Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Waitress at Duval

Paris, 
1878-1923 


French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir portrayed a waitress from one of several Parisian restaurants established by a butcher named Pierre Louis Duval who began by using meat scraps to make broths.1 The Établissements Duval were commonly referred to as the “Bouillons Duval,” or “Établissements de Bouillon,” in reference to this signature dish. Established in 1854, the business expanded to about a dozen locations by the end of the next decade. The chain almost exclusively employed women servers who wore black dresses, half hidden by aprons and snow-white bibs, and caps.2 The Baedeker guidebook (1881) advised travelers that Duval offered a limited and affordable menu to customers who were “waited on by women, soberly garbed, and not unlike sisters of charity.” In much the same vein, a journalist from the New York Times wrote that the “neat, nun-like uniforms” reminded him of what the cooks wore in the kitchen of the House of Commons.3,4 Nevertheless, “Renoir imparted to his comely model an unaffected grace,” notes the Metropolitan Museum of Art on its gallery label. Three menus recall these low-cost restaurants that were renowned for their waitresses.

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 pilots who flew transport aircraft between India and China during the Second World War. The military airlift over the treacherous Himalayas supplied the Allies in China, including advance units of the U.S. Army. The missions were dangerous. In addition to the notable absence of airfields, there were no reliable navigation charts or radio aids and the weather was often  bad. The logistical challenge of operating this aerial pipeline is reflected by a non-traditional dinner at Army headquarters in Kunming, China on Christmas in 1943. Undoubtedly, 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.