Waitresses back in the day, or, how we used to walk to shack in the snow uphill both ways

I can’t be sure how much of this is accurate, but some of it is corroborated by other historical accounts.  I know Pelicans of our day have it easy, and I have heard many former Pelicans talk of the hardships they endured and the badges of honor they won for their dedication and service on Star.  But some of this sounds just plain ridiculous.  Please let me know if you have more solid evidence of the truth in these pages.

Frederick T. McGill, who was an island legend in his own right, was the historian for a number of years.  He started a notebook.  In these pages I found the following story recorded July 7, 1998:

Today Allison Brayton gave a talk to the All Star 2 conferees on her experiences working on Star during the 1930s.  Allison worked as a waitress from 1933 until 1937, and had many stories about how things were so different then.  For example, there were no room assignments.  The girls would live in the Shack and the boys in Gosport.  Which room one actually got depended on how fast one could run from the boat to choose a room.  Thirty two girls lived in the Shack with sixteen girls on each floor.  Each room was furnished with a double bed and a bureau.  The girls had to bring their own trunks to ensure they would have a place to put all their clothes.  There was very little privacy in the Shack, because the walls did not reach to the ceiling.  In addition, each floor only had one bathroom with one sink.  The girls would use this sink to wash their clothes in, and then they would spread them to dry on the grass.  There was no clothesline.  There also were no showers for the waitresses.  On rainy days they would stand outside in their bathing suits with their soap.  If they wanted to wash their hair, they would assist each other by pouring water over a friend’s head as she bent over the sink.  The older girls tended to live on the second floor of the Shack, and did not socialize that often with the younger waitresses.

During the 1930s the Oceanic was run as a first class hotel.  Therefore there were many rules that the waitresses had to obey.  They were not allowed in guest areas, which included the lobby, front lawn, and porch.  Allison recalled that when her mother was on island for a conference, she could not visit her mother in her room, nor could her mother go to Allison’s room.  Thus they had to meet on the rocks if they wanted to have a conversation.  When the waitresses finished work each night around eight o’clock, they would meet on the rocks to talk and socialize.

According to Allison, their uniforms were black.  A black dress, tights, and shoes, with white collar, cuffs and apron.  On banquet nights they wore all white.  They waited on tables with each table having fourteen people seated at it.  In those days, people were assigned the same table to sit at throughout their stay at the hotel.  The table had a white linen table cloth and linen napkins that were changed twice a week.  If they got dirty before then, the waitresses would simply turn the table cloth over.  If a stain went through the cloth, they would cover it with an extra napkin.  Each waitress was responsible for carrying enough water up from the well to fill the water pitchers for their tables.

In those days, the hotel would print up individual menus for each guest, for each meal.  These menus would give three to four options for the main entree, appetizer, vegetable, and dessert.  Allison humorously recalled how the waitresses were not allowed to write down what the 14 people at the table ordered.  She was only 14 when she started this job, and could never remember everything.  Therefore, to solve this problem, she would simply bring her table all the vegetable orders.  She laughed as she explained how all of the other waitresses were always so amazed that the people at her tables at so many vegetables!  Allison’s secret was never discovered.

Allison’s job didn’t always go as smoothly as she wished.  Each summer Charlie and Liz Bolster would come and stay the entire season at the hotel.  One day, early on in the season, when Mrs. Bolster was wearing a white dress, Allison accidentally spilled soup down the front of the dress.  They were very angry at her for this spill, and refused to tip her or the other waitresses for the rest of the summer.  Years later Allison served with Mrs. Bolster on a committee for the General Alliance, but she never revealed her secret that she was the waitress who spilled the soup.

Besides their work as waitresses, the staff was also responsible for side work.  Allison’s side work was to hull strawberries, and one day after hulling 32 quarts of berries she accidentally wrote home that she ‘hurled’ 32 quarts of strawberries.  Her family thought that was very funny, and she replied well if you hulled 32 quarts of strawberries, you’d want to hurl them too!  Another side job that Allison had to do was when it rained she had to close the windows in the dining room. The windows were different then, so how they were placed meant if it rained, rain would fall directly on the tables.  Therefore, during storms Allison had to run outside to shut them, then would finish serving the meal in her soaking wet uniform.

When Allison worked here during the 1930s, the staff did not have a lounge as we do today.  Their dining room was in the same area, but half the size of today’s Pelican dining hall.  The staff was fed leftovers that were one to three days old.  Diarrhea was a frequent ailment of the staff, because every morning they were served prunes for breakfast.  Prunes were the only fruit on island available to them, and were stored in the area where the snackbar is today.  Allison’s pay was $4 a week plus tips.  The most tips they could expect was $14 which meant a dollar per person.  They received the $14 at the end of the week.  Allison proudly announced that although this didn’t sound like a lot of money, it was enough to pay her tuition at Tufts.  The staff was not allowed days off in those days, and if you were caught drinking or smoking you would be sent home on the next boat.  During the 1930s VD Harrington was the manager.

During the 1930s the staff consisted of waitresses, bellhops, maintenance, and chamber, and was much smaller than today’s staff.  The waitresses were all female, but Allison recalled how in the 1920s the reverse was true.  In the 1920s Allison’s two brothers were waiters at the Oceanic Hotel.  She is not sure when the switch to women occured.  There were males on staff, although fewer in number than females.  They worked as bellhops and maintenance men.  The chamber staff were older women who worked at Proctor Academy during the hotel off season.  Allison recalled how old these women seemed to her, but now realizes that they were probably in their 30s and 40s.  In addition, not all of these chamber maids spoke English, and Allison recalled how interesting it was to learn their different languages.  The kitchen staff were professionals in the field.

As stated earlier the boys lived on the third and fourth floors of Gosport.  Boys were not allowed in Shack, and girls were not allowed in Gosport.  Therefore the only safe place to interact was on the rocks.  There was a pipeline that went from the bathrooms in the Shack, and out to the ocean.  Boys were not allowed to cross that pipe, but they could go to the edge of it to chat with the girls.  At night the girls were supposed to be in bed by 10:00, and there was a woman in charge of monitoring this.  Allison remembers how some girls would try to sneak out after 10, but they were always caught by the woman who constantly seemed to be lurking in the shadows.

Oscar Laighton was still alive when Allison worked here.  Each morning she would bring his breakfast to room 14 in Cottage A.  There was a special door there with a shelf to put the tray for Oscar, so the waitresses would not disturb him.  Oscar always ate breakfast in his room, but for the other meals he would eat in the dining room.  According to Allison, “Oscar loved the girls” and would often take them for rides in his boat.  It was a small boat with a motor.

During the 1930s there weren’t pel shows to entertain the guests.  Instead there was an orchestra , consisting of a cello, violin, and a piano, that played in the lobby.  Back then the staff was not called Pelicans, but instead were affectionately known as “cheap help”.

Besides feeding the conference guests, the hotel also fed lunch to day visitors.  Due to lack of communication resources, the kitchen staff had to guess on the number of day visitors who would be requesting lunch.  This was before the days of the carrier pigeons.  Allison recalled how she loved to wait on the day visitors because they were good tippers, much better than the hotel guests, and even better than the staff who didn’t tip at all.

Allison remembered that the General Alliance, Laymen League, YPRU, and the Congregational Conferences met in the 1930s.  Allison attended YPRU the year before she began working for Star, and her parents were chaperones in 1922 for YPRU.  In the 1930s , the season lasted 8 weeks (July and August).  Occasionally the new help was let go after 6 weeks because the later conferences never filled up.

In contrast to today, fire was not a major concern of the hotel management.  In case of a fire, a bucked brigade would have been assembled.  Fire drills may have occured once or twice during the season, but never occured on a weekely basis as they do now.

1998 marks Allison Brayton’s sixty first year on island.  Since working as a waitress she went on to be a registrar for the Alliance, and has attended the International Affairs conference for the past 35 years.  Today Allison is still very active in her support of the island, and volunteers in the gift shop.  When asked would she have changed anything, Allison replied “I hated being a waitress, but I loved being here!”

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2 thoughts on “Waitresses back in the day, or, how we used to walk to shack in the snow uphill both ways

  1. Allison Brayton is still with us. She lives with a niece in Vermont. We exchange holiday cards every year. If you’d like to contact her, let me know.

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