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Crowdsourcing the history of Sylvia Sweets

Posted by Christopher Shea  November 17, 2008 12:05 PM

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industrial_street-thumb.2.jpg
A photograph that's now a lot less mysterious than it used to be

Back in January, my predecessor Josh Glenn wrote about a Library of Congress project in which the institution's archivists basically threw up their hands when it came to identifying and explaining the subjects of more than 3,000 photographs. They turned to the public and said, "Help!"

The LOC isn't usually thought of as a cutting-edge institution -- and I don't mean that in a bad way; we don't really want our custodians of knowledge to be cool-hunters, do we? -- but they decided to draw on the power of crowdsourcing, a trendy term for throwing open questions to as many people as possible, via technology. More specifically, they posted the images on Flickr, the popular Web-based photo-sharing service, and asked of Flickr's users: Help us "enhance our metadata." Tell us what we're looking at, and why we should care.

The library got results. Take, for example, the above image. Josh had called attention to it. At first it had been tagged only with the following underwhelming caption:

Street in industrial town in Massachusetts, 1940 Dec. [or] 1941 Jan. Clues: "School St." sign; upstairs windows: "Geo. L. Wainright Law Office"; below: "Sylvia Sweets Tea Room."

Flickr users and Brainiac readers quickly clued in that this was the corner of School and Main Streets, in Brockton -- and people who had eaten in Sylvia's as late as the 1960's wrote in with memories.

The coup de grace of this exercise in digital history came when the daughter of the late owners of the restaurant herself left a lengthy comment on Flickr:

My father, John Dayos started Sylvia Sweets Tea Room in the early thirties. He had worked for many years at Liggett's Drug Store across the street as a "Patent Man" but after getting married in 1929, he soon decided he wanted to own his own business as so many Greek immigrants did. He was a success story in that he had sold newspapers as a young immigrant boy on the same corner -- School and Main Street many years before. He and his business partners started out to open a candy store. One of the stories I remember was that they bought a gas stove. A lady came out to demonstrate the stove and suggested they could boil chicken and serve sliced chicken sandwiches, and chicken salad sandwiches. This lady was Ruth Wakefield -- later the owner of the well known Toll House Restaurant and the originator of the Toll House Cookie or the Chocolate Chip Cookie. The sliced chicken sandwich was a specialty until the Sylvia Restaurant closed in the late 60's. …

More of her tale, after the jump.

The whole family at one time or another worked at "Sylvia's" -- my mother Effie, my brother Nick, my sister Dorothea and myself, Elaine. Sylvia’s is often remembered in the Brockton newspaper "The Enterprise" column "From our Readers" as a downtown fixture -- after the movies, catching a bus to and from the surrounding towns to shop in downtown Brockton, and a high school hangout. Sales people and office workers downtown were regulars for lunch and coffee breaks. I remember well the two ladies who worked at McCarthy's in the fifties and would come in on Friday night, when the stores were open until 9 p.m. and order Salmon Salad on plain dark bread and my father would enjoy making it extra special for them every week -- cut in fours with toothpicks.

In the early fifties downtown Brockton was changing and the business was changing. My parents decided to remodel the Tea Room which had beautiful mahogany paneling and booths, a marble soda fountain, black glass table tops and oval top mirrors. It became a modern fifties luncheonette and the name was changed to Sylvia Restaurant and that was when I worked there. My sister and I started out working by "typing the menus." Every day the specials changed and there was a typed menu that was added to the plastic covered Sylvia menu, which had an oval old-fashioned picture of "Sylvia." (I wish I had a copy of that menu.) I was told Sylvia was a pretty girl who came over on the Mayflower. The Greek immigrants wanted to assimilate into American life so they thought the Mayflower was all American. My mother remembered that when they first opened the Tea Room, she spoke to my father in Greek and he told her to go to the back room to talk to him, as customers didn’t like to hear a foreign language. She was so upset, she vowed to learn English. She attended night school and continued for many years, first for English and to become a citizen and then for other classes.

I vaguely remember when my father still made ice cream for the Tea Room. Of course we only had Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry and Coffee and it was packed in those round Pint or Quart containers. If I happened to be there when he was making ice cream, I would have soft strawberry before it was frozen and this was a special treat. He told stories that during the depression, they were able to make a good living selling ice cream cones as families could afford a 5 cent ice cream cone. Of course in those days one never visited someone’s home without a box of chocolates and originally candy was the main focus of the business.

Everyone had his or her special food at Sylvia’s. Mine was chopped ham and pickle and a strawberry milk shake. I think I ate that every time I went there in my childhood days. We would see a "regular" come in and have his coffee, tea or cold drink in front of him before he asked for it. We had many bachelors that lived in the rooming houses near Main St. who would come in for their dropped eggs on toast for 35 cents in the fifties. Many of them couldn’t afford much more and occasionally they would have a real lunch or dinner. We often referred to people by what they ordered, not by their name, since we often didn’t know their name.

I don’t remember the early days but I heard about them over the years. Some of the stories reflect the family and community atmosphere of a local downtown tea room. After the war, my dad gave jobs to many of the service men coming back home -- many went on to become successful Brockton business and professional men, some to college and some worked at Sylvia’s on and off for years to come. Romances were also a part of Sylvia’s -- waitresses and soda fountain men, customers and of course high school sweethearts. There were three shifts -- the morning crew, the day crew and the night crew worked until 11:00 so that the movie crowd could come in for a snack after the movie. If you were a "soda jerk" you worked at the end of the counter, pouring Cokes from the red coke machine or making milk shakes, frappes or ice creams sundaes. Only the more expert counter men worked the sandwich counter. The waitresses all wore uniforms with those pretty handkerchiefs in their pockets.

I also remember the Christmas Holiday Season and the Easter season when everyone from Brockton and the surrounding towns came downtown to shop. We didn’t see much of my dad in those busy times when he often worked 16 hours a day. He went to work in a suit and tie, with an overcoat and hat, changed his clothes in his "office" always wearing a tie and a white long sleeve shirt with a white bib apron. I also remember a lovely little lady who was the bookkeeper. She would come once a week to do the payroll and pay the bills. Downstairs was the office, the ice cream making machine and the kitchen with the dumb waiter to send up the food.

My parents, along with countless people who have wonderful memories of Brockton would be so proud to know that downtown Brockton at the corner of School and Main Street and Sylvia Sweets Tea Room was used as an example of a "street in an industrial town in Massachusetts."
Elaine (Dayos) Liatsos

The Library of Congress has duly fixed the caption. So, crowdsourcing: Anyone still doubt it works?

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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