This section is from the book "The Steward's Handbook And Guide To Party Catering", by Jessup Whitehead. Also available from Amazon: Larousse Gastronomique.
The great majority of all the waiters in the United States now are colored men, and the number is steadily increasing. A white waiter at a meeting a year or two back pointed out to his fellows that the colored waiters had got possession of three-fourths of the waiter work of the hotels in this country, and they were in a fair way to get hold of it all. While this is a true statement it is remarkable when it is reflected that it is only about forty years since colored waiters were unknown outside of the southern states. The recent death of John Lucas, the colored head-waiter of the great United States Hotel at Saratoga, (who died worth $60,000) and the extensive newspaper mention which his death occasioned, has brought to light the fact that some of the aged waiters now living can name the men who first employed colored waiters in New York restaurants in 1846. The waiters employed in the immense hotels of Saratoga now are all colored; they are in the majority in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, and in all southern cities they have almost exclusive possession. They make the best of waiters and are learning better yearly.
At present they have to be recruited from a rough and uncared-for class to a great extent, from the boot blacks, scrubbers, sweepers, and farm and garden laborers, and many "hard cases" are found among them, but at the same time, in all the cities where the col-lored element is found in great and increasing numbers, the schools are turning out thousands of half-thought, half-polished young men who are almost entirely shut out from learning trades, and who come crowding into the waiters' ranks, finding there a species of occupation for which they are well' fitted. It is likely, therefore, that these colored men are the coming waiters of this country, and that in the course of time the field will be left to them entirely. In the South they occupy all the ground as it is. Proprietors and other employers go South yearly who are resolved not to employ colored help, but almost Invariably they have to abandon the resolution. The colored hands are there ready for anything. Guests find colored waiters more meek and obliging, less resentful and indifferent than white waiters. It is not long before changes take place and the colored hands get possession in spite of the previous intentions of the employers.
Looking at it without prejudice it will be found that the colored boys have great advantages to fit them to be good waiters. An immense number of them have to begin life as house boys, as servant boys in the private houses of the South, and they get service and waiting, neatness, obedience and civility trained into them insensibly. Tens of thousands of these colored boys, while they are yet children, earn their subsistence by helping their mothers in private service, and get a preliminary training in waiting at private tables. These turn out to be hotel waiters without experiencing much difficulty. Another immense advantage of the colored boy is his freedom from over-sensitiveness. His feelings are not very high strung. He is used to the badinage of his own class. Colored people can revile each other and call opprobrious names to an extent that the most irascible white man would never think of, but such abuse does not strike in; it rolls off the colored brother like water off a duck's back, and if he gets a rebuff at table he comes back smiling and says: "Now, Cap'n, I think you didn't ought talk so bad to me; ain't I treated you the very best I can? Ain't I been a real gen-. tleman to you? Now, boss, if there's anything else you like to have jest say it and if it's in this house I'll get it sure." Then "boss " or "cap'n " laughs and throws him a tip, and thinks more of "the boy" than ever he did.
Whether this submissiveness is going to continue as the race becomes better educated nobody can say, but it is an advantage to the colored boy at present, as it makes him the opposite of these complaining London waiters, who suffer apparently more in their mind than in their body. Says one, reporting the words of an address:
"The men to whom they sought to render assistance were exposed to many sorrows and troubles, dangers and difficulties. Some left homes perhaps of sorrow, to attend to the wants of others, and were obliged under the most depressing circumstances to look cheerful and pleasant. In addition to this, the waiter had to put up with many a scolding from those he waited on. He contended that in many instances the waiter was a far more gentlemanly individual than the one he waited upon".
And another: "Yet It must be acknowledged in all fairness that the waiter has a great deal to try him in the course of the day, and, if it were not for the expectation of liberal fees, it is probable that his nerves and his temper would give way far oftener than they do at present. It is the easy-, mannered, the quick, quiet, respectful, and very long-suffering attendant who reaps the largest tips as a general rule".
And another: "There is but little question that of all the people under the sun the waiter is the most abused; and be a man ever so placid in temperament, the word 'waiter' has only to be mentioned and he flies more or less into a fury. Everyone who frequents hotels and restaurants (and who does not?) denounces the waiter - the choleric man becomes more choleric, and the cynic more sneering and sarcastic, and the waiter, flouted, scorned and detested on all hands, leads what may be called a far from particularly happy life. For thinly-veiled insults, for biting sarcasm and jeering sneers, and, more often than not, for downright bullying, the waiter must return politeness and meekness, and if, like the oft-quoted worm, he should dare to turn, he risks the double loss of situation and character".
For this reason: "The dinner hour is a time when the guest is apt to be pleased or displeased with little things. There is an abrupt way of placing a salt-cellar on a table which is annoying; and no diner worthy of the name enjoys having his food thrust before him as if he were a wild beast at feeding-time at the Zoological Gardens".
Such are samples of the sad complaints the white waiters have to make, and every word they say is true. Surely it is an advantage to the colored man that his skin is so thick these stings and arrows do not strike through, but he laughs through it all, and the man who dines goes away cheerful, too, and is not haunted by remorse.
First Client (in a hurry): "Waiter, fried sole".
Second Client (in a hurry): "Waiter, fried sole; fresh, mind!"
Waiter (equal to the occasion, shouting down tube): "Two fried soles - one of 'em fresh !"