Waiters at Commons Hall, circa 1890s-1920s; P0013/0290, in the Collier Cobb Photographic Collection (P0013), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This photograph from sometime between 1896 and 1914 depicts a group of waiters and a woman in Commons Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was taken by Collier Cobb, who served as chair of the Geology Department from 1893 to 1934. Cobb developed an interest in photography as part of his work as a geologist. None of the subjects in the photograph are identified; of the twelve people depicted, eleven of them appear to be white men, most of them wearing white serving jackets.

Commons Hall was located between Phillips Hall and Peabody Hall on East Cameron Avenue. The building had served as a gymnasium until 1896, when it was rebuilt to serve as a dining hall and common area for students.1  Commons Hall was a successor to the old Steward’s Hall, a wooden structure completed in 1795 that served as the university’s first dining hall.2 Commons was eventually succeeded by Swain Hall, which doubled its capacity up to 500 diners, in 1914.3

The early dining halls at UNC had rather negative reputations: both Steward’s and Swain were infamous for the poor quality of the food served, with tensions rising to the point of a student revolt in 1799.4 Most accounts point at the university steward as the culprit, an early example of the contentious relationship between the university and its food workers.5 While Commons Hall’s service of the university as a dining hall was relatively short-lived, it is an important piece in the history of dining services at the university and provides a background on tensions that would eventually peak in the form of the food workers’ strike of the mid-twentieth century.

– Patty Matos


1. Fletcher, Stephen. 2014. “A Hall for All . . . Old, New, and Renovated.” A View to Hugh. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. September 9, 2014. https://blogs.lib.unc.edu/morton/index.php/2014/09/a-hall-for-all-old-new-and-renovated/.
2. 2005. “Steward’s Hall.” Documenting the American South. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2005. https://docsouth.unc.edu/global/getBio.html?type=place&id=name0001086&name=Steward%27s%20Hall.
3. Hysmith, KC. 2015. “Lenoir Dining Hall.” Names in Brick and Stone: Histories from UNC’s Built Landscape. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2015. http://unchistory.web.unc.edu/building-narratives/lenoir-dining-hall/.
4. Hysmith, “Lenoir Dining Hall.”
Battle, Kemp P. 1907. “First Plan of Studies and By-Laws.” In History of the University of North Carolina. Volume I: From Its Beginning to the Death of President Swain, 1789-1868, 52. Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton Printing Company. https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/battle1/battle1.html.