A wintry midday in the West End, 1926. The Coventry Street Corner House emits an enticing glow. Inside, the latest jazz standard barely covers the sound of clattering plates. The lunchtime rush is underway. Weaving between white-linened tablecloths and ornate columns are the famous waitresses. The Lyons’ Nippies live up to their name as they dart about, fabulously nimble even under the weight of trays laden with silverware.
After the lunchtime rush comes the evening crowd: love-birds, weary office workers, party-goers and seedy customers. Once the last of them drifts back out into the West End night, the Nippy’s day can finally end: after clearing up, of course. She slips off her cap and ruefully inspects a new ladder in her stockings. She wolfs down a final cup of tea before facing the cold walk to the station. She settles into her seat, perhaps the first rest she’s had all day. The Nippy is exhausted, head nodding with the rhythm of the train as she fights sleep.
I first encountered the Nippy – the name for the waitresses who worked in Lyons Corner Houses and Teashops in the 1920s and 1930s – during research for my Master’s. I was interested in applying Arlie Hochschild’s concept of ‘emotional labour’ to the work that shop assistants and wait staff performed during the interwar years. This was a period which saw chain businesses multiply across the country. Standardised, high quality service was crucial if these incoming shops and cafes were to compete with local businesses. The Nippy shows us one example of how service workers, often women, had to manipulate their emotions for the sake of company profit in a changing economy.
Lyons Corner Houses and Teashops were fixtures of Britain’s urban landscape for more than half of the twentieth century, since the opening of the first Corner House on Piccadilly in 1894. They welcomed suburban day-trippers and streetwise city-dwellers alike for cheap refreshment in a refined setting. Operated by the catering company and tea merchants J. Lyons & Co. The London Corner Houses (so called because they sat near the corners of Coventry Street, the Strand and Tottenham Court Road) were spectacular on an industrial scale. The Coventry Street Corner House could accommodate 3,000 people and was open for service twenty-four hours a day.
Lyons were famous for bringing the glamour of Art Deco to the masses, where beans on toast and egg mayonnaise were given the silver service. Being waited on was central to creating an atmosphere of luxury. Terry Monaghan, who visited the Tottenham Court Road Corner House with his friends in June 1939, remembered the ‘magical’ effect the place had on him:
The first thing that struck me was the murmur of voices, then I began to take note of the staircase, the colonnades and decor, and above all, the orchestra playing…The Nippies were going about their work, so neat, and to our eyes, so very efficient and composed, we could not take our eyes off them.
Lyons’ waitresses were known as ‘Nippies’. The name was chosen in 1925, following a staff competition. ‘Nippy’ captured the company’s ideal of prompt, efficient and effortless service. She also captured the nation’s hearts. A zealous publicity campaign, which saw the Nippy appear in Picture Post and The Evening News, succeeded in making her a household name. Nippies were the iconic embodiment of the Lyons brand: a modern update to the waitresses that had served in the Teashops since the turn of the century. Nippies were the flapper meets working girl: with neat white aprons wrapped around stylish, dropped-waist dresses and coronets adorned with the Lyons logo atop shingled hair.
In my research, I’ve tried to get behind the company’s carefully constructed image, to understand what it felt like to be the real person behind the iconic epithet. But, getting at the emotions people felt about work in the past is difficult. In day to day life, work is often thought of as a place where feelings don’t belong, where you have to keep your head down and just get on with it. Historians too have tended to overlook the emotions involved in work, although this is beginning to change. In service work, getting at ‘genuine’ feelings is even more complicated. Waitresses had to do more than just mute their negative emotions: even if they were exhausted from the day’s work, Lyons required them to give service with a smile.
In the last decade of the twentieth century, Lyons fell on hard times and closed most of their Corner Houses. They invited former waitresses to write to the company with their memories of working in their iconic restaurants, just over one hundred years since the opening of the first Corner House. These letters are held at the London Metropolitan Archives, along with the rest of the J. Lyons & Co. collection.
Reading these letters reveals ‘Nippying’ was undeniably hard work. I am struck by the amount of physical and psychological effort it must have taken to live up to the sprightly, glamorous image. Former Nippies remembered exhausting hours, rude customers and fierce managers. Blanche Pardoe remembered Lyons as being a ‘hard firm to work for’. She recalled ‘how very strict the bosses were’ and that ‘everything had to be just so’. Supervisors came in anonymously to be served as customers, keeping the waitresses constantly on their toes. Pardoe also remembered that if you took a day off due to illness, the manager would ring round to check if you were, and if they weren’t satisfied that your illness was genuine, ‘you got the sack’. Nippies recalled daily dress inspections of military precision. These could be especially humiliating. One manager made the waitresses stand on a box and shone a torch through the hem of their uniform, ensuring that the silhouette of their legs couldn’t be discerned through the skirt.
Nippies walked the line between glamourous and respectable. Lyons played up their romantic image, crowing that the marriage rates of Nippies were higher than in any other occupation. Women were certainly attracted by the chance waitressing gave them to meet potential husbands. Several women wrote that they’d met their husbands while working for Lyons, including Amelia Flanders Attenborough, who met her husband, a Grenadier Guard, while working as a Nippy at the Cumberland Hotel on Marble Arch in the mid-1930s. Even after fifty-five years of marriage, she wrote, ‘my table is always set, as I was taught’.
But as the archive attests not all encounters with lovestruck customers were pleasant. One waitress, Gladys Foster, received a letter from a customer with an instruction on it to look under the stamp. Curious, she steamed it off. Underneath, she found he’d written: ‘Im [sic] hard to get of [sic]’. Gladys, in her own letter many years later, did not comment on how this made her feel. However, the fact that she could still recall this incident demonstrates the encounter’s emotional power. I can only guess at what her choice to withhold those feelings from the historical record meant. Perhaps she was unable to express her feelings because she did not truly know them. The tightrope walk Nippies were expected to perform between racy and respectable left Gladys in a confusing position: how could she both relish being a sex symbol and refuse the attention this garnered? Perhaps her inability to describe her emotions also speaks to a sense of shame. Gladys might have taken some personal responsibility for this encounter. As an efficient, cheery and attractive Nippy, hadn’t she signed up for this? And if so, why were her feelings not in line with what was expected of her? Historian Jo Stanley argued that silence worked as a coping mechanism for ships stewardesses, who felt ashamed by the disjuncture between their supposedly enviable job and the reality of the unglamorous emotional and care labour they performed for wealthy passengers. Perhaps the same is true for Nippies.
Gladys reminds me that, when searching for what it really felt like to be a Nippy, I need to consider the possibility that some emotions remain unknown, even to the people feeling them. The search for so-called ‘genuine’ emotion should not bewitch historians into thinking that there is always such a thing out there, awaiting discovery. To adapt a quote by Barbara Rosenwein, historian of emotions in the Middle Ages, if we do not always know our own feelings, and those of the people around us, how much can we expect to know about the emotions of people from history?