Arbiters of Taste in the Canteen

By Kirsten Benn Lykkebo

01. Sep. 2008

The Telephone House in Copenhagen used to hold a canteen for telephone operators and other employees. On 1st October 1910 a complaint register was created which could be handed over to complainants on request in order for him - or more rarely her - to write their complaints. Viewed from a distance of almost 100 years the lunch controversies may look quite comical. Here are some examples. 

The ladies´ lunch room in the Telephone House photographed in 1910. 

Is the Taste of Sausage of Rolled Meat Discussable?

In December 1911, under the headline "The Open Sandwiches are becoming Poorer and Poorer!" an engineer complained of the quality of the food that was served in the canteen. In the reply from the canteen committee it was suggested - despite the following overall evaluation of the complaint: "taste in general - and the taste of sausage of rolled meat in particular - is not discussable" - that "in order to throw light on a possible downtrend in the quality of the canteen food, the committee recommends you to present one deplorable open sandwich to a panel of arbiters composed of 4 members, 2 chosen by you, and 2 chosen by the committee". Facing such a bureaucracy the complainant chose to pull in his horns.

Stein's Laboratory

Quality was, however, in some cases discussable - or at least controllable. A complaint of 28th January 1917 of the bad quality of cocoa caused the canteen committee to promptly send a sample of the cocoa to Stein's Laboratory in order for them to test the contents: They were not prepared take that assertion lying down! Already two days later the result was clear: There was nothing wrong with the cocoa. The sample did "not contain too many seed coat remnants". How "too many" was defined in a time of scarcity of goods during World War I is pure guesswork.

Justified Resentment

Other complaints were not met with such compliance by the canteen committee. The case of the chipped cup began in May 1913. The battle was between a senior clerk S and the canteen committee and was about the quality - or lack of quality of the tableware. Senior clerk S wrote: "The other day I received a cup on which one could hardly see the blue edge for chips. I showed it to Mr. N and afterwards I put it in the wastepaper basket as an indication that it ought to be left out of the stock. But no, Mr. N found that it was good enough and carefully picked it up again. With justified resentment I then smashed it as I wanted nothing served in it anymore".

Fine or Quarantine

The canteen committee reacted by imposing a fine of 25 ore on senior clerk S in replacement of the destroyed porcelain because as they wrote: "It is considered common knowledge that when someone deliberately smashes something, he will have to replace it on request". When the senior clerk refused to pay the fine, the committee quarantined him - not from the canteen, but from the use of any canteen porcelain. The case ended in a complaint register on 17th May with a comment from S that instead of paying the fine he intended to buy his own plate and use it for his lunch in future. Why he did not choose to bring his own cup, as well, is not on record.

KTAS started to use the Telephone House in Nørregade in 1909 and it has been the principal nerve of telephony in Copenhagen ever since. TDC left the house in June 2008, but the telephone exchange remains and will still be operating. Experience the Telephone House in pictures, film, and sound on

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