Written by Ina Bort
In our last two posts, we explored the life of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and dropped in at her Marble House suffrage conferences in Newport, where “Votes for Women” plates like this one may very well have been used. But it may be that these plates were instead (or also) used—that is, actually eaten from—at the “suffrage lunchroom” that Alva created and where her work as a publicist for the suffrage movement took a very different form, and targeted a very different audience, from her glamorous Newport events.
Alva returned to New York just after the 1909 Marble House conference ended and began renting office space for her own newly created suffrage organization, the Political Equality Association. As usual, her work attracted much fanfare, as Sylvia D. Hoffert noted in Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: Unlikely Champion of Women’s Rights: “The newspapers could not get enough of her. They had made her a celebrity. She was their creature, and they were not about to let her go.”
But in late 1909/early 1910, she realized she could not “build a mass movement from headquarters hidden on the seventeenth floor of a Manhattan office building.” To increase visibility, she opened a total of 11 “street-front suffrage settlement clubs” in and around Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Long Island, where she held meetings, organized public speaking classes, arranged for musical entertainment, and opened reading rooms. She also opened a lunchroom run by suffrage supporters where working-class women could purchase a nutritious meal for a little as five cents.
Her ingenuity paid off. Newspapers and magazines heaped praise on the suffrage clubs and, especially, the bustling lunchroom. Particularly entrancing was the unlikely juxtaposition of Alva’s fame and wealth with the lunchroom’s austerity and down-home cooking offered for mere pennies, enjoyed by armies of wage-earning women working in the neighborhood—who, along with their meals, were fed a steady diet of the message of women’s suffrage. As described in a June 6, 1911, New York Times article, lunch patrons enjoying their 25-cent, multi-course dinner or 10-cent chicken sandwiches could cast their eyes on the “suffrage pictures, literature, texts, and banners” lining the walls.
Were these lunches served on “Votes for Women” tableware? An article in The Bellman published October 19, 1912, which praised Alva’s ability to lure men as well as women to the lunchroom, says so, albeit on gold-lettered plates:
“[T]he secret of this lunchroom’s popularity is that the food is good to eat. The proof of the pudding is that men buy it. The tables reserved for men are never empty. That shrewd and capable Head [Alva ] might succeed in getting an idealist or a disciplined husband to lunch once, on the pretty white plate, for the sake of the legend in letters of gold that encircles it, “Votes for Women,” if the mustard were good and the bread were naught, but not twice. . . . But the bread is good with Mrs. Belmont, the mustard is not naught, and the appeals for “Votes for Women” are made only in the eye and do not reach the talking stage.”
A New-York Tribune article from September 30, 1913—which similarly heralded Alva’s decision to make “unchaperoned men” feel as welcome at her lunchroom as the women—not only praised the delicious food at reasonable prices (“roast beef and mashed potatoes . . . with savory brown gravy and stewed corn to boot, for 30 cents. Lamb with the trimmings the same. Roast beef sandwich only 20, soup 15, pie 5, tea, coffee and chocolate 5”) but also explained that “seven hundred and twenty-eight persons ate luncheon at the headquarters . . . There were 115 men lunchers yesterday. . . . All the plates and cups have “Votes for Women” mottoes on them, but the men didn’t seem to mind.”
“Votes for Women” plates were also used at the suffrage club lunchroom run by Mrs. Sophia Kramer at a “woman suffrage party center, known as the 15th Assembly District Club house,” at 120 West 81st Street. A 1911 article in The Flaming Sword, which described “[t]he more energetic women in New York,” who “make of their [suffrage] cause a religion, and of their religion a business”—and a well-run, lucrative one at that—“label their goods, and offer you votes for women glasses to drink from, votes for women dishes to eat from, votes for women table linen for breakfast, dinner, and supper.”
Elegant but practical, rimmed by a direct, pithy message bound to attract attention and provoke conversation, the New-York Historical Society’s “Votes for Women” plate perfectly captures the spirit of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. Perhaps we will never know for certain where this plate was used, but it invites us to see, in our minds, a suffrage conference spread across a spectacular Newport lawn, to imagine the sounds of clattering plates at a suffrage lunchroom, and to savor its ever-relevant message.
- Sylvia D. Hoffert, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: Unlikely Champion of Women’s Rights (Indiana University Press, 2011)
- “To Feed Financiers in Fight For Votes,” New York Times, June 6, 1911
- Frances Heath, “Web and Woof,” The Bellman, Vol. 13, Oct. 19, 1912, p. 505 et seq.
- “Ting-A-Ling! Luncheon’s On at Mrs. Belmont’s,” New-York Tribune, Sept. 30, 1913, p. 7
- “What Women are Doing,” in The Flaming Sword, Vol. 25 (1911), p. 364 et seq.