Masters of a Craft: Philadelphia's Black Public Waiters, 1820–50

This essay surveys the work of black public waiters in nineteenth-century Philadelphia and considers how they transformed menial domestic jobs into lucrative businesses. The work of public waiters in this era helped develop a catering trade for which the city became well-known. Sources such as print culture, financial records, censuses, and directories reveal a transitional period in which public waiters negotiated a new role. From the 1820s through the antebellum era, as public waiters developed entrepreneurial catering businesses, they also helped build the black community, effect social mobility, and change eating culture.