Today the name is synonymous with small, greasy microwave burgers, but it wasn’t always so. When it was founded in 1921, the White Castle restaurant was a symbol of cleanliness and propriety. Hamburgers, which first gained popularity during the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, had become anathema by 1910 following the publication of Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle.
That book, which shed light on the deplorable and unwholesome conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry, led to a sharp decline in public demand for ground beef and other processed beef products. Indeed, after the book came out, meat sales dropped by more than half. There seemed to be little desire for such food products when, at least according to Sinclair, the ground beef in your hamburger might well contain the processed remains of slaughterhouse employees, as well.
Enter Billy Ingram, with an inspired solution. His idea? Bring the customers back to the hamburger by cleaning up its image. With an initial investment of $700, he built a restaurant where the beef was ground up in full view, so each customer could see exactly what he was eating. The first White Castle restaurant had a bar with five stools, and was painted white inside and out to project an image of cleanliness. The name of the restaurant was chosen to send the same message -- “White” for purity, and “Castle” for strength and permanence. The castle-like design of the restaurant’s exterior was even chosen to echo the Chicago Water Tower, a national symbol of endurance after it survived the Chicago Fire of 1871.
Declaring that “the age of the greasy hamburger has passed,” Ingram set out to bring the customers back. The restaurant was manned with a well-groomed and polite wait staff and cook. A clean-up man was added, whose sole job was to scrub the utensils and interior of the restaurant all day long. Each employee –- all male, at first –- was given a clear and strict set of rules to follow:
- Cap should cover hair.< /li>
- Keep hair trimmed.< /li>
- Be ready to make suggestions.< /li>
- Have clean shave.< /li>
- Be prepared to speak pleasantly.< /li>
- Correct bad breath.< /li>
- Get rid of chewing gum.< /li>
- Wear clean collar.< /li>
- Be sure bowtie is not frayed or dirty.< /li>
- Wear clean shirt.< /li>
- Button all shirt buttons.< /li>
- No body odor.< /li>
- Fold shirt neatly.< /li>
- Fasten apron neatly.< /li>
- Have shirt neatly tucked in trousers.< /li>
- No patches in trouser seat.< /li>
- No wrist watch.< /li>
- No flashy jewelry.< /li>
- Wash hands.< /li>
- Clean fingernails.< /li>
Since then, the name may have become associated with microwave burgers, and the rules may have gone by the wayside, but White Castle made its start as a bastion of purity, a surprising notion for many customers today.