1917 Filene’s Department Store Employee Cafeteria Menu and Prices

Source: American Cookery (June/July, 1917)

There’s been a lot of inflation over the past hundred years. A century ago, you could get a meal of roast lamb, mashed potatoes, bread (2 slices), and butter for only $.20 at the employees’ cafeteria at Filene’s Department Store in Boston. What would a similar roast lamb meal cost today?

According to an online Inflation Calculator website, a dollar a hundred years ago is worth about $19 today.  That suggests that the lamb dinner should only cost about $3.80 today. Whew, that’s way too low. I can’t even buy a latte for $3.80. . . or has food increased in price much faster than overall inflation?

37 thoughts on “1917 Filene’s Department Store Employee Cafeteria Menu and Prices

  1. That is amazing to think about. I have seen menus from my grandfather’s luncheonette and it is hard to believe the prices. But, I can remember ice cream cones for 15 cents and nickel cokes.

  2. Just goes to show you the importance of investing in something that will keep up with inflation. No money under the mattress thing. And I do remember a special price of $.05 for big ice cream cones at a new dairy that opened on my street. And the $0.25 minimum wage on my first jog.

  3. Filene”s Basement! My sister met her husband while working there around 1967. They got married in 1970. Got my prom gown there in 1969 for $15. Had a small hole in the front that DM fixed with a bow. In the alley between Jordan Marsh and Filene”s there were two diners that served horrible but filling meals for about $2.
    Wow did you get me blabbing! Love your blog. I can see your Grandma giggling with her friends. Some things never change than goodness.
    Best wishes from Best Bun

    1. Thanks for the link. It’s interesting to read about Filene’s. It makes me feel a little sad that so many of the wonderful old-time department stores are gone.

    1. Don’t think that I’ve ever seen prunes listed on a modern menu. That said, sometimes I think that prunes get a bad rap. I actually think that they are tasty.

  4. Not only the prices are interesting. Bread and mashed potatoes were real staples! Starch, starch and more starch! And it’s interesting that the fed their employees. I worked in a local bank years ago that had a company subsidized cafeteria. The food was very good and so were the prices.

  5. One interesting tidbit: when the government calculates the core inflation rate, gas and food aren’t included. So, it’s possible for the inflation rate to be reported as being stable, while you still see prices in the stores rising. Higher gas and food prices can be caused by a multitude of things, and as I understand it, their volatility is why they aren’t included.

    I did have an interesting experience this week. I just got done painting some window frames on a long-time customer’s boat. I went back into my files to see when I last did it, and it was in 2011. At that time, a quart of the paint I use was $27. Today? It’s $57. Gracious!

    1. Whew, that’s a huge increase. The price more than doubled in only seven years. So many things seem to increase faster than the official rate of inflation.

  6. Perfect illustration of why inflation calculators are not very reliable—markets don’t change and advance at the same rate—so we cannot really understand prices from the past unless we understand the wider context. It takes a great deal of knowledge about what products would be readily available, popular, and locally-made as well as necessary and useful in order to get a better sense of the true cost of various goods in a given time, place, or culture.

    1. You’re absolutely right. My first thought was that location probably played a bigger role in price variations a hundred years ago than now, but as I think about it a little more, I’m not really sure that is the case. Some locales seem like they have become more isolated across the years.

  7. At the beginning of the article, it says that the company pays expenses. I wonder if that means they were subsidizing the meals? Maybe they were cheaper than market price. So, for instance, if they were subsidizing that same meal today, the employee will be getting it for three or four dollars. Could this be it?

    1. Yes, I think that you could be right. The store may have served subsidized meals as a “benefit.” I bet that it would improve employee morale.

    1. It’s fascinating how the proportions change across the years. I’ve seen figures which show that people spend a substantially lower percentage of their income on food now than what they did a hundred years go. Conversely they spend a much higher proportion of their income on healthcare now than what they did back then.

  8. Interesting developments indeed. Our spending structure has obviously changed a lot, but food seems to be more expensive than what could be concluded purely look at inflation figures. Great post!

    1. It’s wonderful to hear that you enjoyed this post. I wonder what proportion of the price of food served in the cafeteria was related to the cost of labor. Maybe labor costs were relatively less back then.

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