As with many culinary innovations, the poor boy or po-boy sandwich has attracted many legends regarding its origins. However, documentary evidence confirms that stories about one particular restaurant were right.
Bennie and Clovis Martin left their Raceland, Louisiana, home in the Acadiana region in the mid-1910s for New Orleans. Both worked as streetcar conductors until they opened Martin Brothers' Coffee Stand and Restaurant in the French Market in 1922. The years they had spent working as streetcar operators and members of the street railway employees' union would eventually lead to their hole-in-the-wall coffee stand becoming the birthplace of the poor boy sandwich.
Following increasingly heated contract negotiations, the streetcar motormen and conductors struck beginning July 1, 1929. The strike was not about wages. The survival of the carmen union's control of hiring and 1,100 jobs were in question. Transit strikes throughout the nation provoked emotional displays of public support, and the 1929 strike ranks among the nation's most violent.
When the company attempted to run the cars on July 5 using "strike breakers" (career criminals brought in from New York) brickbats and jeering crowds stopped them. More than 10,000 New Orleanians gathered downtown and watched strike supporters disable and then burn the first car operated by a strikebreaker. A highly sympathetic public participated in greatest numbers by avoiding the transit system, which remained shut down for two weeks. The late New Orleans Fire Department Superintendent William Mc Crossen experienced the strike as a teenager: "Dare not—nobody, nobody would ride the streetcars. Number one, they were for the carmen. Number two, there was a danger [in riding the cars]." Brickbats greeted the few streetcars that ran. Small and large businesses donated goods and services to the union local.
The many support letters included one from the Martin Brothers promising, "Our meal is free to any members of Division 194." Their letter concluded: "We are with you till h--l freezes, and when it does, we will furnish blankets to keep you warm."
In order to maintain their promise, the Martins provided large sandwiches to the strikers. Bennie Martin said, "We fed those men free of charge until the strike ended. Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say, 'Here comes another poor boy.'" Too often lost in the telling of the story is the irony in the use of this term. Those once part of the "aristocracy of labor" now relied upon charitable contributions to feed their families. Walking home from the French Market (since they certainly would not ride the transit system) carrying large sandwiches, the "poor boys" provided free publicity for the generous Martin Brothers.
Below, in addition to photographs and video regarding the early history of the Po-Boy, you will find videos and photographs from the 2007 inaugural Po-Boy Festival in 2007. The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities funded the History Center activities. Since 2011, the Po-Boy Fest History Center has been located at Squeal Bar-B-Q at 8400 Oak Street.
Click here for more information on the 1929 Streetcar Strike.