''He states that "in many cases the free lunch is really a free lunch," citing an example of a saloon which did not insist on a drink purchase, although commenting that this saloon was "better than its neighbors." Stead cites a newspaper's estimate that the saloon keepers fed 60,000 people a day and that this represented a contribution of about $18,000 a week toward the relief of the destitute in Chicago.
In 1896, the New York State legislature passed the Raines law which was intended to regulate liquor traffic. Among its many provisions, one forbade the sale of liquor unless accompanied by food, while another outlawed the free lunch. In 1897, however, it was amended to again allow free lunches.
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