Friday, March 6, 2015

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball

Washington, D.C. 

Today marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball. During the first week of March 1865, the celebratory mood in Washington contrasted sharply with that in Richmond, where remnants of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia clung grimly to its intricate network of earthworks guarding the city. Union forces had been pressing the Rebel lines since the summer, when Grant began this siege. Although fighting slowed during the unusually cold winter, it had never stopped. Farther south, Sherman’s army was moving into North Carolina, having completed its victorious march through Georgia and South Carolina. And in the final days leading up to the inauguration, the Confederate cavalry was driven out of the Shenandoah Valley for the last time. It was against this backdrop that the president was sworn in on March 4, followed two days later by a great ball. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Just One Word: Plastics

Iowa & New York,

In the 1967 movie The Graduate, Mr. McGuire gives young Benjamin some unsolicited career advice: 

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. 

Benjamin: Yes, sir. 

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening? 

 Benjamin: Yes, I am. 

Mr. McGuire: Plastics. 

Perhaps the irony of this scene escaped me, for it wasn’t long after seeing this film that I entered the plastics industry. And yet, despite many years of experience in this field, it came as a surprise when I discovered that nineteenth-century menus were occasionally made of celluloid which is regarded as the first thermoplastic. Two menus from 1889 demonstrate how this synthetic material was once employed for special menus, symbolically denoting prosperity, technical progress, and civic pride. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Nathaniel White’s Birthday Party

Henry County, Iowa

Menus from small dinners in private venues during the nineteenth century are few and far between. They seem to have first appeared in the late-1860s, when womens groups began to occasionally engage the services of local printers to produce menus for church fundraisers and other social gatherings, becoming one of the ways they could make their events a little more special. Since much of the information about these get-togethers was already known by the participants, such menus often lack essential details about time and place, making them difficult to decipher. Therefore, I had low expectations when I started to research a menu from a birthday party in 1878 for a farmer named Nathaniel White, but eventually was able to determine the identity of the celebrant, the location of the dinner, and possibly even the reason why menus were printed for this occasion. However, the most interesting thing that I learned about this pioneer was something that happened many years earlier. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

I Hear a Rhapsody

Long Beach,
ca. 1941 

This elegant, scallop-edged menu comes from the fabled Sky Room in the old Hilton Hotel in Long Beach, California. Based on a variety of factors, I guessed that it was from the early 1940s, but pinpointing a more exact date proved to be difficult. Trying to determine the year of an undated menu is never easy, and I was about to give up on this one, when the word “rhapsody” came into focus. This was the clue that I had been searching for—it must have originated in 1941. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The White Mountains


The Presidential Range comprises seven mountains—all named for U.S. presidents—situated within the picturesque White Mountains of New Hampshire. Mount Washington is the highest peak in this contiguous, twenty-five-mile line of granite summits, precisely positioned where high altitude systems from the Great Lakes and Canada collide with warmer air from the southern states and eastern Atlantic. As a result, the unpredictable weather can turn deadly in winter, renowned for sub-zero temperatures and the fastest wind gusts on earth. In summer, the conditions are much calmer, affording spectacular views in all directions on a clear day. A small stone hotel was built atop the mountain in 1853, followed sixteen years later by a cog railroad, the first in the world. In the early 1870s, the old hotel was replaced by a cushier one, as tourism began to take root throughout the United States.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Freedom from Want


Artist Norman Rockwell painted this iconic scene in 1943, depicting a family sitting around the dinner table on Thanksgiving Day. “Freedom from Want” was the third painting of his Four Freedoms series inspired by President Roosevelt’s State of the Union Address two years earlier. Unlike the freedoms of speech and worship, and the freedom from fear, the concept behind freedom from want was not commonly understood, or accepted, as a universal freedom. Perhaps for this reason, this picture was also called “The Thanksgiving Painting.” Since menus are not usually employed for meals at home, five menus from Thanksgiving 1943 show us what was happening elsewhere, as the world remained engulfed in the largest war in history. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

To the Lighthouse

Miami Beach, 
 ca. 1968 

When I look at this menu, I can’t help but imagine what it would’ve been like if the English writer Virginia Woolf, and her husband Leonard, lived in Miami in the late 1960s…

“Yes, it’s fine if we go tomorrow,” Ginny called out from the kitchen. “But there’s no sense in us getting there early. The place is always packed at this time of year.” 

To her husband these words conveyed a feeling of annoyance, as if the matter was not really settled. Each year on their anniversary, as if drawn by some need, they returned to The Lighthouse, where they recounted over dinner the joys and sorrows of their marriage. Feelings of irritation turned to anger, as he brooded over her remoteness. Had there been a gun handy, or a bat, who knows what might have happened next, such were the extremes of his emotions at moments like this. “Then it’s settled. But wait, you’ll see; it won’t be crowded,” Len said, pouring himself a Scotch before stepping out into the yard to breathe in balmy night air. “Yes, it will be fine,” she called back, not knowing he had already slipped out of earshot.