Tea rooms helped popularize sandwiches throughout the city
The 1920s was the decade of the sandwich in Charleston. That's according to Dr. David Shields, and he would know. A professor of English at the University of South Carolina, Shields is a living, breathing file cabinet of Charleston food ephemera. Perhaps you remember him from his last foray into sandwich history for City Paper — his Dish: Gullah Geechee issue essay, "Fish Tales" in which Shields revealed the city's fondness for fish sandwich cabarets. Forget dancing girls, these places were all about grabbing a quick, fried meal.
"Sometime shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the fashion for fried fish sandwiches swept through the city," Shields wrote last summer. "The sandwiches were simple — bread, butter, and a skillet fried, cornmeal dusted fillet." Hungry customers loved the five-cent meals made with fried whiting. But even with the popularity of fish sandwich cabarets, Shields claims that it was later during the Roaring Twenties that Charlestionians truly began their sandwich love affair.
"That was when multitudes of articles appeared about the splendor of sandwiches for picnics or ladies' luncheons like tea sandwiches of chopped egg, deviled ham and olive (Underwoods deviled ham in tins were everywhere), and chicken salad. There were no oyster po' boys early, nor soft shell crabs."
Elite Sandwich Shop at 58 Hassell St., Shields says, was the first local place to sell sandwiches. Made of what? Well, that's harder to say. All the tiny 1929 ad from the News & Courier reveals are the words: "sandwiches, salads, and box lunches made to order." What we do know, based on a thorough examination of the paper's archives, is that what Elite dished out caught on quick. By the '30s, there were a variety of sandwich shops advertising in the paper including Pete's located where the Sherwin Williams paint store is on Meeting Street today; a place called Coffey's Sandwich Shop on Savannah Highway that sold "sandwiches of all kinds;" and on Church Street the Hors d'ouevres Shop sold sandwich pastes including: kipper, lobster, prawn, Virginia ham, and bloater paste — a fish spread made from salted herrings smoked whole with the insides still in them.
By the 1940s, getting into the sandwich business wasn't difficult either. An enterprising sandwich clerk could buy a "completely equipped" shop, like Bob's at 20 Broad St. for $100 — roughly $1,721.70 in today's dollars.
But it was really the tea rooms, as Shields suggests, that played the biggest role in popularizing the portable dish. A News & Courier ad from May 27, 1935 promotes one such room, Colonial Belle Kitchen at 108 Church St. There one could buy lettuce, tomato, and cucumber sandwiches on homemade bread with an ice tea for 10 cents. The price may have gone up, but you can still enjoy tea rooms today in the spring. Grace Cathedral Tea Room opens for lunch during the Spoleto Festival each year and offers the classics like chicken salad and pimento cheese sandwiches.
Ever the trendsetters, Charleston's ladies who lunch were quick to innovate standard spreads. And by the mid-'30s they were writing stories to prove it. One News & Courier piece boasts of all kinds of new and improved sandwich combinations: bacon and pimento, peanut butter and mint, olive and almonds, cottage cheese, shrimp and lobster aspic, and, my favorite, peanut butter, cheese, and olive which includes the instructions: "blend together. If too hard or stiff, add butter or cream." Charleston's ladies were so hot for sammies, one article from 1939 suggests, that "Women between twenty and thirty years of age are Charleston's best sandwich customers, and midday is the biggest rush period. Men are hearty sandwich eaters when they do eat them." It goes on to say that due to their hankering for vegetables, men bypass sandwiches, but the unnamed author adds, "Women though are less exacting until they reach the past-thirty age." Past 30, huh? Consider me a slack sammie shopper then.
If, as the paper reports, ladies were leading the sandwich charge, surely they were shopping at Harold's Cabin too. Harold Jacob, the early 20th century Charleston mercantilist, got his start at his Harold's Cabin at 247 Congress St. But new owner John Schumacher says it was when the store moved to Wentworth Street after World War II that Jacob saw the potential in selling bread and meat combos.
"When I was going to some of the neighborhood association meetings for the building, there was a lady there one night who came up to me and said she had her first pastrami sandwich at Harold's," says Schumacher. "There's also a guy who works at Whole Foods and he remembers Harold selling a sardine and cream cheese sandwich that he loved going to get. My guess is it probably would have been in the late '60s or early '70s when he did that." You won't find a pastrami or sardine sandwich on Harold's menu today, but you can get a fresh catch sandwich or grilled chicken thighs with greens on a biscuit. And so the city's sandwich legacy continues.