On the Menu at Mills House
Mills House Number 1 at 160 Bleecker Street (at Thompson Street) in the South Village was a large experimental ‘reform housing’ project built by noted architect Ernest Flagg from 1896 to1897 and financed by banker and philanthropist Darius Ogden Mills. The two ten story wings of the hotel for single men were composed of 1,500 small 5 x 7 foot sleeping cubicles, each lit by a single window facing either the street or the interior court.
Social chronicler Jacob Riis visited the Mills House and wrote about it in his The Battle With the Slum in 1902. He had a generally favorable opinion of the project and contrasted the relatively high standards of the Mills House to the overcrowded, dirty, and crime-ridden rooming houses found on the nearby Bowery–
“The guest at the Mills House has all the privileges the other has, except to while away the sunlit hours in his bed. Then he is expected to be out hustling. At nine o’clock his door is barred against him, and is not again opened until five in the afternoon. But there are smoking and writing rooms, and a library for his use; games if he chooses, baths when he feels like taking one, and a laundry where he may wash his own clothes if he has to save the pennies, as he likely has to. It is a good place to do it, too, for he can sleep comfortably and have two square meals a day for fifty cents all told. There is a restaurant in the basement where his dinner costs him fifteen cents.”
Today we’ll take a brief look at what that fifteen cent dinner would actually look like.
The menus below are from a couple of years after the Mills House opened, and include some familiar and some antiquated choices — all at a rock-bottom price (then, as well as now). If menus and cuisine culture are your thing, be sure to check out the New York Public Library’s delightful and user-friendly Menu Collection, where you can browse meals and restaurants past and even help to transcribe and review the digitized menus for easy searching by cooks, historians, and the public.
“I will not say that the dinner is as savory as the one they would serve at Delmonico’s, but he comes to it probably with a good deal better appetite, and that is the thing after all. I will own the turkey seemed to me to taste of codfish and the codfish of turkey, as if it were all cooked in one huge dish; but there was enough of it, and it was otherwise good. And the fault may have been with my palate, probably was. It is getting to be quite the thing for clubs with a social inquiry turn to meet and take their dinners at Mills House No. 1 in Bleecker Street, so it must be all right. Perhaps I struck the cook’s off day.”*
*Since reading this proof I have been over and verified my diagnosis. The trouble must have been with me. The soup and the mutton and the pie had each its proper savor, and the cook is all right. So is the lunch. There is no fifty-cent lunch in the city that I know of which is better.