When Alice Foote MacDougall (1867-1945) began her coffee roasting and retail business in 1907, she did so under the more ambiguous name A. F. MacDougall. She knew that some of her customers and even some of her suppliers didn’t like the idea of a woman in business, so she let people make their own assumptions about what the initials “A. F.” might stand for. And yet at the same time, attitudes about gender were changing rapidly. More and more women were finding work in the city, while the suffrage movement and ideas about women’s equality were becoming increasingly popular.
Jessie Tarbox Beals. “Alice Foote MacDougall of restaurant fame.” circa 1915-1925. PR-004-01-10. New-York Historical Society.
It was therefore not long until, as MacDougall put it in her autobiography, “the business of the obscure A. F. MacDougall burst forth into the glory of Alice Foote MacDougall.” This change, however, was not about promoting the rights of women. MacDougall was in fact an anti-suffragist who cautioned against women entering the business world, but she knew that most of her customers felt differently. She was one of many business owners who understood the growing economic influence of women, and she positioned herself to take advantage of this change in the marketplace.
Jessie Tarbox Beals. “Alice Foote MacDougal [sic] entertaining a group of sailors in her small apt in Old War.” circa 1917-1918. PR-004-04-38. New-York Historical Society.
In every way, MacDougall was a savvy and opportunistic marketer. From the beginning, she was identifying potential customers and appealing to them with direct-by-mail advertising that stressed the exclusivity, quality, and convenience of her product. In 1919 she opened a shop in Grand Central Terminal to help advertise her packaged coffee and was soon inspired to sell waffles and hot coffee as well. Another coffee shop followed, and within a few years she had turned her coffee business into a restaurant empire. With several restaurants in Manhattan, all decorated in a signature style meant to evoke European cafés, MacDougall provided a pleasant alternative to the city’s crowded and grimy lunch counters. And in case the meal itself weren’t enough, she sold china and glassware as well.
Mattie Edwards Hewitt. [Interior of Firenze, 6 West 46th Street, New York City.] 1925. PR-026-014-328. New-York Historical Society.
MacDougall had become a master of what we now might call personal branding. Her 1926 book Coffee and Waffles was technically a cookbook, although its recipes were perhaps less important than the author’s musings on life and entertaining. Similarly, Alice Foote MacDougall: the Autobiography of a Business Woman and The Secret of Successful Restaurants, published in 1928 and 1929, served as platforms for MacDougall to define and publicize her story of success. The rare pamphlet Who is Alice Foote MacDougall? is like a synopsis of these works, combining autobiography, advice for self-improvement, and reminders of where you could get an excellent meal any time of day.
Alice Foote MacDougall. Who is Alice Foote MacDougall? circa 1930. New-York Historical Society.
The Great Depression essentially marked the end of MacDougall’s ascent, and after some characteristically bold attempts to revive her fortunes, she retired in 1935. In December of that year she wrote in a letter to the New York Times that, “Most (of course not all) women are an intrusion in the orderly procession of commercial life. Untrained, unfitted, full of tradition, prejudices, and inhibitions, she is the fool who rushes in where wise men fear to tread.” It may seem incongruous, but while so much of her career looks strikingly modern, she remained very much a product of an earlier age.
Alice Foote MacDougall. Who is Alice Foote MacDougall? circa 1930. New-York Historical Society. (Note the listing for Firenze at 6 West 46th Street, pictured above.)
This post is by Luis Rodriguez, Collections Management Librarian