Vita-Sun Café, Lyons' Corner House London 1920s
The 1920s – also known as the Roaring Twenties – was a time of celebration and experiment in Britain. The First World War was over, and peace and a measure of prosperity had returned. Lyons’ tea houses, with its finger sandwiches, scones and pastries were a fixture of British society –there was at least one in every major town.
However, encouraged by an organization called The New Health Society, the restaurant chain opened the Vita Sun Café. This novel idea experimented, not only with healthy eating but also with the idea of self-service.
The New Health Society was founded by Sir William Arbuthnot Lane and espoused Social Darwinist theories – the theory that humans are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin had perceived in plants and animals in nature.
Therefore, if you ate well, you became healthier and stronger. The Society believed a high-fibre diet, outdoor exercise and sun-bathing was the key to health and happiness. It also supported the idea of birth control.
Sir William’s aim was to convert a ‘rapidly degenerating community’ into a ‘nation composed of healthy, vigorous members. There were still many poverty-ridden communities in the UK, with poor standards of health.
Remember, this is the 1920s and his opinions about the “nourishment of the human frame ”were new and controversial at the time.
The Vita Sun Café was on the ground floor of the J Lyons Corner House in Leicester Square, London. It had an on-duty diet expert to help customers with their food choices. You could ask a Nippy – the name for the chain’s waitresses because they nipped or rushed about in black uniforms with white Peter Pan collars – to send the on-duty dietary expert over to help you with your food choices.
Self-service took a while to catch on. Customers were apparently confused about whether to sit down at a table and wait for service or to go to a food counter and help themselves. But they soon got the hang of it.
The food offerings here don’t seem particularly healthy - a chocolate éclair or chocolate digestive biscuit anyone? – but there are some healthy options in there including wholemeal scones, freshly squeezed fruit drinks and crispbread.
J Lyons was founded in London in 1894 and became a major restaurant and food conglomerate. We’re not sure when Vita Sun Cafes closed and will update with this information when we get it.
Note the waitresses called Nippys were all selected on deportment, condition of hands, an ability to add and the competence to handle crockery deftly. By 1939 there were around 7,600 of them working around the UK and there were 800 to 900 Nippy marriages a year between waitresses and their customers.
Courtesy Private Collection.
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