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    Ashtrays bespeak a different era for Howard Johnson’s

    I don’t have any young memories of eating a vanilla ice cream cone from the 28 flavors at Howard Johnson’s. My family could never afford to eat there or drop by for a bite on travels we never took.

    Even if we could, the Howard Johnson’s of the 1960s would never have let us come through its welcoming doors with the “Simon and the Pieman” logo, take a seat and order its infamous fried clams or a “frankfort.”

    My auction buddy Janet, who like me was born African American, does have memories of stops at Hojo’s with her parents – but for takeout.

    Howard Johnson's restaurants

    Howard Johnson ashtrays and matchbook at auction.

    “Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, my family took regular car trips to escape the crowded city and see something new,” she says. “Sometimes on weekends, we’d take a ride to upstate New York or Long Island, where the landscape was lush, the houses bigger and there were far fewer people. A special treat was to stop at Howard Johnson’s for ice cream cones. My brothers and I were young, elementary school age, but we always knew the orange building with its blue sign out front. It was like a beacon.”

    At auction recently, that beacon beckoned me. But it was in the form of ashtrays and a matchbook with the Howard Johnson’s name and two logos, the boy and the pieman and the boy with a lamplighter. They represented a time when cigarettes were ubiquitous, an ashtray stood at the ready, and matches were placed in bowls near the cash register.

    These were relics from an era when Howard Johnson’s 28 flavors of ice cream – “I could have had butter pecan or even coffee (very grown up),” Janet said, “but I still ordered vanilla, my favorite” – its clams and its frankfurters ruled the restaurant landscape.

    Howard Johnson's restaurants

    Howard Johnson’s ad shows a family on way to the restaurant. This was the type of family the restaurants welcomed. Photo from dyingforchocolate.blogspot.com.

    Howard Johnson’s was founded when cars were owned by the few who could afford them but took off when those same vehicles became cheap enough so most people could buy one. The chain also peaked when people started traveling in those cars to see more of the country – just as Janet’s family.

    Howard Deering Johnson was the brains behind Howard Johnson’s, which started out as a soda fountain in a neighborhood in Quincy, MA, outside Boston, in 1925. By the 1970s, there were 1,000 of the full-service restaurants, which were the most popular in the country. At one point in the 1960s, a new restaurant was said to be opened every nine days.

    Today, the last of those restaurants are up for sale, in Lake George, NY. Too much competition and a lot more choices pushed the chain into extinction.

    That was not the case when Johnson opened his soda fountain. He wanted to boost sales so he needed to find a way to make his ice cream tastier. He decided to add more butterfat and better ingredients. It worked, and people kept coming back. His ice cream was so popular that he opened another store in downtown Quincy, and thought about how he could expand even more.

    Howard Johnson's restaurants

    Ashtray and matchbook show the two Howard Johnson’s logos.

    Then the depression hit, and his business like others stalled. But he didn’t stop thinking: He persuaded a businessman to open an ice cream stand on Cape Cod – his first venture into franchising – and even that one took off. Johnson supplied the name and the products, and the franchiser sold the food. It would become the norm for all of the subsequent establishments.

    In 1930, artist John Eagles Alcott created the “Simon and the Pieman” logo presumably from an old nursery rhyme that began “Simple Simon met a pieman, going to the fair; says Simple Simon to the pieman, ‘Let me taste your ware.'” (The logo with the lamplighter would appear in Hojo advertising and on weathervanes in the 1950s, around the time the first Howard Johnson motor lodge was opened, in Savannah, GA.)

    World War II slowed down the company again, but it again survived. The 1960s and 1970s were considered its best years. The 1960s were around the time that my friend Janet was cruising the highway with her family to escape Brooklyn.

    A Howard Johnson's restaurant postcard. Photo from blog.theamericanguide.org.

    A Howard Johnson’s restaurant postcard. Photo from blog.theamericanguide.org.

    Ironically, her’s was the type of family that Howard Johnson’s sought through its clean cookie-cutter restaurants with good affordable food. The restaurants could be found in several states, at service stations on the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Turnpikes (Johnson got exclusive contracts when the turnpikes were built) and alongside Howard Johnson’s hotels.

    The restaurants were standardized. Johnson developed a “Howard Johnson Bible” that all restaurants had to use to maintain uniformity, from food to dress (waitresses wore uniforms originally designed by Christian Dior) to the look of the place.

    He got the idea for his trademark clams from a company in Ipswich, MA that removed the bellies from its clams. So Johnson enlisted the owners to supply their “tender-sweet fried clams” to all of his restaurants.

    Howard Johnson's restaurants

    Howard Johnson’s ad promoting its ice cream flavors. Photo from vintageads.livejournal.com.

    All of Howard Johnson’s new dishes were tested at commissaries before being served at the restaurants. During the 1960s, he added a little French to his menu by hiring two little-known chefs who would become famous: Pierre Franey and Jacques Pepin, who started out as a line cook at a restaurant in Queens, NY, and then tested recipes at one of the commissaries.

    While Howard Johnson’s advertised itself as a wholesome family-friendly restaurant, it was far from it. African Americans could take out but not eat in. “It wasn’t until years later, at my first job in Rhode Island,” Janet said, “that I actually sat down and ate in a Hojos.” That was in the 1970s.

    During the 1960s, the restaurants were the site of protests by African Americans who wanted to sit down for their clams and ice cream. Agitation from blacks was seemingly on the minds of Howard Johnson’s franchisees at their meeting in 1957. They were told by a Cornell University law school professor to use “courtesy and tact” in denying service to African Americans, telling them that they wouldn’t mind serving them but for those local laws against it.

    Howard Johnson's restaurants

    A protest outside a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Durham, NC, in 1962. Photo from opendurham.org.

    That same year, a Howard Johnson’s refusal in Dover, DE, to serve the finance minister of Ghana led to a public apology from President Eisenhower. The incident also became a joke told by African American comedian Nipsey Russell: “But I’m the delegate from Ghana,” the diplomat said. “Well, you ain’t Ghana eat here,” the waitress said.

    Howard Johnson’s became a target in 1962 during the “Freedom Highways” protests in five states from Virginia to Florida. Some of the Hojos were said to open their doors to everyone pretty quickly, but some franchisees did not, including in Durham, NC. There, 500 people demonstrated against Hojo’s segregationist policies, along with the conviction on trespassing charges of protesters during a previous demonstration.

    Some sat inside waiting to be served and others rallied in the parking lot, outlasting beatings and arrests. They did this for a year before the restaurant changed its policies.

    Hojo’s history is not much different from others during that time, but the ashtrays and matchbook were a reminder of that part of its legacy.

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