Dating Old Photographs – The Price of Tea in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1917

Question: What was the price of a cup of chicken soup in 1915?

Answer: Ten cents a cup. Add some ham and eggs to that, and you should be prepared to part with the Barber quarter and Buffalo nickel burning a hole in your pocket.

If you’re feeling a little more adventurous or extravagant, you could always opt for, say, the cold tongue (for 15 cents) or the sirloin steak (for 35 cents). Even with a beverage, you should be able to escape with a bill totaling under one dollar.

As common wisdom informs us, a picture, in this case – the one below, is worth a thousand words.  Since I first came across this photograph several years ago, I’ve been fascinated by it.

Lowell, MA - Killpatrick Restaurant - ca. 1917

I first saw this photograph in 2004, when my Aunt Emily passed away. When her house was being cleaned out, the box containing this photograph, unopened for so many years, was almost discarded. Inside the box, for some long-lost coffee maker as I remember, the photographs were old, unlabeled, and almost exclusively represented her father’s family, the Foisys, who were no relation to us.

I quickly found this photograph among the pile of cabinet cards. At first glance, five men pose outside a restaurant – a long time ago – with their bill of fare, prices clearly shown. The name of the restaurant is probably obscured behind them, either on the windows, or more likely, on the board beneath the windows. The three men in the middle appear to be waiters – the jacketed men on each side might be managers, or owners. I remember assuming that the photograph was taken ‘someplace in New Hampshire’, since that’s where her paternal family was from.

But, with my genealogist’s/researcher’s mind, I wanted to know more. Who were they? Where were they? Was there a historical society, or a descendant of these men, who were seeking a photograph like this? No clues were included on the rear of the photo, and, by the time I got it, everyone had died. And my attempts at finding any related Foisy descendants for this, and the other Foisy photos, were unsuccessful.

For the next few years, I displayed the photo in my old photo collections, cognizant of the fact that I could not answer questions about its exact location or date, or even identify the men in the picture. (Well, I guess I knew at least one was probably a Foisy.) I eventually moved back to New England, and spent more time on my genealogy research; the long winters here are truly motivating for indoor hobbies. I soon focused on the art of dating photographs, and built some expertise in it. On one cold December day, I took a fresh look at the photograph.

Admittedly, one’s skill in dating photographs does not need to progress far before realizing that photos showing women’s fashions are much easier to date than those showing men’s. And there’s no exception in this photograph. The style of the photograph, the men’s hats, and the younger suited man’s tall collar all bespoke an early twentieth century timeframe to me, but without women in the photograph, this was a guess.

What really helped me was an inkling that one of the five men in the photograph was an uncle of my Aunt Emily and his name would have been Foisy. I knew her father to have been born in 1882; so, this too led me to an early twentieth century timeframe. But, how could I get his name?

I constructed a tree for the paternal Foisy side of her family, and through obituaries and census records soon found that she had several uncles. But the census records quickly showed that none of them were employed in the restaurant business in the Great War years. So, with that lead exhausted, I tabled the project for a while.

A few months later, I came back, and had the thought to check the WWI draft registration records, from 1917, and found Mitchell R. Foisy, who had been employed as a waiter for S. W. Killpatrick’s Restaurant at 30 Gorham Street in Lowell, Massachusetts. I now knew that one of the men in white was Uncle Mitchell. I also learned that Mitchell, who had been a boiler maker at the Boston & Maine Railroad car shop in 1920, was a waiter three years earlier, in 1917.  So, a career change was the culprit behind my earlier failure to find him.

Mitchell R. Foisy - WWI Draft Registration Card, 1917

With the restaurant’s name and address provided by the draft registration card, I checked the newspaper records and found that it had closed before the 1920 census.

Killpatrick Restaurant - 1920 Public Auction of Assets, Lowell Sun 4/9/1920

By the time this notice appeared in the Lowell Sun in April 1920, Killpatrick’s equipment was being auctioned off.  The closure of the restaurant was in good company too. Many restaurants, in Greater Lowell and beyond, closed as the effects of lost liquor licenses due to Prohibition began to be felt.  But, this is the topic of an earlier post on this blog, from October 15, 2011, link below.

The short of it is that this explained why Uncle Mitch had moved on by the 1920 census. I had found the restaurant, its location, its timeframe, and I knew that Mitchell had been born around 1888, meaning that I needed one of the men in white to be 30-year-old Mitchell Foisy.  A quick scan through Aunt Emily’s other Foisy photos quickly found a familiar face – the man in white, in the middle. None of the other men appeared in any of the other photos. I had found my man.

This past Sunday, I drove down into downtown Lowell, armed with my iPhone camera (4 not 4s), in search of the building where Killpatrick’s restaurant once stood. I knew from the advertisements that the restaurant once stood directly opposite the Lowell Post Office (now the School Department Building). And I also soon learned that Google Maps had not scanned the short stretch of road between Gorham’s intersections with Middlesex and Appleton streets. A quick look at the 1896 Lowell City Atlas did reveal the location of the restaurant, opposite what was then the City Post Office; below, I’ve marked the restaurant’s location with a blue dot.

The blue dot marks the spot of the Killpatrick Restaurant - From 1896 Lowell Atlas, Plate 5

At the site of Killpatrick’s restaurant; the building still stands. I snapped this photograph of the building as it appears today, more than 90 years after Killpatrick’s Restaurant closed its doors for the final time.

Site of Killpatrick's Restaurant, Photo Taken by Author - 10/23/11

With that, I was able to add a back story to my favorite Foisy family photograph, learn more local history relevant to Lowell, Massachusetts, and even get a reliable pricing guide showing what lunches cost at local restaurants in the years leading up to Prohibition. And that makes the photograph even more important to me.

4 thoughts on “Dating Old Photographs – The Price of Tea in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1917

  1. Great article! I’m searching for a 1910 Greek restaurant in Lowell and came across your article in my search. So wonderful that the building for your ancestors’ restaurant is still standing (in 2011) and that there’s still coffee brewing there!

  2. I’m often interested in AOH 8, Lowell for a parade in 1917. Marshalled by Micheal T O Rourke and five brothers and wondered if any old folk might have photos.

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