Sunday, January 12, 2020

Breakfast on the Mississippi

Steamer James Montgomery
ca. 1858 


Steamboats played a major role in transporting passengers and freight on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. By the 1830s, it was common to see more than 150 steamboats at the St. Louis levee at one time. The James Montgomery was one such paddle steamer. Built in 1856 at New Albany, Indiana (on the Ohio River opposite Louisville), this wood-hull, side-wheel steamboat was 270 feet long and powered by six boilers. A menu from about 1858 shows that large breakfasts were among the joys of being a cabin passenger on this antebellum riverboat.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

An Era of Prosperity

Christmas,
1878-1882



The United States entered an era of rapid growth in 1878 following a deep depression. Over the next five years, Kansas became the first state to outlaw all alcoholic beverages, the opening salvo of a heartland backlash that would eventually culminate in a nationwide constitutional ban. Thomas Edison patented the light bulb; John D. Rockefeller set up the Standard Oil Trust; and a railroad building boom significantly increased the miles of track, transforming a myriad of lines into a grand transportation network. It was the dawn of the Gilded Age. The ranks of the middle and upper classes expanded once again, allowing more people than ever to dine outside the home on the holidays when the hotels pulled out all the stops. Twelve Christmas menus from throughout the country during the years 1878 to 1882 provide a snapshot of a newly-prosperous society.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

The Hump

Kunming, China
Christmas 1943 



The eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains was called “The Hump” by military pilots who flew transport aircraft from India to China during the Second World War. The airlift supplied the Allied war effort in China, including advance units of the U.S. Army. The missions over the treacherous Himalayas were dangerous. In addition to the notable absence of airfields, there were no reliable navigation charts or radio aids. The weather was often very bad. The logistical challenge of operating the aerial pipeline is reflected by a non-traditional dinner at Army headquarters in Kunming, China on Christmas in 1943. Perhaps the most appreciated item was a beverage not shown on the menu. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

George Peabody

London & South Danvers, 
1851-1869 



Nineteen-year-old Winslow Homer illustrated this lively scene showing George Peabody’s visit to South Danvers, Massachusetts in 1856.1,2 The London-based financier returned to his hometown to see the library he had recently donated. Today, Peabody is widely regarded as the father of modern philanthropy. In addition to his largess, Peabody worked to improve the relationship between the United States and Great Britain which had been in the doldrums since the War of 1812. Charitable giving and diplomatic initiatives naturally lead to banquets, both given and received. And so it comes as no surprise that many of the significant milestones in Peabody’s life were marked by a menu. Seven menus and related ephemera recall the life of a great man whose contributions to society continue to this day.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

A Brusque but Genial Guest

Milwaukee, 
1885 


Mark Twain was staying the Plankinton Hotel when this menu appeared in 1885. He was in Milwaukee on tour with Southern author George W. Cable who marveled at Twain’s talent as a standup comedian. Cable, writing to his wife Louise the next day, revealed that Twain “worked & worked incessantly on these programs until he has effected in all of them—there are 3—a gradual growth of both interest & humor so that the audience never has to find anything less, but always more, entertaining than what precedes it. He says, ‘I don’t want them to get tired out laughing before we get to the end.’ The result is we have always a steady crescendo ending in a double climax….his careful, untiring, incessant labors are an education.” The menu, which contains a notice of a reading by the two authors at a local theater that evening, takes us back to time when you could walk down the street after dinner to see Mark Twain perform in person.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Symbols of Abundance

Iowa, Wisconsin & Maine
1855-1858


Menus, which are marketing tools as much as anything, are best taken with a grain of salt. It can be particularly difficult to identify exaggerated claims on old menus far removed in time and place. In the mid-nineteenth century, a large assortment of roasts and boiled meats regularly appeared on table d’hote menus at hotels, where most public dining rooms were then situated. It seems unlikely that all of these items were available on a daily basis, especially at modest hotels in small towns. Four menus provide insights on how we might interpret such documents from the antebellum period. 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

American Hospitality

New York, 
1860 


Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Prince Edward, traveled through the United States on a diplomatic tour in the fall of 1860, only weeks before the presidential election that would spark the Civil War. Crossing over from Canada on September 20, the prince and his retinue of British peers visited Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Washington. They dined with President Buchanan at the White House, slipped down to Richmond for a brief look, and resumed their journey northward to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The trip ended at Portland, Maine. The future king, then a month short of his nineteenth birthday, was a welcome distraction from the nation’s political woes. He was enthusiastically feted at each stop, although nowhere more than in New York where the bustling newspapers whipped up a frenzy of excitement. His meals in the Empire State were prepared under the direction of some of the best chefs, hoteliers, and restaurateurs in the country. Five menus from this leg of the trip reveal American hospitality at its finest in the waning days of the antebellum period.